If you fly into Miami International Airport and drive east toward the city and north on Interstate 95, you bypass South Beach and midtown and in about thirty minutes reach the 163rd Street exit. Heading east toward the ocean leads you past several miles of strip malls filled with convenience stores, pawn shops, bodegas, gas stations, chain restaurants, nail salons and an occasional yoga center. Then rising unexpectedly in the distance is a row of condominium skyscrapers so baroque and unattractive that they conjure up the name of only one man: Donald Trump.
You have arrived in the city of Sunny Isles Beach, or “Florida’s Riviera,” as its political and business leaders have dubbed it. Massive skyscrapers along beachfront Collins Avenue include three Trump Towers and three other Trump-branded properties, including the Trump International Beach Resort, where I stayed—very comfortably, I confess—for eleven days in June.
Other luxury properties on the stretch include the gaudy Acqualina Resort & Spa, where the penthouse recently went on sale for $55 million, and the Jade Ocean, which offers “beach amenities thoughtfully conceived to continue attentive service and lavish appointments all the way to the water’s edge” and a Children’s Room featuring Philippe Starck furnishings and a baby grand piano. Meanwhile, ground was recently broken on the Porsche Design Tower, which its developers describe as “the world’s first condominium complex with elevators that will take residents directly to their units while they are sitting in their cars.”
Until the late 1990s, this Miami neighborhood was populated by retirees and tourists and was dotted with dozens of theme motels, many of them named after Las Vegas properties: the Dunes, the Sands, the Desert Inn and the Aztec. Between the 1920s and ’50s, Sunny Isles catered to visitors like Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Grace Kelly, Burt Lancaster and Guy Lombardo, but later became a destination for tourists of modest means.
Everything changed in 1997, when real estate developers and other business groups succeeded in passing a referendum to incorporate Sunny Isles as a town. From that point on, building, planning and zoning decisions were stripped from the Miami-Dade County Commission and put in the hands of the industry-dominated Sunny Isles City Commission, whose current members consist of a real estate executive, a property lawyer and a former advertising executive. What happened next was the most spectacular neighborhood transformation seen in Miami since cocaine money rebuilt the city’s downtown area beginning in the late 1970s.
The first mayor was David Samson, a parking garage magnate from Chicago who retired to Sunny Isles and helped “remake a sleepy area of low-rise motels built along Collins Avenue in the 1950s into a sparking city of condominium towers,” according to his 2003 obituary. Norman Edelcup, a former banker and real estate executive, succeeded Samson upon the latter’s death, and the city has been a property developer’s wet dream ever since.