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11/14/02: Daily Business Review

Developers snatch up property fronting Miami River but will the area's historic neighborhoods be hurt?
By: Tasha C. Joseph

Proponents of development along the Miami River envision a mix of residential, retail and industrial uses.

long the Miami River, which flows from bustling downtown Miami to the seedy neglect of Allapattah, sit 5.5 miles of shoreline that developers are scrambling to buy. From its source near Miami International Airport to its mouth at Biscayne Bay, the Miami River is on tap to be the next big thing for office buildings, high-rise condos and upscale lofts.

"The Miami River has been an underappreciated jewel in Miami and developers have begun to take notice," said Jackie Gonzalez, vice president of Arquitectonica, the architectural firm that designed One Miami, twin 45-story residential towers the Related Group is developing next to the Hotel Inter-Continental at the river's end.

"The river offers affordability, easy access to downtown Miami, the highway, etc.," Gonzalez says. "It is going to be a great area to live in."

Some envision the river as a subtropical version of San Antonio's Riverwalk in Texas, a vibrant, eclectic mix of residential, retail and industrial development with picturesque tramp freighters forming an ever-changing backdrop. Others want to preserve the river's history as the city's working watery artery and worry about old riverside neighborhoods and their residents. Sections of the river flow through the neighborhoods of Spring Garden, East Little Havana, Allapattah and Overtown.

Adding spice to the mix are concerns about dangerous chemicals in the sediment at its bottom. The official version of the river's future, however, is nothing but upbeat.

"The plans are modeled after what the city of San Antonio has done," says David Miller, the one-time U.S. Coast Guard captain who leads the Miami River Commission, created by the state Legislature in 1998 to monitor riverside development. "They've created a vibrant riverwalk with retail, residential and office buildings. They've also created hundreds of jobs, which is something that will happen here as well. There will be hundreds of jobs created as a result of development along the river."

But at least one of Miller's commission colleagues is more cautious. "The problem is the way the zoning is done now, developers can come in and acquire those parcels without regard to the historic character of those neighborhoods," says commission member Ernie Martin, a former director of Miami-Dade County's Office of Community and Economic Development. He urges a more measured infill plan that would keep much of what's already there intact.

"The river commission has just adopted the urban infill plan we've proposed," Martin says. "So although we feel threatened, we are hopeful that by the end of the year, the city and county will adopt the plan and we can have those protections in place to prevent mass development in these historic areas of Miami."

Miller has become adept at mediating such concerns. The river commission's goal, is "to make sure those concerns are properly addressed and to try to make sure developers and residents get along," he says.

"There have been many efforts over the years to develop the Miami River," Miller continues. "It's a historic area, so there are conflicts over preservation. There are also environmental concerns because heavy metals and petroleum sediment have polluted the river over the years, so the environmentalists are up in arms. But we can and will successfully develop the river and turn it into a thriving business center."

The infill plan Martin supports will ease some of the neighborhood concerns. Plans to dredge the river's channel would address environmental issues, Miller says. Development will proceed simultaneously.

"The residents and activists also have a voice in the development as well," he says. "We hold public hearings for residents to have a forum for their concerns over a particular development. So far, everything has gone pretty well in that regard."

Tony Cabrera of Epoch Corp. noticed the potential of the river several years ago.

"I began to look around and see that there was no available property on Brickell Avenue and to me, the Miami River is a natural extension of Brickell," says Cabrera, who purchased a vacant downtown parcel that was to be part of the failed Marlins baseball stadium proposal.

Cabrera is keeping the plans for the parcel's development secret, but a source familiar with the deal, who asked not to be identified, said a residential property comparable to the One Miami project could break ground in the next few months.

Developers like Lissette Calderon are also cashing in on the river's new-found allure. A Miami native who worked on Wall Street for many years as a broker, Calderon has begun construction on NeoLofts, a 21-story residential building off South River Drive and east of the Flagler Street bridge.

"I have wanted to own property along the river for years because I knew that it would be one of the last bastions of available land in Miami and I was right," Calederon says.

"They've run out of land and the river is now in vogue."

Apartments at NeoLofts range from $100,000 to $500,000 and Calderon says the building is 95 percent sold.

"I, myself, own a unit, so I put my money where my mouth is," she says. "This area is going to be hot in a few years when all of the development is completed and it's truly exciting."

Office towers are also in the river's future.

Panther Real Estate Partners Inc. has begun construction on the first privately built office building in downtown Miami in more than a decade. Known as One Riverview Square, the building at 333 S. Miami Ave. will be 166,000 square feet over eight stories. Scheduled for completion early next year, the building will house Immigration and Naturalization Service offices, including several courtrooms; it will also have retail space and several restaurants.

"It's exciting because there hasn't been an office building built in downtown Miami in years," says Ines Marrero-Priegues, an attorney with Akerman Senterfitt who worked with Panther on the deal.

Virginia and Tony Kay, who once owned the Clevelander Hotel in Miami Beach and have two other hotels there, decided to focus on riverside entertainment. They have set about creating Finnegan's River, the first nightclub in the area, which is scheduled to open in late 2004 or early 2005.

"The big developers have the residential and office market along the river down pat," said Tony Kay, who has blueprints but has not as yet submitted them to the city. "We wanted to focus on having a place for all of those people to go for entertainment. We're in the planning stages right now, but we're excited about the project."

As the development of office buildings, lofts and nightclubs continues, Martin and other longtime residents want to remind the community to keep a watchful eye over the historic neighborhoods that border the river.

"It's great to have all of this development," said Martin of the River Commission. "It will create jobs and put this part of the city of the map, but over-development is a real issue and I'm hoping that city officials and developers keep that in mind and protect the neighborhoods as more and more high-rises go up."

Javier Fernandez, a policy coordinator and advisor to Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, is confident that the commission, the city and the developers will find a balance. "Development is going to continue, but one of our primary goals at the city is to keep the neighborhoods intact as we move forward," Fernandez says. "We've got a lot of history in those neighborhoods and we intend to protect it."