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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer; Photos by Silvia Ros   
August 2017

Once a seedy and dangerous thoroughfare, Miami’s 79th Street is looking up

MCoverShotark Zaslavsky laughs in disbelief when he recalls how he rode out Hurricane Andrew in his Russian fine foods store 25 years ago.

“We put some plywood on that window,” he says, pointing to the single window in the second-floor meeting room just above his Marky’s Gourmet Store at 685 NE 79th St. He buttressed the plywood with a two-by-four that he nailed in place. Although the hurricane ultimately made landfall in south Miami-Dade County, its powerful winds shook the building.

“I didn’t know if I was going to fly away,” says Zaslavsky, who emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1980 and opened Marky’s with his partner, Mark Gelman, in 1983. “I never experienced a hurricane before, so next time I won’t be here!”

After Andrew passed, looters pounced on 79th Street, but Zaslavsky says he remained in the store. With candles in every window, he sat quietly at the counter with a .38 revolver and a box of bullets in plain view. “Nobody robbed me,” he says.

The surrounding area was very different back then. Prostitutes and drug dealers weren’t uncommon on Biscayne Boulevard, area motels charged by the hour, and 79th Street was desolate and dangerous.

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But Zaslavsky and Gelman weathered the storm, and their business has grown, so much so that Zaslavsky is preparing to turn part of his 10,000-square-foot store into a gourmet delicatessen whose menu will include Beluga, Sevruga, and Sterlet caviar harvested from his sturgeon aqua farm in Bascom, some 80 miles northwest of Tallahassee. Zaslavsky hopes to open the new deli before the end of the year.

“I travel around the world to the best gourmet places, and I know what I want to do,” he says. “I want to do something exceptional.”

The deli concept is inspired by changes on 79th Street, Zaslavsky acknowledges. “It has changed quite a bit, for the better,” he says. “We don’t have walkers at night.”

Recently the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) completed an $8.1 million road project that added new medians, bike lanes, and crosswalks with flashing signals. But that’s not the only change. Real estate investors and developers are gravitating to the thoroughfare. And thanks to gentrification in other parts of Miami, small businesses are migrating to 79th Street in search of more affordable cheaper rents, especially to that section between Biscayne Boulevard and Biscayne Bay.


FCoverStory_2lorida State Road (SR) 934 is about 17 miles long from the Palmetto Expressway in Medley to Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. At its westernmost point, SR 934 is called NW 74th Street. In the east, intersecting Collins Avenue, it’s called 71st Street. But for most of its length, from the Hialeah racetrack to the eastern edge of North Bay Village, the road is named 79th Street.

At least 40,000 cars travel along 79th Street daily, says Frank Rollason, a Belle Meade homeowner and city manager of North Bay Village, in part because the road serves as a toll-free link for people who live in western Miami-Dade to reach Miami and the beaches.

“There are a lot of people who live in Hialeah and who travel 79th Street every day to [work at] the hotels,” Rollason says.

The areas 79th Street slices through are predominately working class. Around Hialeah Park Racing and Casino, in the 33010 ZIP code, the median household income in 2015 was $22,423 a year, according to the U.S. Census. In the 33141 ZIP code, which encompasses northern Miami Beach and North Bay Village, the median household income was $37,807. In the 33150 ZIP code between N. Miami Avenue and NW 12th Avenue, an area where used car dealerships are plentiful, the figure was $27,360.

The most affluent ZIP code 79th Street intersects is 33138, which lies between N. Miami Avenue and Biscayne Bay and encompasses parts of Miami’s Little River and Upper Eastside neighborhoods. Here the median annual household income was $40,920.

CoverStory_3Marky’s Gourmet Store is located in this zone -- 79th Street between Biscayne Boulevard and Biscayne Bay -- along with some bait shops, offices, and longtime businesses like Tim Freeman’s Frame Shop, which has operated on NE 79th Street since 1952. There are marinas and boat storage facilities, and a handful of abandoned buildings.

But the past decade has seen an influx of new blood that includes restaurants, spas, various service-oriented businesses, and the 22-story Shorecrest Club Apartments on Biscayne Bay. Mina Kuhn, a Realtor who has lived in Shorecrest for the past 12 years, says the new businesses have helped revitalize 79th Street.

“Personally, I think it’s great,” says Kuhn, vice president of the Shorecrest Homeowners Association. “There are all these restaurants within walking distance from Shorecrest.”

Some examples of the wave of restaurants and bars that have set up roots here since 2004: the Royal Bavarian Schnitzel Haus, one of the few German restaurants in Miami; Boteco, a popular Brazilian restaurant and bar that’s often packed during soccer matches; Mina’s Mediterraneo, a casual restaurant beloved by critics and locals alike; Tap 79 Gastropub and Firito Taco, a couple of spots opened by restaurateur Alfredo Patino; Antica Mare, Marco Betti’s upscale Italian restaurant overlooking the bay in the Shorecrest Club complex; and The Anderson, a restaurant and bar operated by the owners of Miami Beach’s Broken Shaker that now occupies the Magnum Lounge’s old space.

This past October, Igor Ferraro, the former general manager and executive chef at La Bottega restaurant in Coconut Grove, converted a former bait shop into a classy Italian restaurant called Ferraro’s Kitchen. And nine months ago, across the street from Ferraro’s in a circa-1959 office building, a pool hall called K&K Billiards opened for business.

More establishments are coming. Shuji Hiyakawa, a protégé of “iron chef” Masaharu Morimoto and owner of Dashi at River Yacht Club, wants to open a Japanese takeout spot called Wabi Sabi by Shuji at 851 NE 79th St.

Attorney Frantz Olivier intends to turn part of his one-story office complex (777 NE 79th St.) into a full-time jazz and R&B club. “I was here when nobody wanted to be here,” says Olivier, who bought the office complex in 1992 for $125,000. “The Biscayne-79th Street area was not a very savory place to be,” he remembers. “I could have bought this whole street if I’d had the funds.”

CoverStory_4Olivier says he’s always loved 79th Street and tells the BT that he was sure the high volume of traffic would eventually attract more interest from small businesses and developers. “My thing is, why wasn’t everybody trying to purchase properties along this street?” asks Olivier, who is also converting the former home of the nearby Little River Club, a 26-year-old Alcoholics Anonymous chapter, into a retail center. “I knew that this street would one day be developing.”

Mark Ingraham, an attorney who owns a small storefront at 853 NE 79th St. that includes his office and the future home of Wabi Sabi by Shuji, says he moved to the corridor when he was forced out of the Miami Design District about ten years ago.

“I was paying $12 a square foot at 4141 NE 2nd Ave., and when Design Within Reach came in, I was looking for a new place to set up shop,” he says. “I took a chance moving to 79th Street. But I lived in the neighborhood, and 79th Street made a lot of sense to me.”

The rising rents in the Design District, Wynwood, and a revived Biscayne Boulevard have caused many businesses to move to 79th Street in the Upper Eastside. “The rents are skyrocketing on Biscayne Boulevard and the MiMo District,” explains Ingraham. “They’re now at $50 and $60 a square foot. With the rents on 79th Street at $20 or $30 a square foot, it’s quite a bargain.”

Mario Ojeda, managing broker of Ojeda Lazar Real Estate, confirms the $20-$30 range. Ojeda himself recently opened an office at 740 NE 79th St.

The rates are different elsewhere, Ojeda adds. Between the railroad tracks and I-95, rents range from $8 to $12 a square foot. Along Kennedy Causeway in North Bay Village, the rates are around $30 a square foot. Further east, along 71st Street in North Beach, rents range from $35 to $55 a square foot.


MCoverStory_5idpoint Plaza, an 18-acre shopping plaza at the corner of 79th and Biscayne Boulevard with abundant free parking, is in a category all its own. Formerly known as Biscayne Plaza, the 58-year-old shopping center was bought by Global Fund Investments, headed by Doron Valero, for $12 million in March 2013. Valero put in another $4.5 million redeveloping the property, which included an existing two-story office building now branded as the Loft, and a 14,000-square-foot CVS. (Valero later sold the CVS building and the 1.4-acre corner to CVS Corporation for $9.8 million in February 2015.)

Within the renovated Midpoint are discount stores that had leased space in the old Biscayne Plaza. There’s a mix of new tenants, too, including YouFit gym, a custom Italian furniture design company called La Dolce Vita. Also coming soon, the Real Food Academy, a cooking school that’s currently located in Miami Shores. Valero won’t reveal his range of retail rents, but says, “We call it an income-producing property.” Ojeda estimates that it’s around $20 a square foot.

Valero, whose company owns 32 shopping centers in Florida and Texas, admits he bought Biscayne Plaza with the intention of building high-rises on it in the future. The land is currently zoned for high-rises up to 12 stories, or 179 feet, with bonuses. Valero could even pursue other zoning rights under the City of Miami’s Miami 21 zoning code since he controls in excess of nine acres.

“This is a big piece of land, and eventually it will be utilized for mixed-use high-rises and retail,” Valero says. “It’s just a question of when.”

Valero is enthusiastic about the future of the 12-story former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) building across the street from Midpoint Plaza. Left empty since 2008, when the federal agency moved out, the building was bought by Florida Fullview Immigration Company LLC for $12.5 million in November 2016. That company, headed by Chinese-Canadian businessman Leo Wu, aims to use money from Chinese investors to incorporate the building into Triton Center, a complex that will include 325 apartments, a 139-room Hilton Garden Inn, and 25,000 square feet of retail.

CoverStory_6Attempts to reach Triton’s developers, contractors, and architects for comment were unsuccessful. Mario Ojeda, though, says he recently spoke with Triton Center’s general contractors, who insist the project is moving forward. “They’re dealing with permitting stuff,” he says.

Besides its future zoning potential and proximity to the future Triton Center, Valero says he bought the shopping center because it is adjacent to a street that connects I-95 to the beaches. In his opinion, it’s the beaches, which include South Beach, affluent Bal Harbour, and high-rise laden Sunny Isles Beach, that are key to the 79th Street corridor’s eventual success.

“Wynwood would have never have happened if Miami Beach didn’t happen. In my opinion, [prosperity] goes from east to west. America started in the east and then west,” reasons Valero, who was born in Israel. “I think that rule applies here.”

Like Valero, property owner and attorney Mark Ingraham says he used to think that 79th Street’s revitalization would come from the east. Instead, he says, “What I’m seeing is development coming from the west side.” West of Biscayne Boulevard, businesses, artists, and developers are migrating to the Little Haiti and Little River neighborhoods. Ingraham cites developer Avra Jain’s and Matthew Vander Werff’s project to turn a 20-block warehouse area near NW 71st Street and N. Miami Avenue into the hip Little River/Miami district.

One major redevelopment project that may take soon take place on 79th Street west of the railroad tracks is the gutted, seven-story, skeletal remains of the former Bank of America building at the corner of NE 2nd Avenue.

Empty since being damaged by Hurricane Wilma in 2005, the 178,000-square-foot, 1973-era complex was sold out of foreclosure in 2012 for $2.5 million to Pedro Rodriguez, president of the Presidente supermarket chain, who planned to construct an affordable housing project and supermarket on the 2.5-acre site.

After Rodriguez hired construction crews to rip off the concrete walls, the land and structure were purchased by Avra Jain and Joe Del Vecchio for $6.2 million in March 2015. Then, in November 2016, Jain and Del Vecchio sold the property for $10 million to a team headed by Robert Daniels, one of the investors who converted a warehouse at NE 71st Street on the west side of the railroad tracks into an office and retail building called Rail 71.

Initially, it was announced that Daniels wanted to turn the giant skeleton into a live/work office complex. Now Delvin Marinoff, a real estate broker with Whitehall Realty Group who represents Daniels, says he’s not sure what the plans for the property will be.

Even if nothing happens at the former Bank of America building, Dave Shoaf, the 66-year-old patriarch of the family-owned Joe Blair Garden Supply at 320 NE 79th St., says conditions on the west side of the tracks are far better than they were in previous decades.


SCoverStory_7hoaf’s relationship with 79th Street goes back 89 years. In February 1928, Joe Blair, a Tennessean fond of wearing a top hat, grew tired of cold winters and decided he’d move to Miami and sell fertilizer and livestock feed to farmers. His wife warned him that if he went, he’d go without her. So Blair moved to Miami alone and opened his store a block away from its present location. Shoaf’s grandfather, Frank Baxter of Georgia, became Blair’s first employee. Years later, in the late 1940s, Blair sold his store to Baxter before returning home to Tennessee.

The year Blair opened his store was the year the 79th Street Causeway was completed. Its construction was lobbied and partially financed by Henri Levy, the first developer of North Beach’s Normandy Village along today’s 71st Street.

Antolin Carbonell, another local historian, says a coalition of Miami property owners called the Northeast Miami Improvement Association also pushed for the construction of a causeway as far back as 1925. Among the members willing to pay $8 a year in property assessments to finance the construction of the $765,000 causeway was T.A. Whitfield, the owner of an orange grove that would become Shorecrest.

A byproduct of the causeway’s initial construction were the spoil islands that would eventually become North Bay Village, says Paul George, HistoryMiami Museum historian and BT contributor. Only Cameo Island, later known as Broadcast Island after WIOD placed a radio tower there in 1926, existed prior to the causeway.

Those islands remained undeveloped until 1940, when more land was dredged to form North Bay Island adjacent to the causeway. The other two islands that would become North Bay Village, Harbor Island and Treasure Island, were formed soon after. In 1945 the four islands (including Cameo Island) along the causeway were officially incorporated as the City of North Bay Village.

CoverStory_8Today the 526-acre island municipality that surrounds the 79th Street Causeway (also known as John F. Kennedy Causeway), is renowned for its 360-degree views of the bay. It is home to a popular Benihana restaurant that has been operating from a Japanese-designed waterfront facility since 1973. Shuckers Bar and Grill , where diners eat and drink on a spacious waterfront deck with sweeping views, has been selling burgers, beer, and grilled wings since the late 1980s, even bouncing back from a freak deck accident back in June 2013 that sent 33 people to the hospital.

Back in the 1920s, though, there was no evidence that Hialeah’s founders, Glenn Curtiss and James Bright, had anything to do with the causeway’s construction. Still, the fact that the causeway connected Miami Beach to a road that led directly to their Miami Jockey Club was an added bonus, Carbonell says. In fact, Shoaf says Blair and his grandfather used to catch a bus to the racetrack at the nearby Little River Hotel.

Though surrounded by farmland, 79th Street and NE 2nd Avenue was already “a thriving downtown area” as early as 1925, Carbonell says. By the 1940s, the 79th Street area was the largest commercial district within the City of Miami, outside of downtown.

East of Biscayne Boulevard, 79th Street was taking on a marine character. During World War II, landing craft were manufactured on the south side of the street, says Carbonell. When the war ended, the landing craft establishments were taken over by private marinas and boat storage facilities utilizing the Little River canal.

By the 1950s and 1960s, much of an entertainment district known as the Tenderloin, where popular singers and musicians performed, migrated from South Beach to the 79th Street Causeway in North Bay Village. Singer Dean Martin even owned a restaurant on the causeway called Dino’s.

CoverStory_9The 79th Street Causeway wasn’t just a place for restaurants and clubs to see Frank Sinatra or Martin perform. Fun Fair opened at 1625 79th Street Causeway in the early 1950s. “It had the best hot dogs, pizza, burgers,” says Seth Bramson. “There was miniature golf, amusement, games. Everybody went there.” But nothing lasts forever. Fun Fair closed in 1981.

“On the Miami side [along 79th Street], there were a few terrific places,” Bramson adds. One of those places was Mike Gordon’s Seafood, just off 79th Street, right on the shoreline where the Shorecrest Club towers now stand. Started in 1946 as a bait shop, it evolved into a 300-seat restaurant. High-profile guests who ate there until it closed in 2002 included Sinatra, Dolphins coach Don Shula, and a host of local politicians.

But the 79th Street corridor was also a place for violence and prostitution, particularly in North Bay Village. “In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, there were a lot of organized crime figures hanging out on the causeway,” Paul George says.

In 1967, ten bombings took place along the 79th Street Causeway. One of those bombs exploded behind Happy’s Stork Lounge, knocking Anthony “Big Tony” Esperti’s girlfriend off her bar stool. “It was just a small bomb meant to frighten Esperti,” owner Berhardt “Happy” Goldlust told the Miami Herald in August 1982. (Goldlust died in 1993, soon after selling Happy’s Stork Lounge, which still operates into the wee hours.) That same year, on Halloween night, Esperti shot killed and rival mobster Thomas “the Enforcer” Altamura in the foyer of the popular causeway restaurant The Place for Steak.

It wasn’t so innocent in Miami, either. When the 12-story office building at Biscayne Boulevard and 79th Street was completed in 1962, its first occupant wasn’t the INS. (The agency wouldn’t move there until 1979.) It was Gulf American Corporation, a boiler-room operation that sold Florida swampland to naive investors for a community that was never built.

CoverStory_10And after Joe Blair’s Garden Supply moved to its present location in 1963, the Baxter-Shoaf family soon discovered that a pimp named Willie was running a “house of ill repute directly behind us,” Shoaf recalls. “Willie ran four girls out of a five-bedroom house. The police used to break down the door there once a week.”

By the 1980s, Shoaf says, “There were a lot of street walkers.” Some of the prostitutes, he adds, were transported to the area by Miami Beach cops after they were busted on Collins Avenue.

During this period, the 79th Street Hotel was an abandoned drug and hooker den -- until a cult run by Yahweh Ben Yahweh took it over in 1987. Area business owners welcomed the arrival of the Yahwehs, an Afro-centric religious sect whose members wore white robes. In 1990, Yahweh Ben Yahweh was convicted of racketeering and conspiring to murder more than a dozen people. (Yahweh died in May 2007.) Six years later the hotel was torn down and a Laundromat was built in its place.

It wasn’t a picnic on the east side of Biscayne Boulevard either during the 1980s and 1990s. “There was prostitution, drug addicts -- the neighborhood was melting down at the time,” says Derkis Sanchez, owner of Tim Freeman’s Frame Shop.

It got so chaotic that the Shorecrest neighborhood opted to seal itself off from 79th Street. In 1994, with the Miami City Commission’s blessings, Shorecrest homeowners barricaded all vehicular access points on the north side of 79th Street. (Besides deterring crime, they wanted to prevent commuters from speeding through their neighborhood.) Prior to the street closures, Miami police reported a 200 percent increase in robberies, 155 percent hike in auto theft, and a 72 percent jump in aggravated assaults between 1987 and 1994 in Shorecrest.


TCoverStory_11he rough conditions didn’t scare Mark Zaslavsky. He’d already immigrated, washed dishes, and cooked meals at a Miami International Airport restaurant, worked odd jobs, and tried running a small grocery store in North Beach when he teamed up with Mark Gelman to open a store they called Marky’s Gourmet Store in 1983 -- named after Zaslavsky’s dog, Marky.

Marky’s Gourmet Store was located at the same address it is today, but it wasn’t the same size. Marky’s was in a cramped, 800-square-foot space. The previous tenant had used the place to rebuild engines, and the floor was covered with grease. “The landlord offered six months’ free rent if we fixed it,” Zaslavsky says. “We fixed it in a week.”

Within ten years, Marky’s Gourmet Store occupied 75 percent of the retail center. By April 2001, Zaslavsky and Gelman bought the property for $90,000. At that time, 79th Street was still a depressed area.

Now things are looking up. Not that there aren’t some hiccups. Several Shorecrest residents still fume about the recent roadwork FDOT performed on NE 79th Street. Prior to the roadwork, there were two traffic lanes on 79th Street heading east toward the beaches and two lanes heading west toward I-95. This is in addition to the two westbound lanes on 82nd that wound through the Shorecrest residential neighborhood. After the roadwork, 79th Street had three lanes heading east and just one lane heading west. Shorecresters complain that the new configuration has only funneled more cars through their neighborhood, making it dangerous for them to leave their homes.

Kuhn of the Shorecrest Homeowners Association intends to lobby FDOT until the agency reconfigures 79th Street back the way it was, with two lanes east and two lanes west. “We will never give up,” she vows, “because 82nd Street is getting worse and worse.”

Some Shorecresters are wary of the increase in traffic that future development will bring. And it won’t be just at Midpoint Plaza. As noted, under current zoning, developers can build structures up to 12 stories, or 179 feet tall, between Biscayne Boulevard and I-95. On the east side of the Boulevard, future buildings can be up to eight stories, or 81 feet tall.

The Shoaf family may soon cash in on those development rights. They own the 11,563-square-foot plot of land where Joe Blair Garden Supply now stands. Dave Shoaf would rather not move, but his three adult children, who run the company, think they have outgrown the space. “We may need to find a larger place and go somewhere else,” he sighs.

And Zaslavsky says he’s already turned down several generous offers to buy his property. “This place will never be sold,” he promises. “Look, we started here. I’m not going to move from here.”

 

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