What might have been: Old map shows large housing development once planned for Cape Florida

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One of the jewels that makes Key Biscayne so desirable is our emerald open space. Crandon Park to the north and Cape Florida to the south, with their palm trees and white-sand beaches, bookend our island’s central residential and commercial area.

What a different place our island would be without those two parks. But one of them was almost paved over.

The owner of the land we now know as Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, Elena Santeiro Garcia Áleman, listed the 500-acre property for sale twice in the late 1950s. Both times a buyer stepped forward.

In 1957 Louis R. Ritter, a hotelier from New York signed a contract for $9.5 million to purchase the property. Within a year Mr. Ritter breached the terms of the agreement and the land reverted back to the seller.

In 1958 Arthur A. Desser paid $15 million, including a $3 million down payment, and proceeded to lay out plans to build a community of luxurious residences and resort properties that would rival Miami Beach. But by 1962 he, too, was unable to meet the carrying costs and was facing imminent foreclosure. Once again, the property reverted back to Mrs. Áleman. She probably didn’t mind as the price continued to climb with each transaction.

Eventually Bill Baggs, the editor of South Florida’s former evening paper, The Miami News, undertook a fervent campaign to secure Cape Florida for a public park. His efforts are recounted in the riveting biography by Amy Paige Condon, “A Nervous Man Shouldn’t Be Here in the First Place: The Life of Bill Baggs.”

Others rallied to join the cause. “There isn’t enough undeveloped land in South Florida to let this go,” said County Commissioner R. Hardy Matheson.

Eventually, Mr. Baggs published an open letter to Mrs. Áleman. “The public, especially the children, should have that land, the long sloping beaches, the old lighthouse, which is one of the few remnants of our history, the trails which wander beneath the old palms.” The letter continued, “[T]he people need parks, room to run or recline, to listen to the soft drawl of the sea, a place to dock a small boat or simply a quiet place to walk.”

As we now know, Mr. Baggs prevailed and the state of Florida purchased the land for $8.5 million, including $2.3 million provided by the federal government.

One would be hard pressed to find a more stark reminder of what could have been than the map reprinted here that shows the layout for Mr. Desser’s planned development. It’s one thing to know that the southern stretch of our island could have been heavily developed. It’s quite another thing to see the roads and housing plans depicted so plainly on the map.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to Bill Baggs, the Matheson family, and the others who had the foresight – and the fortitude – to ensure that the Key’s natural areas would be preserved for future generations. And don’t we all have the same obligation to protect what is left for those who come after us? There are so many ways to help the environment, everything from picking up trash on the beach with FillABag, to getting involved with Key Biscayne’s Citizen Scientist Project, to volunteering with Zero Waste Culture, to attending Village Council meetings.

Perhaps the best place to start is by taking the time to enjoy and appreciate the natural beauty at Crandon and Cape Florida.


To read the last Lighter Side column, click here

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