Dezer Development in spotlight in transformation of Sunny Isles Beach
By Mindy Hagen
Long unable to tap into Miami Beach's tourism base and building boom, Sunny Isles Beach was a 2.5-mile-long, three-block-wide strip of vintage motels before its 1997 incorporation as a city.
With incorporation came a change in the city's zoning laws, allowing for the building of high-rise condominiums and hotels. And developers such as Gil Dezer, who calls Sunny Isles Beach "South Florida's new hot resort destination," flocked to the area.
Now, after four years of obtaining permits and buying land, Mr. Dezer said he is watching construction of his first luxury condo, the 32-story, 372-unit Sonesta Ocean Grande Resort Hotel, 18101 Collins Ave.
In November, groundbreaking is scheduled for Dezer's Residences at Ocean Grande, a 42-story tower.
But Ocean Grande's seven acres don't come close to exhausting Mr. Dezer's holdings in Sunny Isles Beach. Having bought 11 of the area's older motels, with land options for three more, Mr. Dezer said he holds 30 acres in the city, more than 30% of available land. He said his oceanfront holdings encompass about 1.3 million square feet, an area equal to half the size of Sawgrass Mills Mall and its parking lots.
David Yeomans, a director at Integra, a division of Appraisal & Real Estate Economics Associates Inc., said Mr. Dezer's holdings are impressive in the industry.
"He is seeing into the future," said Mr. Yeomans, who specializes in residential beachfront property. "He got the land now instead of purchasing it after everyone else jumped into the game. He will save money by not having to buy as much land down the road."
And he's not done yet.
Within five years Mr. Dezer plans to demolish the Driftwood Hotel at Collins Avenue and 172nd Street, the Monaco Resort on 175th Street and the Thunderbird Hotel at 184th Street. In their place, he said, he is developing concepts for seven more luxury high-rises.
"We've developed a stronghold here in Sunny Isles," he said. "At the rate we are going, we will have work projects set up for the next six to eight years."
Still looking to acquire more property, Mr. Dezer, at 26, has become one of the area's movers and shakers, said Sunny Isles Beach economic development officials.
The son of Manhattan's well-known developer Michael Dezer and co-founder of Dezer Development, Mr. Dezer has knocked down the Colonial Inn and Best Western to make way for Ocean Grande. The Ocean Grande project was slated to hold 90 units before the Best Western came up for sale. After buying it and tearing it down, Mr. Dezer expanded the Ocean Grande plan to 230 units.
Mr. Dezer also acquired 6 acres by buying the Chateau by the Sea, Blue Mist and Caravan hotels. He then sold the land to the Ocean 2, a 254-unit luxury high-rise that opened in July.
And Mr. Dezer said his company is still active in the market.
"We are constantly trying to buy more land and broker deals," said Mr. Dezer, who came to South Florida to attend the University of Miami while working at his father's Dezerland Hotel on Collins Avenue at 87th Street. After college, Mr. Dezer said, he stayed in South Florida to gain more experience in the development industry and follow in his father's footsteps.
His said a belief that the area was set to become the "new American Riveria" led the father-son duo to create Dezer Development in 1999. Michael Dezer oversees the companies' holdings in New York, including the Chelsea Antiques Center, a 60,000 square foot mall at 110 W 25th St. devoted exclusively to 350 antiques dealers.
But in the Sunny Isles Beach luxury condominium market, Mr. Dezer's competitors say he has become his own man. The competition said they respect how the developer has gone about acquiring his many properties.
"The Dezers are doing tremendous things for the area of Sunny Isles," said Jorge Lamadrid, project manager for the Bellagio Hotel, 187th Street and Collins. The land parcels for the Bellagio and the Michaelangelo Hotel on 175th Street were bought by APEX Development, owners of the Grand Venetian.
"There are a handful of developers in the area, and we all know each other," Mr. Lamadrid said. "We don't look at it as competing. The more properties that are available, the more people will come and look at the area. It's a draw for everyone."
Mr. Dezer said the key to his involvement in Sunny Isles was getting ahead early.
"Our competitors could have easily done what we did but they didn't," he said. "It was a matter of knowing what the values of the land are and when the zoning laws would change. You have to have a special nose to sniff out new developing areas. And you can never pay too much for oceanfront property."
But Mr. Dezer said his real challenge has come not in besting competing developers but in getting older motel owners to sell. In purchasing the properties, Mr. Dezer said he had to strike deals with the motel's overall owner, the building owner's association and individual unit owners one-by-one. That, he said, can take anywhere from six to eight months.
"It is a very difficult and drawn-out process," he said. "Every owner has to vote in favor of selling to us before the board is dissolved. And some people entice others not to go with us.
"We have to sell them on the merits of the other properties we own and offer them deals. Some take the deals and some cry all the way to the bank."
Bill Lone, executive director of the Sunny Isles Beach Resort Association and president of the Renaissance Economic Development Group, said motel owners have no reason to complain about buyouts. Mr. Lone said he credits Mr. Dezer with elevating the area "from castles in the sand" to the "castles in the sky" theme employed by his resort association.
"Some five years ago Sunny Isles was beating on drums to receive attention," Mr. Lone said. "Gil's efforts have enriched the motel property owners. The people who have sold have profited handsomely and interest in our community has been stimulated at the same time."
Calling Mr. Dezer "an ambassador for the community," Mr. Lone said bringing the Sonesta flag to Sunny Isles helped tremendously in the area's growth.
"The flag identity is important because it draws international attention," he said. "Sonesta signing on to be a cornerstone of this community sent a message that we could attract high-end resort quality. It served as a beacon for us to reach out and facilitate a dialogue with additional flags."
Sunny Isles now expects to attract 10 additional national and international flags to the area, Mr. Lone said, partially because of Mr. Dezer's willingness to be a market pioneer.
In addition to acquiring more land, Mr. Dezer said he now concentrates on developing plans for his luxury high-rises. The Residences at Ocean Grande are 75% sold four months before the scheduled groundbreaking.
This plethora of development in Sunny Isles could not have been achieved without a change in the city's zoning laws. When Sunny Isles incorporated in 1997, city officials decided they wanted it to be more conducive to high-rise development. They reconfigured the zoning and encouraged narrower buildings with greater height, allowing for more open space between the buildings so residents on the west side of Collins Avenue would be able to have some view of the ocean.
Now Sunny Isles is modifying that ordinance by changing the east side of Collins Avenue to a mixed-use residential core. In attempting to further enhance residents' corridors of view, the new laws will cause buildings to have larger setbacks from Collins Avenue and less visible parking garages.
Mr. Dezer's next scheduled development, The Water Club, was set to be a 354-unit, 14-story condominium with a marina and rental option on the Thunderbird Hotel's 6-acre parcel at Collins Avenue and 184th Street. But the city's new zoning laws have allowed Dezer Development to double the size of the proposed condominium.
Mr. Dezer also said he is opening a sales office in November for a project he won't yet discuss in detail.
"It will be the biggest thing to hit South Florida since the boat," he said.
As Mr. Dezer and other developers continue to move forward with building plans, Sunny Isles Beach as a whole gains momentum, Mr. Lone said.
"We aren't impressed with the scope of Gil's acquisitions," he said, "we are impressed with the potential build-out and development that will take place.
"Gil has been a catalyst in developing a vision that complements our own vision for the city. His efforts have achieved a huge awareness of the value here within our community."