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Condo Life: Luxurious Comfort or Relentless Conflict? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Brandon Dane   
December 2009

If it’s The Grand, and if you’re Susan Cohn, it’s half a million dollars in legal fees

Nine years ago, when Susan Cohn bought two units on the 41st floor of the Grand Condominiums at 1717 N. Bayshore Dr., she envisioned a “mixed-use experience” like those from her past: Water Tower Place on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago and Copley Place in the Back Bay section of Boston. What she got, she says, was “like living in Russia,” where the developer controlled the condo association and its all-important board of directors. “Residents had no say,” she recalls. By most accounts, they still don’t.

A Chicago-area native, Cohn is tall and slender. Her air is a combination of Midwest sensibility, East Coast refinement, and West Coast tenacity. This is the result of her life’s path from the heartland to New England boarding school to the University of California at Berkeley during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the word “protest” actually meant something.

“I have the best view in Miami,” she says. “Don’t you think I want to protect it?”

Indeed from the balcony of her 3000-square-foot penthouse, the stunning vista pans from Sunny Isles Beach all the way to Coral Gables.

Her protest at The Grand started in 2004, and includes lawsuits filed by and against her, as well as legal fees costing her upward of a half-million dollars. Her complaints are grounded in the “mixed-use” aspect of the complex, which by definition can contain residential, retail, and commercial elements. In The Grand, there are residential units, retail shops, and a Doubletree Hotel. Cohn notes, “The residential aspect of the condo is 66 percent, but we pay 86 percent of the total management budget.” That will amount to $8.5 million for 2009. (The Grand, including the Doubletree, contains 1210 units, of which 810 are residential. The other 400 are retail and commercial.)

Cohn’s refined anger and legal punches are directed at The Grand Condominium Association, Inc. According to documents from her most recent lawsuit, filed this past June, the association and its board are controlled by Pierre Heafey -- owner of PH Retail, Inc., PH Hotel, Inc., and DA Investments, Inc. -- as the developer of The Grand.

The June lawsuit claims that Heafey’s control over The Grand’s board of directors is being used to mismanage and redirect money paid to the condo association by the residential owners to other of Heafey’s interests, like valet and laundry services used by the Doubletree and Heafey’s other hotel properties, maintenance and upkeep of the retail shops, and the conversion of common areas to private use. It further claims that several foreclosed residential units were transferred to DA Investments for nominal sums. Most important, in Cohn’s view, is the allegation that elections for the condo association’s board of directors are a complete sham. Unless that is rectified, she says, residents will never have control over their quality of life.

Pierre Heafey is also Susan Cohn’s next-door neighbor.

In penthouse terms, this means their front doors are separated by double elevators but their balconies are only separated by a dividing wall. “I think he moved in there to keep an eye on me,” she says. “It’s a cold war.”

Until fairly recently, mixed-use developments in Florida did not function according to the basic precept of democracy: majority rule. That changed in 1995, but only for new developments; existing places like The Grand were not affected. The situation remained in effect until 2007, when the state law was amended to cover all mixed-use properties past, present, and future.

Now with the backing of state law, Cohn says the legal battles boil down to integrity and fairness. Her idea of the rights of residential owners in a multiuse complex like The Grand were shaped by watching her father’s development company build Water Tower Place, which opened in 1976 in Chicago. Even today Water Tower Place includes a Ritz-Carlton, a ten-story shopping mall, and luxury condos, including one owned by Oprah Winfrey. Further reinforcing this idea was Cohn’s actual involvement in the management of Copley Place in Boston.

Christopher Rogers, a private investigator and Boston native, knows Copley Place well and so vouches for Cohn. “The Copley is a place that is exclusive but draws the masses,” he says. “It’s got a Westin, a Marriott, a huge mall, and an office complex. If she [Cohn] was involved with the Copley, then she’s the real deal.”

Legendary Miami developer Tibor Hollo, who built The Grand, would probably have envisioned the complex following in the footsteps of Water Tower or Copley Place when he completed it in 1986. Unfortunately for Hollo, the Miami real estate market hit the skids just afterward. By 1988 he’d been forced to reach an “agreement” with his bank and give up most of his interest in the property.

Heinz Dinter, who was once a resident of The Grand and publisher of Grand Lifestyle Magazine and grandlifestyle.com, has written that while he praises Hollo’s vision of The Grand, he laments that it “wound up [being controlled by the Canadian-born] Heafey, who made a deal with the banks that held the title.”

It is no surprise that Heafey and Dinter are not friends. Court records indicate that Heafey and his interests have filed defamation lawsuits against Dinter for what he has written. A native of Germany, Dinter, according to his website, has a host of academic degrees, including doctorates in economics and business administration from the University of Florida. But the titles of his articles about Heafey read like something straight off the back of a Slayer album: “The Developer Is Your Lord and Master” and “Rape By Condo: It’s a Miracle.”

Dinter’s most recent blast against Heafey is headlined “The Grand Scoreboard.” It reproduces court documents in the case of United States of America v. 727870 Ontario, Inc., a Canadian corporation. The corporation in 1998 ends up pleading guilty to bank fraud and pays close to a million dollars in fines. To Dinter’s glee, the documents reveal that Heafey was on the board of directors of the company, which, he writes, was “the general partner of the Grand Limited Partnership at all times during the material offense.”

Another Grand resident who bought a unit in 2000 is Tom Cunningham. “Our condo fees have steadily increased,” he says “When I first moved in, the association fees were $200 a month. Now they’re $600 a month. I’ve heard all the rumors and I’m suspicious.” The condo’s board of directors, he points out, is “always the same people.” The possibility of fraudulent elections seems plausible to him: “They were sending my ballot to the man I bought the place from nine years ago until I complained.”

Brendan Grubb, general manager of The Grand Condominium Association, Inc., declined to comment about the situation other than to say, “For me to comment, I would have to get approval from the board. I work for the Continental Group, which is employed by the board to manage The Grand.”

Pierre Heafey could not be contacted at any of the phone numbers listed for him.

Susan Cohn rolls up the sleeves of her turquoise sweater and leads the way from her penthouse to the elevators and a guided tour of the building. She points across the large atrium at a cleaning lady opening a door on her 41st floor. “See that?” she asks. “Anybody with $200 on their credit card could be on my floor. You never even know who you’re in the elevator with. That’s against the condo documents.”

On solid ground in the chandeliered lobby, there are so many people with suitcases it looks more like a disaster-relief shelter than an upscale residence, despite the dark woods and sharply dressed concierge staff.

When pressed about her years of legal battles, she stops and stares intently. “At some point,” she says, “there’s no turning back. It’s like being seven months pregnant.”

Then she turns and continues the tour.

 

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