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5/19/02 - Miami News Today

Park West, Omni investors call for help from Miami officials

By Paola Iuspa

Just a few years after spending millions on abandoned buildings in Park West and the west Omni area, property owners say their investments are at risk if city officials don't intervene soon.

Lured by Miami officials' plans to revitalize the long-neglected neighborhoods abutting Overtown, investors began moving in about five years ago.

While the area's success is thought to be anchored in a performing arts center now under construction along Biscayne between 14th and 16th streets, investors want the city to provide more parking, policing and sanitation to help attract tenants to their remodeled commercial buildings.

But the city seems to be slow in doing its part to improve the area, property owners said Monday at a meeting with City of Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton.

Some of those investors are forming a nonprofit, Omni-Park West Community Board, to lobby elected officials and expedite short- and long-term solutions to problems such as drug dealers, prostitutes, illegal dumping and dilapidated properties being used as crack houses, said George Sanchez. He said he owns a Park West warehouse he hopes to restore as an art gallery.

Gil Terem said his partnership owns four properties in Park West and has invested about $6 million in the area. He said those problems are jeopardizing his investment. He said having boarded-up, graffiti-painted buildings next door to his projects doesn't create an inviting ambiance for tenants.

City officials said they have hired consultants to work on a master plan for the Park West neighborhood. When completed late this year, the plan is likely to recommend new land use and zoning intended to create a 24-hour community. Consultants are also working on a plan to build an east-west pedestrian street between 10th and 11th streets, connecting the area with Bicentennial Park.

The Performing Arts Center Foundation of Greater Miami also completed a study this year recommending land use for a radius of 10 blocks around the arts center, at 14th Street and Biscayne Boulevard. The next step is for the city to weigh in on those recommendations.

In the meantime, Mr. Terem said, some restaurant and club owners become interested in Park West and the Omni west but often decide against opening their businesses there after driving around the neighborhood.

"It is hard to find tenants if the area looks like this," Mr. Terem said Monday as he and other six property owners met with Mr. Winton and city planners to air their concerns.

Jason Beck, together with Avra Jain, members of a New York-based investment partnership that owns more than 3 acres in Park West and the Omni area, said homeless persons using the land are also threatening the area's livelihood.

Both areas, known as the entertainment district, lie west of Biscayne Boulevard, east of Miami Avenue, south of I-395 and north of Seventh Street, next to the downtown central business district.

Park West and west Omni are already home to at least four clubs, small hotels, art studios and a planned bowling alley, said Mr. Terem, who said he had been in the restaurant and club business in Israel and New York before moving to Miami three years ago.

"The Miami Downtown Development Authority promised us a lot," he said, "so we came and brought other investors. The property values went up and now we could sell and bail out. But we don't want to do that. We are interested in staying and making it work."

The Downtown Development Authority, a nonprofit group with some city and county officials sitting on its board, focuses on the marketing and development of downtown.

Mr. Terem said the values of his properties have gone from about $13 per square foot to about $30 in the past four years.

Mr. Winton asked owners to list properties that need to be shored up and painted. He said he would work with the group and the city's code enforcement team to go after owners who neglect area buildings.

Mr. Winton also noted that Park West and Omni fall under the jurisdiction of the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, which collects tax increment funds in both areas. Tax increment funds are additions to taxes that Miami-Dade County collects because of new or improved structures to reinvest in the same area.

Mr. Winton said many of the solutions were to come from the redevelopment agency, which is headed by Commissioner Arthur Teele Jr., with city commissioners sitting on the board. Annette Lewis, the agency's acting executive director, did not attend Monday's meeting.

City Manager Carlos Gimenez said he would ask the Florida Department of Transportation to open the vacant land it owns beneath I-395 for parking. That site now is home to homeless persons and piles of debris.

That would be a relief and help businesses blossom, said Mr. Sanchez, who said he would not start remodeling his warehouse and open an art gallery until more parking is available.

Bradley Knoefler, heading Stone Street Development and owner of Park West property, said there is parking along Second Avenue, but many lot owners aren't willing to sign long-term agreements because they are waiting for good offers to buy their land.

Mr. Gimenez said the city is studying its alternatives to deal with vagrants. The city has been helping Camillus House, a homeless shelter in Park West, find a new site. Camillus is still trying to secure a location in Wynwood, south of the Miami Design District.

Luis Melo, who owns seven buildings in the western Omni area, said street lighting is also a problem and that the two blocks near the planned performing arts center on Biscayne Boulevard have been in the dark for weeks.

Mr. Terem said the property owners would push for the creation of new economic incentives to help attract residents and businesses.

The group expects to meet monthly.

Mr. Winton said he encouraged the group to pick a leader to attend ongoing meetings with city-hired consultants working on a master plan for Park West and Biscayne Boulevard.