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Written by Margaret Griffis -- BT Contributor   
June 2013

A long-shuttered Design District icon finally is sold, fueling the neighborhood’s rebirth

A PowerStudios_1Design District building that once housed the iconic Power Studios has finally sold after a seven-year search for a buyer. The Chariff Realty Group picked up the property, at 3711 NE 2nd Ave., for $8 million, with plans to demolish the old structure and replace it with a new, 19,000-square-foot, mixed-use building.

For the thousands of patrons who once partied the night away at Power Studios, its quiet ghost sat empty for too many years, a reminder that good times, like youth, don’t last forever. For the neighborhood, however, the empty shell also stood as a warning that, if youth doesn’t last forever, neither does a good business atmosphere.

The brainchild of Ross Power, Power Studios brought a much-needed, eclectic mix of nightclub, restaurant, gallery, and performance spaces to a neighborhood that, in the late 1980s, was just beginning to awaken from a long nightmare. The new complex promises to continue what Power began, if in a different format.

Ross Power moved to South Florida from Laguna Beach, California, in 1988. He had created the world’s first underwater gallery in Key Largo three years earlier, and had fallen in love with the area. Although Power liked South Beach, he foresaw its quick transformation from a funky, inexpensive artists’ colony back into the overpriced playground for tourists it had once been. He needed to find an alternate location that would cater to his artistic needs, a place where he could remain “engaged with the community,” while “reaching out to an international clientele not based on tourism.”

During the 1980s, the Design District was decrepit. Artists, musicians, and other misfits too poor even for run-down South Beach were drawn there and into adjacent neighborhoods. At night, the Fire and Ice nightclub, just a block from the future Power Studios, at 3841 NE 2nd Ave., was the one place that provided refuge from the seediness. Mostly, though, the district was a quilt of empty buildings and dying businesses ready to turn to dust.

PowerStudios_2 PowerStudios_3

The Design District, however, fit Power’s vision, and perhaps no other business in the area followed the arc of the neighborhood’s recovery so closely as Power Studios.

In 1989, Power purchased the sprawling 1925 building for $90,000, a ridiculously small sum in retrospect. At first, it almost seemed that Power Studios, like the neighborhood, was pieced together with shoelaces and chewing gun. Code violations were chronic, and the business was always in danger of being permanently shut down.

Still, it managed to attract large crowds to a kind of cultural three-ring circus in multiple rooms and on several stages: poetry readings, film screenings, acoustic performers, plugged-in rockers, the Poetry Café restaurant, several indoor and outdoor bars on different levels. Thanks to its exponentially growing popularity, and Ross Power’s new partnership with Miami Beach impresario David Wallack (the man behind Mango’s Tropical Café on Ocean Drive), Power Studios was able to resolve its code issues through extensive and pricey renovations in 2000.

PowerStudios_4Again, as the neighborhood went, so followed Power Studios (or was it vice versa?). The clientele had shifted dramatically and now included some of the biggest players in Miami. Gloria and Emilio Estefan filmed a music video at the facility, and Gianni Versace even had what would be his final catalogue photographed there, using Power’s son Pablo as a model. (Pablo also painted the outdoor mural on the façade.)

However, it all came at the expense of the less-moneyed local artists and musicians. What had happened to South Beach ten years earlier was now happening in the Design District. Perhaps the loss of that engagement is why its star began to fade, and eventually the Studios powered down. By 2006, the building was listed for sale, staying in limbo, on and off, until this year.

Although no one is willing to say for certain, a deteriorating relationship between partners Power and Wallack appears to be the reason Power Studios was actively marketed again last fall. Wallack says he is mostly sad about letting the business go and that “Power Studios was an incredible work of kinetic art. However, the cost of saving it was enormous.” Wallack adds that it will remain “a bittersweet memory that will never be re-created.”

Tony Cho, president and CEO of Metro 1 Properties, the listing agent for the property, says they had many potential deals over the years, but the buyers always seemed to walk away at the last minute. With prices rebounding in the Design District and a “change in motivation” on the part of the sellers, now was the time to finally let it go. Cho says he got a very good deal for Power and Wallack.

The buyer feels the same way. Lyle Chariff of the Chariff Realty Group was once a patron of Power Studios and had kept an eye on the property. (His own office is just four blocks north on NE 2nd Avenue.) He asserts that he was never interested in owning it until about two months ago. During a lunch meeting at Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink (within easy walking distance of Power Studios), he ran into a fellow developer who wanted to pick his brain about the property.

PowerStudios_5

What unfolded almost sounds like a Hollywood script. “I went back to the table,” Chariff recalls, “and started to share the conversation with [partner and friend] Shawn Chemtov. Shawn looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t we buy it?’ We literally got a napkin and a pen and we started to work the numbers. Before we got up from the table, we had a verbal agreement with Tony [Cho], and we said we would have a contract to him within the hour. It was crazy.”

Crazy, perhaps, but the numbers worked. Chariff is already looking for the right mix of tenants for the new space, though he does admit he prefers dry goods to a restaurant or nightclub. Also, as a Morningside resident, he feels he has the right amount of sensitivity to the needs of the Design District and Biscayne Corridor: “We’ve been here and we’re not looked at as if we’re these horrible developers trying to take over the area. We’re trying to be neighborly.”

As for the structure itself, Chariff isn’t waiting. He’s already brought in what he calls a “dream team” to put together “a world-class, award-winning design building.” Included in the conversation are Touzet Studio, Donald Kipnis, and Plaza Construction.

Meanwhile, Ross Power has been busy relocating his home to Vero Beach, which he calls the “Hamptons of Miami.” Now that he’s been liberated from the burden of the old space, he maintains that he is “ready for the phoenix to rise and for Power Studios to come back again” at a new location, with new partners -- but still in Miami.

“One of the things I like about Miami is that it’s so eclectic and global,” he says. “That’s the one thing nobody else has got. That’s why I’m not going anywhere.”

 

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