A combination of earlier magazine work and new blog posts

How Big is too Big?

Recently on a drive along the Venetian Causeway we were surprised to see that the quiet neighborhood known for decades for tasteful water-front houses built to a reasonable scale was now under attack by trophy homes being built right to the property line. We had noticed the same trend on a recent trek along North Bay Road. What we weren’t sure of is whether the neighborhood is embracing the changes or whether a simmering resentment has merely failed to stop the developments. And what do other design mavens think? Is the new wave of giant homes a good change for places like the Venetian Causeway, or is it a movement that we will eventually regret?

Scott van Vianen is the chief broker for Gray and Associates Properties, a real-estate company that builds and sells many of the new homes along the Venetian. It advertises itself as “The Ultimate Boutique Realty Firm-Vision, Market Savvy, Diversified Development.” Van Vianen believes that “there is a demand for contemporary architecture. It’s a very individual thing, but right now there is a trend for midcentury modem design.” As far as he is concerned, the wave of new homes “is increasing property values. People are merely looking at their lots and the codes and seeing how they can maximize the value. We try to build the best houses for the property and for people who want a better lifestyle.”

The home van Vianen likes to cite as the most accurate example of this is the Allan Shulman-designed house at 235 Rivo Alto on the Venetian Causeway, a sleek, modem 6,000-square-foot home boasting five bedrooms, an infinity pool, aluminum elevator, three-car vertical garage, rooftop terrace and 60 feet of waterfront. The asking price is a cool $6 million, a record per square-foot price for the Causeway. Gray and Associates had to get a variance to build the house there, and many neighbors think the home is oversized and out of place.

“I would like to talk to the neighbors after we are all done and see if they still feel it’s not right for the neighborhood,” van Vianen says.

He is unlikely to find a receptive group. Nancy Liebman is a former city commissioner and now a local activist who lives on the Causeway. “People are just trying to maximize the area they build in,” she says. “They can’t build high-rises, so they are building outrageously scaled homes that are totally incompatible with the neighborhood.” She blames the city commission, in part, for failing to act quickly enough to pass a strict ordinance to better control development.

“Years ago when architects built, they built to scale to complement the neighborhood,” she says. “They haven’t done that here. I am sure they are all being built to spec. One I know on the Causeway is like a concrete bunker, and I have to avert my eyes every time I pass it. It is a plague. Bigger is much better to those people who have no style. Look at downtown Miami. The developers simply don’t care about the neighborhood. They don’t realize once they destroy the neighborhood that there is no way then to replace it, and the city is just afraid of the developers.”

But Realtor Gary Hennes isn’t so sure the new development is a disaster. “Building to the limits and beyond is a by-product of a booming market,” he says. “There will always be some idolized way in which there is an obsession to create the ‘perfect’ place or make the grandest statement. Some fall flat because the taste is just bad, but at some point the absurd will become celebrated!

Not according to Nisi Berryman, co-owner of the Design District’s wonderful NiBa and someone known for her fine aesthetic. “Replacing old Miami homes with larger ones is destroying the feeling of the neighborhood. It is unfortunately a trend. I don’t want to see a censorship on what can be built, but it is changing the entire feeling of some areas like the Causeway.” She says she favors an expanded preservation district as well as restrictions on the size of homes that can be built in Miami Beach.

Skip van Cel, publisher of the Biscayne Boulevard Times, minces few words about what he thinks of the new trend. “Unfortunately, we have arrived at a time when excess is considered virtue. Our only hope is that the spawn of these more- whores will rise up to reject their parents’ crime of too much.”

Jean-Francois Lejeune, professor of architecture at the University of Miami, does not agree. A member of both the planning and historic-preservation boards, Lejeune says, “It is naive for neighbors to complain about the new largest homes because there are big monsters in the classical style built there years ago.” According to Lejeune, “both the planning board and historic-preservation board have been very active to pass regulations to restrict the size of homes in Miami Beach, or even if they are large, that they fit better into the character of the neighborhood.”

Although he thinks some homes in Miami Beach could be moderated, he generally likes the Allan Shulman-designed home on the Causeway (the two are professional colleagues, as well as co-authors of the book The Making of Miami Beach). Lejeune has heard the criticism about the Shulman house and says, “I am amazed, because it is not as large as some other houses, and they never really attack those other large houses.” Lejeune also likes a large home under construction at the entrance to North Bay Road. “I see this all with a relatively favorable eye. It is an ambiguous situation. These are attempts by younger architects to develop another language that will blend with the 1950s character of the city and also have some concern about the environment. It is what happened to Sarasota in the 1950s, and then the ‘Northern Movement’ in the 19705 and 19805. I believe that what they are doing is totally in character With the 19505 feel of Miami Beach-it is an attempt to bring the art deco feel of Miami Beach to these neighborhoods, but some residents may not like that And the homes themselves might be a little large and could do the same thing if they were somewhat smaller.”

Tui Pranich is a celebrated designer who has one of his four homes in Miami Beach. “The scale on the Venetian Causeway and North Bay Road was very comfortable,” he says. ‘The new houses being built are horrible, oversized, like Boca houses. It is a mistake.”

Pranich believes there should be a stringent city code against tearing down older homes. “These give Miami its character,” he says. “In Fort Lauderdale and Boca they have already lost their identity. The Venetian is a perfect example of what should not be under way. It was originally a runway. Then it turned into a community, and that gave it its charm. Now the developers want to create more square footage and sell homes for more money, but by doing that they are destroying the integrity of the area. They don’t understand the architecture or history. They just want more comfort, a bigger living room, a bigger kitchen, a bigger bedroom. The bigger the better is the mentality here. When I drive along the Venetian or North Bay Road, they are starting to lose their character.”

Adds noted photographer Robin Hill, speaking in general about the trend, “There’s no accounting for taste, especially when it comes to housing, and there’s also no relationship whatsoever between money and good taste.” Much of Hill’s work involves architecture and style. “There is a ‘McMansion’ invasion currently under way in many parts of Miami and Miami Beach. When it comes to a great neighborhood, nothing beats human-scale buildings that relate to one another. When that neighborhood is invaded by outside gluttonous architecture, the whole character of the area starts to change.” For Hill, the large-style mansion worked quite well when Addison Mizner reinvigorated the concept in Palm Beach in the 1920s. “But the problem today unfortunately is that in the hands of lesser architects-sometimes there isn’t even an architect and it’s all done by the developer-the style quickly looks shoddy and out of place. Alas, what a great shame that some of the most charming neighborhoods in the country have fallen to such tasteless vulgarity, including here in Miami along North Bay Road and in the Venetian Islands.”

But not everyone is so pessimistic that the battle to fight the McMansions is over. “I have a place in Miami because of its water, and it has character with its Art Deco District,” designer Pranich says. “I don’t want all these new condos going up to make it look like every other city in Florida. The same with the new homes. We can still stop it and regulate it. At the most, it’s only 20 to 25 percent of the houses that have been done along the Venetian and North Bay Road. It is still not too late to stop it from being totally ruined.”