a small white house with a tree in front of it
Two blocks of dilapidated buildings on Waddell Street near the Casa Marina Resort have been vacant since 2005 and deemed a nuisance eyesore to the neighborhood. The resort’s ownership wants to rebuild employee housing if it also can create 23 new hotel rooms on a neighboring parcel. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

Nothing brings neighbors together like a proposal to build new 23 hotel rooms across the street, down the block or 200 yards away from their multimillion-dollar homes.

That’s what’s happening in the Casa Marina neighborhood, where the corporate owners of the Casa Marina Resort, a real estate investment trust called Park Hotels & Resorts, is asking city officials to change the zoning of two parcels, the site of dilapidated buildings that once included 23 units of housing for Casa Marina employees. The buildings have been a vacant and abandoned eyesore in the neighborhood since 2005, when Hurricane Wilma flooded them.

Now, Park Hotels & Resorts is promising the city and the neighbors that they’ll rebuild the employee housing on one of the parcels if they can build six new buildings on the other parcel that would house 23 new hotel rooms. But in order to do so, the resort needs the city to change the zoning of those parcels from residential to commercial. The resort also would need to acquire 23 new transient licenses for the new hotel rooms, licenses that have not been newly issued in Key West for more than a decade.

The city’s Planning Board in March voted to approve the zoning change despite the city’s planning staff’s recommendation that the application be denied for numerous reasons, but mainly because rebuilding the former employee housing units is already permitted under the current zoning. Planning Board members Sam Holland and Ed Russo voted against the zoning change approval, which passed anyway, with three members saying they only approved the application because no neighbors had shown up to speak out against it.

That all had changed by the time the zoning change was before the city commission for approval at the May 9 meeting. The commission ultimately voted to postpone the decision, at the applicant’s request, until November, when four of the seven faces on the commission dais will be new following the coming election. Commissioners Lissette Cuervo Carey, Sam Kaufman and Mary Lou Hoover will be the only remaining lawmakers. Hoover has been working with Casa Marina and with the neighbors, hoping to broker some agreement in order to get the “eyesore” of the dilapidated buildings cleaned up.

More than 80 neighbors gathered in early May at Jeff and Karen Siegel’s house on Washington Street to discuss and formally oppose the zoning change that would bring the new hotel rooms to their neighborhood. The neighbors, who said they had been unaware of the planning board’s meeting and decision in March, sent more than a dozen letters of opposition to the zoning change and more than 20 of them attended the May 9 commission to speak against it, despite the fact that the decision would be postponed. 

“No one showed up (to the Planning Board meeting in March) because we didn’t know,” Jeff Siegel told the city commission on May 9. “I live 300 feet from the property and I’m homesteaded, meaning this is our permanent residence.”

He suggested the city revise its notification requirements to ensure more neighbors are made aware of significant development plans and changes for their neighborhoods. 

Neighborhood resident Peter Cohen told the commission, “The last thing we need to make is another commercial zone when what we need is housing. Just because the real estate investment trust that owns the Casa Marina has the money to make political donations doesn’t mean they should be able to buy their way into a zoning change.” 

Gregory Oropeza, the Key West real estate attorney representing the Casa Marina, defended the zoning change to the planning board in March, saying the state has mandated that cities explore partnerships between private and public entities to develop more affordable housing. He said this proposal would represent such a partnership. 

But Karen Siegel, during a neighborhood meeting, told the Keys Weekly that the neighbors feel as if the Casa Marina is trying to hold the neighbors hostage with the eyesore of abandoned buildings that line Waddell Street.

“It’s as if they’re saying they’ll only clean up that mess if they can get the zoning change and another 23 hotel rooms,” she said. 

Hoover told her fellow commissioners, “I have been working on this issue (of the eyesore building) since I first came onto the commission. I’ve gotten to know the folks at Parks Hotels and I was pleased when they brought Greg Oropeza on board. I know that what they want to do will address the neighbors’ concerns with that property, but they’re not going to turn that parcel into a park. That’s just not going to happen.” 

The commission listened earnestly to the neighbors at the May 9 meeting, but formally voted to postpone the zoning decision until the Nov. 14 commission meeting. The neighbors have said their opposition will not change, and they’re not going anywhere. 

Mandy Miles
Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.