Through Owens' Eyes: How Brickell Key, Brickell City Centre Came To Be
You wouldn't know it today, but in 1979 many were skeptical whether Swire Properties knew what it was doing when it bought Brickell Key for $17M. Today, the land jutting into the Miami River is stacked with condo towers and elite hotels. All thanks to one man's vision: Swire Properties' Stephen Owens.
Stephen headlined Bisnow's recent Evolution of Brickell & Downtown Miami event, where Bilzin Sumberg's Suzanne Amaducci-Adams (both here) interviewed the sage developer on Downtown Miami's history and future. “If you put that in perspective today, we paid about $13/SF for the land,” Stephen says.
The 43-acre tract was formerly known as Claughton Island (highlighted in this pic). “It was a good real estate buy.” The biggest obstacle for Stephen at the time was why an island next to an urban center and entitled for a mix of uses was available.
But Brickell was much different then. “Actually Brickell Key (shown, today) was the first time I heard the idea of a mixed-use, master planned community,” Stephen says. “In those days we didn't have so many of those; in fact, the term was hardly used.” What Brickell did have was name mojo in Latin America, where people knew the name as a location for Latin American banks in the US. Stephen sensed an opportunity. By 1981, as Swire was pre-selling the condo tower Brickell Key I, “virtually all of the buyers were from Latin America. We actually had people showing up with Winn-Dixie paper bags with cash in it.” Within four days, Swire had sold all of the units, and “by Monday night...we had $2.5M in cash sitting in a filing cabinet,” Stephen recalls.
Swire is in the middle of its next big move: Brickell City Centre. Swire shelled out $167/SF for the two-block project. By 2008, the land was valued at $41M, Stephen recalls. “We're really not very good at market-timing. I mean it in the sense that many of those that are quite successful on the real estate side are very good at market-timing; they buy, they get in quick, they sell, they get out and move on and wait for the next cycle,” he says. “Most of our projects tend to be longer term in vision.” A long-term vision is needed for Brickell City Centre, Stephen says, because a mixed-use project can't be piecemeal if it is going to feel seamless. “If you approach it as individual pieces, you're never going to get it quite right.”
Stephen—who recently announced his retirement by year's end—says developers need to better contribute and reinvest in the community where they're developing, as Swire did with the Brickell City Centre greenway underneath the Metromover. “This was a Brickell dump. Old car tires, old sofas, washing machines. Everything people wanted to discard under the rails,” he recalls. “And it wasn't a lot of money. It was a commitment to do it.” Developers who fail to do similar projects are being “shortsighted,” he adds. He compared Brickell City Centre to the High Line Park in NYC, where property values skyrocketed due to investment not only in development but the public space as well. “Even if we achieve a third of that [property value hike], the relevance of that uplift is significant.”