The Biscayne Times

Jul 21st
On the Menu: Higher Prices, Fewer Locals PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer; Photos by Silvia Ros   
October 2018

In Little River, progress comes with a cost

Developers are looking at Miami’s Little River neighborhood and seeing the future: It is pricey

TCOVER_SHOT_09182018_sherwood_0066he McKenna brothers, Matt and Sean, say business is good.

Open since October 2017, their Imperial Moto Café is a unique spot, where customers can buy an espresso, eat a tasty Danish, and order a custom-built motorcycle.

“How many motorcycle-coffee shops are out there?” asks Matt McKenna, an 18-year resident of the Bayside neighborhood in Miami’s Upper Eastside. He dreamed of the concept soon after selling his South Beach business, Redfish Media, to a telecommunications company. Matt was so confident of success that he persuaded his brother Sean, who builds custom motorcycles, to move from Boston to Miami.

“My brother loves coffee, I love coffee,” Sean tells the BT. “I love motorcycles. He loves motorcycles. So he thought the two go together.”

But Matt McKenna didn’t open Imperial Moto Café in popular neighborhoods like Wynwood, Edgewater, or downtown Miami. Nor did he pick Allapattah, the industrial area west of I-95 being pounced on by developers like Robert Wennett, Mera Rubell, and Moishe Mana.

Instead, he picked a former auto repair shop at 7299 NW 2nd Ave. in Little River, between the train tracks and St. Mary’s Cathedral School, in an area filled with warehouses, aging apartment buildings, and single-family homes. It’s also within the 33150 ZIP code, where the median household income is just $26,033 a year. Nevertheless, both brothers say business is steadily improving.

“It’s been great,” says Sean McKenna. “Every day we get new people in here, which is nice to see. A lot of it is word of mouth.”

Still, Sean is somewhat mystified as to why his brother chose a spot in the middle of urban nowhere. “He looked at all the areas and he took a liking to this place,” Sean says. “I don’t know what exactly attracted him here. There’s nothing really here.”

Actually, there is, Matt explains: the promise of something more. “The neighborhood is changing by the minute,” he says.

CoverStory_1_LEAD_09182018_little_river_0080Indeed, developers are flocking to Little River, a neighborhood within the City of Miami’s officially designated Little Haiti region that’s roughly bound by NE 4th Avenue on the east, NW 7th Avenue on the west, 62nd Street on the south, and the winding Little River waterway to the north.

It’s within this area that warehouses are being converted into retail office centers, older retail plazas are being renovated, and at least one MiMo-era Little River office building has been converted into a quirky office space for startups.

There are some fairly big projects, too. At 7924 NE 2nd Ave., the skeleton of a massive seven-story building that once housed a Bank of America is being transformed after a long fallow period. A few blocks away, at 8300 NE 2nd Ave., a building renamed the Citadel is in the final stages of renovation. When complete, it will contain, among other businesses, the new Miami headquarters for Entercom Communications, a company that owns 235 radio stations across the United States, including seven in South Florida.

Yet these projects pale in comparison to a proposed 7.8-million-square-foot miniature city that a team of developers want to build on 17 acres of land between NE 60th Street and NE 64th Street, and NE 2nd Avenue and the FEC railroad tracks. Dubbed the Magic City Innovation District after the former Magic City Trailer Park, the project could include up to 2670 apartments in buildings up to 25 stories high, as well as retail, office, and education components. As of deadline, the project’s approval by the Miami City Commission is still pending.

This new development wave has provided space for small businesses at affordable rates, yet it has also sped up the displacement of Haitian residents and small-business owners throughout the Little Haiti area, including Little River.

“Gentrification, it’s right here in front of my door,” says Jean Mapou, a prominent Haitian activist and longtime owner of Libreri Mapou bookstore at 5919 NE 2nd Ave., just a block away from the proposed Magic City Innovation District.

TCoverStory_2_09182018_imperial_moto_0071hings are moving more slowly in the west part of Little River, where Imperial Moto Café is situated. The café is in the charcoal section of an otherwise blue building owned by Little River Miami Investments LLC. The company was started in July 2014 by developer Avra Jain. Six months later, real estate investor Matthew Vander Werff was listed as Little River Miami Investments LLC’s co-manager, according to the state’s Division of Corporations.

It was through that company and other business subsidiaries that Vander Werff and Jain bought warehouses, vacant parcels, single-family homes, and apartment buildings between NW 71st Street and NW 76th Street, and N. Miami Avenue and NW 3rd Avenue.

The industrial-residential area near the ornate Cathedral at St. Mary’s church and school was already home to the shared art space Fountainhead Studios, a spacious Fast Twitch training center, and various storage facilities, private offices, warehouse churches, and car repair shops.

But Vander Werff and Jain sought to create an arts district with more galleries, restaurants, bars, salons, and various startups. It is called Little River//Miami, the forward slashes representing the train tracks (see “Northward Ho!” May 2015).

To create their ambitious district, the pair invested approximately $15 million in property acquisition alone, according to online records the BT surveyed at the Miami-Dade Property Appraiser’s website. And today, Little River Miami Investments LLC controls at least eight acres of land, much of it non-contiguous, in western Little River.

But Avra Jain is no longer part of Little River Miami Investments LLC. After she and Vander Werff tried to buy out each other’s interest in the company, Jain sued Vander Werff in April 2016, demanding he sell his shares to her. Her suit was settled two months later. Jain declined to comment for this story, citing a confidentiality agreement.

LIttleRiver_mapVander Werff is now listed as the principal of Little River Miami Investments LLC. According to court records, he shares ownership in the company with his wife, Ashley Abess, daughter of former banker and real estate investor Leonard Abess.

Since the Jain/Vander Werff split, new businesses have opened up in Little River//Miami, including the second location of Manhattan-based Marie Robinson Hair Salon, a TenOverSix clothing boutique, and art galleries, art studios, and offices.

Aaron Mapp Collectible Furniture and Interior Design and artist Alexandre Arrechea’s studio are Imperial Moto’s next-door neighbors. And for the past couple of years, contractors have been laboring on Our/Miami vodka distillery, part of the Swedish Our/Vodka franchise, at 7401 NW Miami Pl.

But the anticipated opening of a pizzeria run by hipster restaurateurs and chefs from New York and Los Angeles never materialized. Nor did the creation of a craft cocktail lounge. Foot traffic in Little River//Miami is minimal.

“It’s nice and quiet here,” says Bill Brady, owner of Bill Brady Gallery at 90 NW 72nd St., open by appointment. Not that Brady is worried. His customers come to him. So too do the customers of all the businesses that operate in Little River//Miami.

James Meder, co-owner of Fast Twitch, says his 15,000-square-foot gym and training facility at 7400 NW Miami Ct. is doing just fine, thanks to a steady clientele that includes athletes, models, and housewives. “We’d love to see something come up in this area,” he says, “but we’re not going to sit back and be dependent on it.”

ICoverStory_4_04252015_little_river_0272n an e-mail reply to written questions from the BT, Matthew Vander Werff contends that Little River//Miami continues to evolve. “Our plan is to keep nurturing the neighborhood,” he writes. “We’re encouraging a mix of tenants -- stores, cafés, local businesses, artists, and independent restaurants -- to be a part of the neighborhood.”

And more businesses are coming, he adds. “We have an exciting mix of creative people and businesses moving in. These range from a well-known contemporary artist and a flower shop to a maker space and an urban ecology center.”

Some new arrivals own their own land. Veteran Miami artist Carlos Betancourt intends to build his studio in Little River//Miami on a 5940-square-foot lot with a small house at 115 NW 73rd St. that he and architect Alberto Latorre bought from Vander Werff and Jain back in November 2014 for $60,000.

“We enjoy being between the residential and commercial zone of the neighborhood, as it is quietly vibrant and dynamic,” Betancourt writes in an e-mail to the BT, adding: “There are many families in the area as well as artists. The [St. Mary’s Cathedral] church and school around the corner add to the culture of the area, and we enjoy peeking in when there’s a wedding or Sunday service.”

Also coming to Little River//Miami territory is a trio of artists running Primary Projects in the Design District: Books Bischof, Cristina Gonzalez, and Typoe Gran. They’re putting up a two-story building on a 5500-square-foot lot at 7410 NW Miami Ct. that Bischof and Gonzalez bought for $124,000 in August 2015. Gonzalez offered no details on what they intend to build there. “We truly appreciate your interest but we are not ready to speak on the project at this time,” she tells the BT.

According to multiple sources, Dennis Scholl, CEO of the nonprofit ArtCenter/South Florida, surveyed Little River//Miami properties just three months ago. Following the sale of the ArtCenter’s 800 Lincoln Road building in South Beach for $88 million in October 2014, the group has been looking for a new home.

“We’re looking at many different options and haven’t made a decision as of yet,” Scholl says in an e-mail to the BT.

Duvertan Deus has operated the Duvertan Deus Body Shop at 51 NW 71st St. for 38 years. He says the neighborhood has become safer and cleaner since Vander Werff came into the area. “Before, you cannot stand here,” laughs Deus. “In two minutes, you’d get mugged. Now you are free.”

But Deus doubts that this part of Little River will take off immediately. “It’s not easy to change this area. You have to give it time, piece by piece,” he says. “Five more years, ten more years before it becomes like a Miami Beach, like a Wynwood.”

But elsewhere in Little River, investment is at fever pitch.

LCoverStory_5_09182018_fast_twitch_0047ittle River sprouted from Lemon City, a farming settlement established roughly north of today’s 54th Street back in the late 19th century. By the early 1900s, the northern part of Lemon City became known as Little River, after the adjacent waterway. Neither Lemon City nor Little River ever incorporated, and in 1925 both were annexed by the City of Miami.

During the pre-World War II years, these communities evolved much like Miami’s neighborhoods further south -- as places where people lived, shopped, and worked within relative walking distance, says Sonia Chao, an associate professor at the University of Miami’s School of Architecture.

In Little River, houses and apartments were built near warehouses and manufacturing, enabling employees to live near their jobs. That included workers at the McArthur Dairy Plant, established in 1929 at 6851 NE 2nd Ave., which is still in operation.

“You can see that there was this connection,” Chao says. “I can walk to my job at the McArthur plant, go the supermarket on NE 2nd Avenue, and then walk home, and public transportation got me to other places.”

By the 1960s, as the white middle class migrated to the suburbs, Lemon City and Little River fell into decline. Working-class immigrants moved in. By the 1970s, many of those working-class immigrants were Haitians. Middle-class Haitians soon followed, opening offices, stores, and restaurants. Among these was Viter Juste, an entrepreneur and activist who published Miami’s first Creole-language newspaper and opened its first Haitian record store, Les Cousins, in Little River at 7830 NE 2nd Ave.

It was Juste who championed the creation of a “Little Haiti” neighborhood that included Little River (see “Names Matter,” January 2014). The place name stuck, which has frustrated some developers in recent years who wanted to promote the older names of Lemon City and Little River for the neighborhoods in which they were investing. (Racial overtones in the debate have added tension to the frustration.)

Haitian activists, though, won a victory of sorts in May 2016, when the Miami City Commission created an official Little Haiti neighborhood, a district that stretched as far south as NE 54th Street and covers most of Little River. Still, that’s actually small compared to the area real estate analysts and economists call Little Haiti, which can stretch as far south as NE 36th Street, encompassing the Design District and Buena Vista.

CoverStory_6_09182018_little_river_0033Edward “Ned” Murray, associate director of Florida International University’s Metropolitan Center, says the spark to redevelop Little River started further south, in the Wynwood area. It was there, back in 2003, that the city approved zoning that enabled New York real estate developers to transform the Buena Vista Rail Yard into the compact, pedestrian-friendly urban area known as Midtown Miami (see “Like a Rocket,” April 2012).

This fueled more investment in the rest of Wynwood, a predominately Puerto Rican enclave filled with warehouses that was quickly evolving into an arts district. “Homes in Wynwood were valued at around $100,000. But within a few years after Midtown was built [in 2006], those same properties were selling for $300,000 and $400,000,” Murray says.

But it wasn’t just Midtown Miami that acted as a catalyst. Tony Goldman, a developer known for revitalizing Manhattan’s SoHo, Philadelphia’s Midtown Village, and South Beach, bought swathes of land in Wynwood in the early 2000s. By 2008, he persuaded the City of Miami to approve a café district with 25 liquor licenses within 14 square blocks.

From a warehouse area that was only active during monthly art walks, Wynwood rapidly grew into a neighborhood of bars, restaurants, stores, and offices. And north of NE 36th Street, Craig Robins singlehandedly had been steadily redeveloping the Design District since the 1990s. By 2011, he was partnering with the luxury goods company LVMH, leading the transformation of the Design District into a luxury shopping mecca.

Today Wynwood’s artistic atmosphere has been replaced by mixed-use buildings. Retail prices in the once affordable arts district now range between $40 and $100 per square foot, according to a 2017 Cushman & Wakefield retail report. In the Miami Design District, retail rates range between $60 and $300 per square foot.

NCoverStory_7_09182018_little_river_0101o longer able to make ends meet, some artists and small-business owners began migrating north toward Little Haiti. Others moved just west of Wynwood to Allapattah, a working-class neighborhood that includes the Jackson Hospital-anchored health district and its own warehouses, a trend that has prompted local media outlets to call the region the “new Wynwood.”

Rents there for an industrial warehouse range between $8 and $12 per square foot, says Steve Rhodes, a developer who, since the 1990s, has renovated multiple properties in Miami, including in Allapattah and Little River.

Real estate investors, in search of deals more affordable than the $1000 per square foot being charged for some Wynwood buildings, headed for Allapattah. Among them: Robert Wennett, developer of 1111 Lincoln Road in South Beach, who wants to build a 1.4-million-square-foot community near the Santa Clara Metrorail Station.

“Allapattah has a very strong future because it has the size to do massive redevelopment,” Rhodes says.

While Allapattah’s warehouses are generally large, those in Little River come in a variety of sizes. A no-frills warehouse facility also rents at the same rates as in Allapattah, at under $12 a square foot, which is what attracted artists to Little River.

But now, thanks to upgrades made by developers, many spaces in Little River are renting per square foot in the low $20s. That’s too high for the average artist, but just right for a company startup or a showroom, Rhodes observes.

Incidentally, it’s the greater Little Haiti region, including Little River, that was deemed South Florida’s “hottest” neighborhood by Zillow in 2017, after home prices rose 4.6 percent from the year before. Commercial properties have gone up 130 percent in the past five years, from $78 a square foot in 2013 to $206 a square foot in 2018, says Gerard Yetming, executive vice president of Colliers International.

CoverStory_8_09202018_simple_solution_0026Because most of Little River is east of I-95, it’s a more desirable location for developers than Allapattah, argues Seth Gadinsky, a real estate developer advising Vander Werff in Little River//Miami and converting the Rader Memorial United Methodist Church in El Portal, just north of Little River, into a retail complex. “[Allapattah] is on the other side of the highway. That’s a physical and psychological barrier. They [real estate investors] want to stay east of I-95,” Gadinsky asserts.

Chao of UM points out that developers are migrating to places with higher elevations like Little River owing to concerns over sea level rise, which, according to scientists, will eventually submerge much of South Florida.

“Developers are making different choices today than they did ten years ago,” Chao says. “You also have other stress factors. Because of the fact that we’re reaching our urban development boundary on the west side of the county, we’re now seeing there’s more attention and growth and infill that’s starting to occur within the city.”

Then there’s the trend of people moving away from the suburbs where Euclidean zoning divided up land use into “single-purpose” areas, forcing people to drive in order to work or shop, Chao says. In contrast, Little River’s grid encourages commercial and residential uses to be in close proximity, allowing people to walk to the corner store.

Paula Rienti, project coordinator for the Morgan Reed Group, says it’s actually the roads that drew her boss, the developer Robert Danial, to Little River. “You have main arteries crossing through it,” Rienti explains. That allows easy access to the area from those living in nearby places like El Portal, Miami Shores, the Upper Eastside, and even Miami Beach.

DCoverStory_9_09202018_leo_cleaner_0014anial began investing in Little River properties in 2014, when he and other investors, including Avra Jain and Metro 1 Properties president Tony Cho, paid $9.3 million for 3.7 acres of land and a 130,000-square-foot warehouse at the junction of the Florida East Coast railroad tracks and NE 71st Street, just west of Palm Grove. Two years later, the warehouse was converted into Rail 71, a fully leased commercial building that includes the popular vegetarian eatery Rail 71 Café, the microbeer brewery Bousa, and the fine cheese and grass-fed meat product store Gaucho Ranch.

That’s just one of the “rail” warehouse projects near the train tracks that Danial is involved with. The Morgan Reed Group is transforming another large warehouse, which Danial and New York investor Carl Schroder purchased three years ago for $3.8 million, into another retail center called Rail Too. And the Morgan Reed Group will be redeveloping a string of warehouse properties at NE 73rd Street and NE 2nd Avenue, purchased by Danial for $1.9 million in February 2014.

But by far the Morgan Group’s most noticeable project will be the former Bank of America building at 7924 NE 2nd Ave., a 178,000-square-foot building on a three-acre lot that Danial purchased from Jain and her partner Joe Del Vecchio for $10 million in November 2016. A gigantic structure easily seen by anyone driving along 79th Street, Paula Rienti says $12 million is being spent to turn it into a co-living/co-working space with flex retail on the bottom floor. Once completed, the building will be called the Little River Center.

Also in 2016 and a few blocks away, the Urban Atlantic Group headed by Nick Hamann spent $5.2 million buying four buildings at NE 2nd Avenue and 82nd Street. The aforementioned Citadel at 8300 NE 2nd Ave. is the largest of the four structures and will include a food hall and rooftop lounge/meeting space, and is slated to open this Thanksgiving. In an e-mail to the BT, Hamann states that the Citadel will be a “gathering place for great artisanal food, shopping, and creative workspaces.”

The building across the street from the Citadel is already up and running. Called MADE at the Citadel, it’s funky shared-office space for freelancers, artists, and startups. Daniel Macadar says he moved his tech business, Simple Solutions, two and a half years ago from Biscayne Boulevard to MADE at the Citadel “mainly for cost reasons.” He stuck around because he and his growing team of employees like the vibe.

“It’s more of a local community,” Macadar says. “No one comes here, rents, and leaves. It’s not like a Wynwood or a downtown. It’s more local.”

Those locals don’t necessarily reside in Little River, but other parts of the Biscayne Corridor.

Nico Julio, the manager of Sherwoods Bistro at 8281 NE 2nd Ave., notes that most of the customers who come to eat and have drinks at the extensively renovated space (it used to be a health clinic) come from El Portal, Miami Shores, Biscayne Park, and North Bay Village. “They’re not predominately Haitian or Creole-speaking people,” he says.

Haitians do frequent Haitian-owned restaurants and shops that still operate on this part of NE 2nd Avenue. But the number of those Haitian-owned businesses has recently been reduced.

Thomas Conway, a former partner in the MADE at the Citadel venture, bought two shopping centers -- located at 8200 NE 2nd Ave. and 201 NE 82nd St. -- for $6.3 million this past March. After that, according to a report from WLRN-FM, Conway didn’t accept the rental checks from more than a dozen Haitian-owned businesses. Instead, he gave them 30 days to relocate. In spite of protests, those businesses are all gone except for a Metro PCS phone store.

“He kicked them out. It was full of people. It had two churches. A lot of offices. Accountants. All Haitian-owned,” says Leo Jean, a Little River resident who has operated a dry cleaner at 82nd Street and NE 2nd Avenue since 2002. Prior to their departure, Jean says, this part of NE 2nd Avenue attracted Haitian customers throughout the day and night. Now, Jean adds, the street is often dead by sundown. Jean also blames the loss of business on a county road construction project that has torn up the street for close to a year. “I used to make $1500 every week,” he says. As soon as they ‘fixed this,’ I make $200 a week.”

Conway insists he wants to bring improvements, not misery, to the NE 2nd Avenue corridor. “My intention was not to displace anybody -- rather it was to breathe fresh air and life to properties that have been neglected for some time,” he tells the BT.

Conway says the newly renovated plazas, which he’s renaming Ebb and Flow, will cater to local retailers and craftsmen. As for the Haitian businesses that once occupied those retail plazas, he says, “Anybody that was here is welcome back.”

Once back, those retailers will likely be paying higher rents. While the rent within a converted warehouse can be around $20 a square foot, the going rate for a newly renovated “straight-up” retail plaza can be as high as $40 a square foot, says real estate consultant Seth Gadinsky.

It isn’t just businesses that are being displaced. Older yet affordable apartment buildings are being purchased and demolished by investors. At the same time, Haitian homeowners in Little Haiti and Little River are being hounded by real estate agents to sell their homes, says Marleine Bastien, executive director of Family Action Network Movement.

“They’re being pressured to sell their homes,” Bastien says. “The psychological war that has been unleashed against them is unfair. They should not feel that they have to sell.”

All these factors are making it more expensive for current area residents to remain. According to a December 2015 FIU Metropolitan Center report on the Little Haiti region, 46 percent of the population lives below the poverty level. Additionally, those with the lowest median incomes tend to live north of 62nd Street in Little River.

Bastien fears this displacement trend will continue at an even greater rate if mega projects like the Magic City Innovation District and others are approved. “These projects will change the face of Little Haiti,” she says.

Bob Zangrillo, one of the partners in the Magic City Innovation District, says his project will be implemented in phases and will provide educational facilities, jobs, and some affordable and workforce housing units. With the exception of a proposed 12-story residential/office tower at NE 59th Street and 2nd Avenue, built by Motorsports Network owner Mike Zoi, Zangrillo says it will be years before any other high-rises are built. If, that is, the Magic City Innovation plan is approved at all.

In the meantime, Zangrillo says he and his partners have been renovating warehouses they own near the former Magic City Trailer Park, providing space for tech companies and other ventures. Three such office renovation projects will be completed in Little River at NE 64th Street and 2nd Avenue by 2019.

“What we’re trying to do is renovate abandoned warehouses to adaptive reuse, to bring in innovation and jobs,” Zangrillo says.

Activists, though, are demanding that future major projects like the Magic City Innovation District provide something that will allow at least some local residents who are being displaced to return, somehow.

“There’s not much we can do about gentrification except we have to get involved, participate in it, and get whatever profit we can get,” says Jean Mapou. “Not as individuals, but as a community.”


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