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While much of the country is still recovering from the housing downturn, one city in Florida is red hot. Miami Beach has become an international destination. But the demand for luxury housing has caused a boom in demolitions of single family homes. NPR's Greg Allen reports that some residents say the demolitions threaten the island's neighborhoods and its history.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Some of Miami Beach's quietest and most historic neighborhoods can be found in a chain of small islands connected by a causeway. On Di Lido Island, a community of homes built 50 and 60 years ago is being torn down and replaced, lot by lot. On one street alone, five houses currently are slated for demolition.
Daniel Ciraldo stands across the street from two '60s-era houses that will soon be demolished and replaced by a new home nearly double their combined size.
DANIEL CIRALDO: We're looking at ceiling heights of around 10 foot per floor. And then a roof deck up on top that's going to loom over the neighbors.
ALLEN: Ciraldo is a member of the Miami Design Preservation League, a group that, 30 years ago, helped convince Miami Beach to preserve its district of Art Deco-era hotels. Now the group is working to save historic homes in Miami Beach's neighborhoods. As Miami Beach's real estate market has heated up, Ciraldo says, developers have discovered the neighborhoods. Homes on the water costing millions, even historic ones, now are considered tear-downs. For years he says, Miami Beach saw just two or three demolitions a year in residential neighborhoods. But that's changed.
CIRALDO: In 2012, that number skyrocketed to 24. And in 2013, we're projecting 29. And so, we're looking at about eight years worth of demolitions now happening in one year.
ALLEN: Ciraldo and his group are worried about the demolitions and how the new, large houses - McMansions detractors call them - are changing the character of the neighborhoods. They're also concerned about Miami Beach's history.
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ALLEN: A short drive across another causeway takes us to Star Island. It has some of the area's best views. It overlooks Biscayne Bay and the Miami skyline. Some homes here sell for $35 million. Ciraldo parks outside of a house that's become the poster child for efforts to stop the runaway demolitions.
CIRALDO: It is one of the most visible and most historic homes in Miami Beach.
ALLEN: It was designed and built in 1925 by one of Florida's first architects. But this is where history collides with reality. or at least reality TV.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Previously on "The Real Housewives of Miami..."
ALLEN: The owners of the home are featured in the Bravo TV series. Leonard Hochstein is a plastic surgeon who has trademarked his nickname the Boob God. And then there's his wife, one of the reality TV show's stars, Lisa Hochstein.
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LISA HOCHSTEIN: My husband is a top plastic surgeon in this town and I'm his best creation.
ALLEN: After buying the property on Star Island, the Hochsteins asked Miami Beach for permission to tear it down and replace it with a 20,000 square foot compound, complete with wine cellar, five-car garage, a guest house and staff quarters. The city gave permission for demolition but the Miami Design Preservation League intervened. The group sought to have the home designated historic, went to court and so far have blocked demolition.
In the meantime, the fight has spurred Miami Beach to declare a temporary moratorium on demolitions in the city while it considers ways to update its zoning and better preserve historic homes. At a recent city commission meeting, Dr. Hochstein charged that the moratorium is aimed at him.
DR. LEONARD HOCHSTEIN: The moratorium is about punishment. It's about punishing individuals. And nobody knows that more than me.
ALLEN: Miami Beach mayor Matti Hererra Bower doesn't quite see it that way.
MAYOR MATTI HERERRA BOWER: How about he's picking on us because he wants to demolish it, and there's more people that don't want that demolished. He's picking on Miami Beach.
ALLEN: The moratorium, the mayor points out, doesn't affect the Hochsteins' home or others that have already received demolition permits. If the court ultimately finds in the Hochsteins' favor, they can tear down the 88-year-old home and replace it with their dream house. But Bower says even if the home is lost, the battle has mobilized the community, bringing more and more residents out to city commission meetings.
BOWER: They see the quality of life changing. That's why so many people are coming. Because 10 years ago, they had never seen a house, what could go next to it. Now they see it.
ALLEN: The battle over the future of the home of Star Island will play out in the courts and also on TV. The Hochsteins angered historic preservationists recently when they spattered fake blood on the walls of the vacant mansion, for a gangster-themed party. Among the guests were fellow cast members of "The Real Housewives of Miami" and a Bravo TV film crew.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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