Posted on Wed, May. 02, 2007
Midtown Miami becoming a livable neighborhood
By LYDIA MARTIN
Ilana Drucker, who runs a marketing research business from her mod Cité condo at Biscayne Boulevard and 20th Street, recently fulfilled a big-city fantasy.
''I walked to the performing arts center to see the Cleveland Orchestra with a friend who lives in the building,'' Drucker says. ``When it was over we walked to Tony Chan's and had sushi. Then we walked back home.''
Terry Riley, the Miami Art Museum director who a year ago moved from New York to the courtyard house he had built in the Design District, similarly rejoices: ``The other night, I walked to Michael's. It was the first time I walked to a restaurant from home.''
Finally, the pioneers of Miami's new urban core are wearing down the shoe leather, something residents of the construction-dust-covered area that starts north of the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts and reaches just beyond the Design District have been hankering to do. Whether they're paying rent or a mortgage, the upwardly mobile -- many of them abandoning South Beach because of soaring real-estate prices and tourist congestion -- are being drawn by the promise of a real neighborhood to the rehabbed houses, sleek new buildings and rediscovered bayfront secrets of Midtown.
They want metropolitan interaction, to escape the isolation of their cars and to make contact with people they pass on sidewalks or meet at coffee joints, wine bars, the cleaners. But there haven't been too many of those spots in an area that seems to boast more construction cranes than bodies.
Which is why the recent appearance of a ''Starbucks Brewing Soon'' sign in front of a rundown Peruvian restaurant on Biscayne at 29th Street has been cause for celebration. ''To me, Starbucks means people,'' says Drucker, who grew up in Miami Lakes but studied and worked in New York before recently returning to Miami.
'This may sound ridiculous, but because I work from home, sometimes I sit in my apartment and think to myself, `I'm starving.' . . . In Manhattan, even at 2 in the morning, I could walk outside my door and get something to eat. Here, I have found myself at the 24-hour Walgreen's trying to buy whatever seemed edible.''
Now there is the occasional oasis, such as Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, open since early March and already a Design District hot spot. In the kitchen is Michael Schwartz, who made Nemo one of South Beach's most happening restaurants.
There is also Out of the Blue Cafe at 24th Street and Northeast Second Avenue, a homey, art-filled spot featuring gourmet coffee, sandwiches and free WiFi; Bin No. 18 at Biscayne and 18th, a wine bar with upscale food; and on the ground floor at Cité, The Daily Creative Food Co., a casual spot that opened a little more than a year ago and draws an urban set eager to chat across tables and learn the name of each other's dogs.
''The Daily is like the best thing that happened to me,'' says Jennifer Ahrens, a publicist who walks there from her industrial-chic condo at Parc Lofts, 35 NE 17th St. ``When we first moved in, we had our car broken into in the garage. . . . But within months, this place has become a lot more livable.''
LONG WAIT AHEAD
Real city life may be years away, however. A projected 25,000 new condos are due to go up in Miami in the next couple of years. But with the real-estate market slowing, some projects could stall. And because many units will be in the hands of speculators who may not get the quick flips they expected, there is the question of when the neighborhood will start feeling inhabited.
The 436-unit Cité, which opened in the fall of 2004, spent its first year looking like a ghost town, less than half occupied. More people live there these days, but about 50 percent are renters, according to the building's manager. And public records reveal at least nine possible foreclosures at a project that was among the most affordable of the area's boom.
There have been casualties: The sandwich and pastry shop Cane á Sucre, and the adjacent wine bar Stop Miami at 35th Street and Northeast Second Avenue recently shut down.
''Between the road construction slowing down business and our landlord raising our rent to five times what we paid originally, we just couldn't keep it going,'' said Sinuhe Vega of Cane á Sucre. ``Maybe Target can hold on until things really start happening, but we couldn't.''
Six months after it opened, Target can still look deserted. So can West Elm, Circuit City and other stores at The Shops at Midtown, part of the 56-acre residential and retail development going up at Northeast Second Avenue and 36th Street.
Area residents, merchants and developers know they're involved in a waiting game, but those with deep pockets are more patient.
''The train has left the station,'' says Craig Robins, one
of the key players in the growth of South Beach and a developer of large portions of the Design District. ``We will have better moments and worse moments. But the city is finally becoming a city, and I don't think it can be stopped. When you achieve something as big as the performing arts center, and a short time later you are having conversations about Museum Park having the kind of world-class architecture that will even surpass the performing arts center, you know the city is on an unbelievable track.''
The regular folks, who are doing without neighborhood essentials, cheer the more prosaic stuff on the way. Like the Loehmann's, Foot Locker, PetSmart and other stores gearing to open at Shops at Midtown. At Cité, an Oxxo dry cleaners, Chicken Grill and Paul Anthony hair salon are expected soon, after delays related to flood-zone requirements.
In the Design District, plans are under way for at least four new restaurants, four condo buildings and an upscale independent-film theater with eight 50-seat screening rooms.
''Our concept is very urban,'' says Diego Rimoch, an owner of the Portland-based Living Room Theaters, which has taken over the iconic Living Room building, at 40th Street and North Miami Avenue. ``We looked at South Beach, but we didn't want to cater to tourists.''
Also focused on the mainland is Amir Ben-Zion, part owner of South Beach's hot Bond Street, Miss Yip and Buck 15. By fall he is expected to open a restaurant-lounge in an historic Post Office building in the Design District. Chef Jonathan Eismann, whose Pacific Time on Lincoln Road helped usher in the era of upscale dining on South Beach in the early 1990s, says he'll open an Italian restaurant in the former Picadilly space on Northeast 40th Street.
''I think the future of our city is there,'' Eismann says. ``The excitement is there. South Beach has become very commercial, very congested, very poisoned with The Gap and Victoria's Secret.''
Says Schwartz of Michael's: ``This side of the causeway feels like the Beach did 15 years ago. Rent is too expensive on the Beach, so customers get gouged there. What's going for $35 a foot here is going for $100 a foot on the Beach.''
Kim Coe, who soon will open Seo's Jewelry at the Shops at Midtown, has watched the area evolve since she moved there in 1970. She opened Kim's Valet, a dry cleaners at Biscayne and 51st Street, in 1985.
''In 1970 it was beautiful. There were not a lot of highrises. It was very quiet, no crime. Then in the mid '80s it got bad,'' says Coe, who lives at the Charter Club, an older building on Biscayne Bay at 36th Street. ``By the late '90s, some younger people started moving in. Now, even with all the [road] construction on Biscayne, my business went up, so that says something about what's happening.''
But even more important than all of that to Coe:
``Now we have Midtown Shops. Soon, I can walk over there for dinner and walk back. For years, we had nothing.''
But don't try to live without a car in Midtown just yet.
Kenny Trim, office manager for a Lincoln Road law firm, rents at the glossy new Blue at the foot of Julia Tuttle Causeway and takes the bus to work. By car, the commute would be a 10-minute zip. But sometimes Trim waits an hour for the bus. The ride, can take 45 minutes.
''I'm a refugee from the Beach, because it just got too expensive,'' Trim says. ``It's nice to live in a brand-new building with a great view, but . . . I can't even get a burger delivered.''
Miami Herald researcher Monika Leal contributed to this report