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From 'The Wild West' To 'Brooklyn,' Developers Find Inspiration, Challenges In Miami's Eclectic Neighborhoods

Developers in the neighborhoods around Miami's central business district are eager to capitalize on the city's influx of high-earning workers and tourists, but face more nuanced challenges than the builders of new trophy office towers in Brickell.

Qualcon Real Estate's Thomas Conway, Lloyd Jones' Camilo Padron, BGRS Commercial Real Estate Advisory's Arnaldo Cantero III and Global Pro's Daniel Odess speak at Bisnow's Little Havana, Wynwood and Allapattah event in January 2023.

In Little Havana, minutes away from Miami’s financial district, its peculiarly shaped historic buildings and longstanding community make it “an animal of its own” for retail and commercial developers to invest in, Arnaldo Cantero III, the managing member at BGRS Commercial Real Estate Advisory, said at Bisnow’s Wynwood, Allapattah and Little Havana event last month.

His firm brokered the deal to bring the first Starbucks to Calle Ocho last year. Calle Ocho, also known as Eighth Street, is the neighborhood’s main road, featuring cigar shops, mom-and-pop stores and countless family-owned businesses — most run by Cubans who left the island and started anew in Miami decades ago.

Bringing in new tenants requires skill, Cantero said, because the foot traffic is a heavy mix of locals and tourists. 

"National tenants have started to take notice, the Starbucks, the Chipotles of the world, the guys that want to do restaurant sales," Cantero said at the event, held at the Hagerty Garage + Social venue. "I know some people may say, 'OK, you brought Starbucks into the neighborhood.' And that either could be looked at as a good or a bad thing. But it was an old Burger King with homeless people outside. I mean, it's an upgrade to the neighborhood."

For some older retail spaces along Calle Ocho, rents have gone up four or five times, Cantero said. But panelists said that hasn't led to a bonanza of turnover.

“Catching a rhythm like we've caught in other markets — Wynwood, Midtown, Design District — is a little bit more difficult in Little Havana because of the physical footprint of the neighborhood,” Qualcon Real Estate CEO Thomas Conway said. “So, there is demand and there is interest, but effectuating the position is hard. It's not straightforward."

The "Little Havana Me Importa" comprehensive plan that launched in 2019 added historic protections to the neighborhood after it was named a national treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The plan encourages preservation of existing buildings and the development of 10,000 new housing units, but Conway said it doesn't make sense for development.

“The land use rules and regulations of the city of Miami are very complicated, and they're made more complicated in Little Havana," he said. "The land use code that was adopted ... I feel like a blind person just drew colors on a map and that's what they settled with."

The headaches associated with doing business in the neighborhood are worth it, he added, because of its rich history and embedded culture.

"The history of Little Havana is important. You had these immigrants that came over from Cuba with nothing, you know, they got to America, this is where the majority of them congregated," Conway said. "They went from having nothing to having something again. This is their home and their heart. It's treated differently, it's cared for differently than other markets."

GT Law's Iris Escarra, LD&D's Diego Bonet, Rilea Group's Diego Ojeda, Nichols Architects' Andrew James, Quadrum Global's Amir Setayesh and Cymbal DLT's Asi Cymbal.

Wynwood is a more recognizable national brand, but even after years as one of Miami's premier tourist draws, the neighborhood finally has its first-ever hotel, the Arlo Wynwood, which opened in November.

The nine-story, 217-key boutique hotel, developed by Quadrum Global, is the latest example of the lasting impact of Wynwood's 2015 rezoning to allow a mix of uses, speakers on the event's Wynwood panel said.

“I see Wynwood moving to many different asset classes and growing," Quadrum Global Managing Director Amir Setayesh said. "You see tech growing there, you see different businesses moving there, more institutional businesses."

Andrew James, principal at Nichols Architects and designer of the Arlo, said the Wynwood streetscape master plan, alongside developer Tony Goldman's vision, has unlocked an entirely different pedestrian experience for the longtime garment district-turned-arts district.

"Part of that whole strategy is centralized parking and [to] encourage pedestrian movement for the benefit of the entire neighborhood," James said. "The buildings, the developments themselves, are becoming far less insular. It's not the kind of situation where we have our own parking and it's kind of a closed-off kingdom. It really is spreading into a full neighborhood expression, which is, to me, very exciting.”

On the 2 acres Rilea Group owns on 29th Street, the firm is planning two 12-story buildings: a 260-unit apartment project called Mohawk and a 131-unit short-term rental building called The Rider, with 40K SF of retail combined.

President Diego Ojeda, whose firm is also active in Brickell, compared Wynwood to SoHo in Manhattan — an artsy district "that has that 'it' factor."

But unlike Manhattan, development opportunities abound.

"It's the wild west, and it's the frontier. There's lots of raw land and lots of really cool projects coming off the ground," he said. "You have to be very unique and artistic, because of all the murals that you're allowed to do and want to do. So you really show your true colors on the projects there. And it's not just cookie-cutter projects, everyone is trying to make a name."

Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman's Joseph Hernandez, Neology Life Development Group's Lissette Calderon, Gridline Properties' Alfredo Riascos, UrbanX Group's Andrew Hellinger, JAXI Builders' Abel Ramirez, Procida Development's Benji Power and Pointer Development's Amalfi Gayosso.

While new hotels, luxury residential and trophy office buildings are sprouting like weeds in Wynwood, many businesses have left the Arts District and relocated in its sister neighborhood, Allapattah.

The Rubell Art Museum, for instance, moved its art collections from Wynwood to Allapattah in 2009 after acquiring a 100K SF warehouse at 1100 Northwest 23rd St. The Rubell family has continued buying warehouses in the up-and-coming neighborhood and repurposing the spaces into art galleries.

In July 2021, the Rubells bought a 29K SF warehouse at 1000 Northwest 23rd St. in Allapattah for $5.4M, and in April, they acquired another at 1090 Northwest 23rd St. for $11M.

Allapattah is rapidly changing from a predominantly industrial neighborhood to a mixed-use area made up of different asset classes. Developers on the event's Allapattah panel said the natural comparison to neighboring areas doesn't do Allapattah justice. 

"We always do 'Allapattah compared to Wynwood.' I think it's night-and-day different," Procida Director of Real Estate Development and Social Impact Benji Power said. "It's really three, four or five Wynwoods.

"This is a Brooklyn," he added. "Brooklyn is not just a little neighborhood you explore in one afternoon. It is a city in and of itself, Brooklyn is. Allapattah, I see it as similar."

Like Brooklyn, the industrial spine that runs through Allapattah lends itself to adaptive reuse projects, said Gridline Properties principal Alfredo Riascos, whose company focuses on industrial. He said many of the properties in the neighborhood are "white canvases" for developers to get creative.

"Allapattah lends itself to be an incredibly eclectic neighborhood with new residential, new commercial, you have medical infrastructure. So it has an incredibly unique DNA that you don't really see in many other neighborhoods in Miami,” Riascos said. “I do think that you have a select group of investors and people that have stakes in the area are all pushing their grain of sand in the same direction."

One of the most active developers in the area is Lissette Calderon. Her firm, Neology Life Development Group, is developing its fourth building in Allapattah right now, and she is sensitive to the same concerns that have been present in the real Brooklyn for decades — gentrification and displacement.

But, she said, because of the number of obsolete commercial properties in the area, there is room for new growth without pushing out longtime residents.

"I never want to see people saying, 'Don't come into our neighborhoods, you're displacing us,'" Calderon said, adding that her projects have been redevelopments of "either abandoned warehouses, dilapidated buildings, closed-down buildings or just raw asphalt."

"So from a displacement standpoint, we haven't displaced anybody."