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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
February 2019

Someone is buying up downtown Miami

Moishe Mana has a vision for transforming downtown Miami into a vibrant, creative community, but taxes and Trump are giving him second thoughts

JCover Shotust over a year ago, Rafael Vargas Bernard journeyed from Puerto Rico to Miami to start an art residency at the 777 International Mall Building.

“It was just me and Borscht,” remembers Bernard, who creates art sculptures using computer sensors, “and it just grew from there.”

The three-story 777 International Mall Building at 145 E. Flagler St. was a movie theater when it was built in 1947. It was turned into a mini shopping center in the early 1980s. Then in December 2017, during Art Basel, the building began a new chapter as an arts center with a second name: Mana Contemporary Miami. In addition to Borscht Corp., which produces award-winning films, Mana Contemporary Miami houses nonprofit groups like Bas Fisher International, LIZBO Arts and Culture Center, and Bookleggers Library. Another 15 artists occupy studio and exhibition spaces on the second and third floors. Sometime this month, the New World School of the Arts is expected to lease 4000 square feet for 70 students.

And Bernard is still at the 777 International, as a resident artist and the co-manager of Mana Contemporary Miami.

“Monday through Friday we have the gates open from 11:00 a.m. until about 7:00 p.m.,” he says. “People can come in, meet the artists, and see what people are doing. But every third Saturday of every month, we open up to the public with performances, installations, workshops, conferences, and a little bit of experimental and punk rock music.”

CoverStory_1More artists are clamoring for a spot in Mana Contemporary, too. “In about a year, we are definitely going to have to expand,” Bernard says, “because there’s a need for affordable space, especially downtown artist studios, and a place where [artists] can present their work outside of Art Week. It’s a big need.”

Bernard’s boss, Moishe Mana, has plenty of property in the surrounding area to fulfill some of that need. A somewhat eccentric 62-year-old Israeli American businessman, Mana’s net worth was estimated to be $1.1 billion by Bloomberg back in the fall of 2016.

Since 2010, Mana, who has created large collaborative art spaces in New York City, Jersey City, and Chicago, has been buying properties in South Florida. He has a 40-acre fiefdom in Wynwood, where he aspires to build a 10 million-square-foot community that will include a free trade zone for businesspeople from Latin America and Asia, as well as schools, retail stores, hotels, parks, and multifamily buildings with tiny apartments (often called micro-units) that are affordable enough for artists and young millennials.

Mana is also a major landlord in downtown Miami. By his own estimate, Mana

has invested $350 million buying 45 properties in the Central Business District, a four-square-mile area sandwiched between Bayside Marketplace and the neighborhoods of Brickell, Little Havana, Park West, and Omni. Many of those parcels happen to be along Flagler Street, the Central Business District’s main thoroughfare.

In an interview with the BT, Mana acknowledges that he likes collecting buildings. “Sometimes I wonder myself if I’m just like a shopaholic,” he muses. “Like women will go buy bags, I like to buy buildings.”

But Mana insists there’s a goal in mind: He wants to buy enough property to turn Flagler Street and the rest of the CBD into a sustainable creative community that will complement what he wants to develop in Wynwood.

“I like Cinderella, and Flagler is Cinderella,” he explains. “Cinderella, you put a nice dress on it, and it’s not Cinderella anymore. She’s like a supermodel.”

At times, though, Mana doesn’t seem so sure when he’ll be taking his Cinderella to the ball.


MCoverStory_2any of the landmark buildings on Flagler Street were built prior to World War II. There’s the city-owned Olympia Theater at the Gusman that was originally developed as a venue for silent movies and vaudeville acts, and which is still awaiting an extensive façade renovation. There’s the crumbling 91-year-old Miami-Dade County Courthouse that county officials are trying to replace before it implodes following years of inadequate maintenance and mold infiltration. And there’s the Alfred I. duPont Building, a revamped 80-year-old skyscraper with a large former bank vault that’s now used for parties and wedding receptions. The Seybold Building, built in 1922, continues to anchor one of the largest jewelry districts in the United States. Just off Flagler Street, on the corner of SE 1st Street, developer Daniel Peña-Giraldi turned the 94-year-old National Bank Building into the luxury boutique Langford Hotel.

Not everything built on or near Flagler Street was constructed prior to the 1940s. The 55-story 50 Biscayne condominium on the corner of Flagler and Biscayne Boulevard was finished in 2005. Next door to the Langford Hotel is the 36-story, 352-unit Centro Condominium. Completed in 2016, Centro has no on-site parking, and its units range between 500 and 1100 square feet in size.

Here, among this collection of old and new structures, there are still numerous small businesses like mom-and-pop restaurants, cafeterias, shops, shoe repair stores, convenience stores, currency changers, electronics shops, and perfume wholesalers.

Another common sight: empty storefronts. The most prominent example is the massive, 72,000-square-foot Macy’s building that’s flanked by Flagler Street, Miami Avenue, and SE 1st Street. Vacant since 2016 and adjacent to a Metromover station, its covered sidewalks provide a campground for the homeless.

The spaces in most of the buildings that Mana owns (a notable exception being the 777 International Mall) are either empty or still have small businesses operating in them. The empty storefronts he owns tend to be marked with blue tape that says “Mana Contemporary” or “Mana Mass.”

CoverStory_3Within a year, Eugene Lemay, the president of Mana Contemporary, plans to open a string of restaurants and galleries across the street from the old Macy’s building, in the empty storefronts along SE 1st Street. He’s even got a name for it: Gallery Row.

At the same time that Lemay will be establishing Gallery Row, he’ll also be spearheading the redevelopment of a 14-story office building Mana owns at 155 S. Miami Ave. The fifth floor, Lemay explains, is already being prepared for “three major tech companies.” As for the other floors, Lemay says he wants to reserve each for a specific function.

“One floor is a theater,” he continues. “One floor is a game room. Each floor has an activity. And each floor has a profession....We want people going to the [different] floors.” The lobby, Lemay adds, will be transformed into a “concept store with a coffee shop.” And somewhere within the 155 S. Miami Ave. building there will be a school. Lemay declines to say what sort of school, but Shai Baitel, Mana’s senior vice president of strategy, says there are plans to “bring in a major school of cinematography and art.”

Lemay intends to pounce on the corner properties between the office building and the future Gallery Row, as well. “This corner over here, we’re going to take that down,” Lemay says, referring to a row of retail storefronts that include Churchill’s Barbershop, Metro Beauty Center, a dry cleaner, and a shoe repair shop. In their place will be a food market and culinary classroom space. The current tenants, meanwhile, will be moved to other buildings Mana owns.

Lemay will also help oversee renovations under way within the Wells Fargo-anchored office building at 100 E. Flagler St., where five floors will be turned into shared office space for companies that work in blockchain technology.

The goal, Lemay says, is to bring Mana’s vision of making the so-called Flagler District into a sustainable community of artists, fashion designers, and techies that is also teeming with restaurants, shared office space, curated retail, and galleries. Mana’s team has even submitted plans to the City of Miami for a 49-story, 328-unit micro-unit apartment building that he wants to build at 200 N. Miami Ave.


MCoverStory_4oishe Mana warns that this transformation won’t happen right away. His “project” isn’t just the construction of a single building, he says. It’s constructing new communities. “It’s going to take some time. We need to protect the money,” he explains. “It’s billions of dollars of investment, but we’re working on it. I didn’t buy these properties to keep them empty, to warehouse them.”

Actually, Mana grumbles, his plans for Wynwood and downtown Miami would be smoother if it weren’t for the taxes and fees he has to pay Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami for buildings that aren’t even occupied yet. “They tripled my taxes!” he complains.

Mana is particularly incensed at the prospect of being charged $100,000 in impact fees by the City of Miami if he wants to donate space to Florida International University’s College of Communications, Architecture + the Arts (CARTA) in the Mana Wynwood Building at 2215 NW 22nd St. In fact, he was so angered that he delayed CARTA’s move to Mana Wynwood indefinitely. “I will not pay the money just for me to give [CARTA] space for free,” he declares. “I think it is robbery. You can write it. It’s robbery!” (CARTA had not returned an e-mail query from the BT by deadline.)

Mana says he will be presenting the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County his own “package of demands.” Those demands include a 30-year tax abatement, a reduction in parking requirements, changes to the impact fee structure, and tax incentives for new businesses moving to the City of Miami.

How exactly would this 30-year tax abatement work? And what sorts of incentives does Mana mean? Well, he says, he’d like Miami-Dade and the City of Miami to form a task force to discuss these kinds of tax breaks and incentives, which, the developer insists, won’t be just for him, but for all entrepreneurs and prospective builders wishing to do business in the Magic City,

CoverStory_5Mana does, however, believe that his projects deserve as much attention from public officials as the multibillion-dollar company Amazon did when it considered places within South Florida as the location for its second company headquarters. (Amazon has been leasing a 50,000-square-foot Wynwood warehouse from Mana since July 2017 to house its PrimeNow food-delivery service.)

“Because of the size of it, I need the city and county to get together a team to work on our project,” he tells the BT. “In order to encourage them to do it, I call them [local elected officials] and I say, ‘Instead of Amazon, call it a Manazon, if it’ll make you feel better.’”

Mana has been granted concessions from the city before. In September 2016, he obtained the zoning changes needed to build a miniature city in western Wynwood, with more than twice the density of two Pentagons, in spite of opposition from some neighboring property owners over its height. Mana wanted the right to build up to 24 stories near I-95. The maximum height limit outside his “special area plan” is 12 stories. That victory came with a price: a promise to put Wynwood’s powerlines underground or kick in $7.2 million toward a Wynwood infrastructure improvement fund. He also had to agree to allow $10 million in impact fees to be invested in neighboring Overtown, instead of Wynwood, at the behest of Commissioner Keon Hardemon.

Last year Mana successfully pushed for a redesign of the troubled Flagler Street Renovation Project. Initially costing $13 million, the streetscape project was supposed to take two years and make a half-mile stretch of Flagler Street between Biscayne Boulevard and NW 1st Avenue more pedestrian friendly while updating infrastructure beneath the pavement.

CoverStory_6It ended up taking 18 months just to do a block-long segment between NW 1st Avenue and N. Miami Avenue. By the time the city fired the streetscape project’s original general contractor, in July 2017, several Flagler Street businesses had been forced to close owing to the disruption the roadwork caused.

Before the road project was restarted with a new general contractor, Mana persuaded other Flagler Street stakeholders that the streetscape’s current design “looked like shit,” says Gary Ressler, chairman of the Flagler District Business Improvement District (BID).

“During a Flagler Street Task Force meeting, Moishe Mana says, ‘I’ve seen your plan. I don’t get it. Your downtown’s main street should be the most spectacular historic street in the city,’” recalls Ressler, an owner of the Alfred I. duPont Building and co-developer of Centro.

Instead, Mana’s team advocated for a “curb-less festival street” with a cobblestone design. “They did extensive research and they came up with a much better design,” Ressler remembers. It also ballooned the cost of the streetscape budget to $27.6 million. The county and city agreed to each kick in $4.17 million in additional funding, the Downtown Development Authority another $1 million, and Flagler Street property owners yet another $1 million toward the project.

“He [Mana] went out and was able to get the county and city to give more funding and make the project better,” says Brian Alonso, downtown property owner, co-owner of Lost Boy Bar, and a board member of the Flagler District Business Improvement District.


MCoverStory_7ana does tend to be tenacious. It’s a trait that helped him survive when he immigrated to America.

He was born in Tel Aviv, his family having fled to Israel from Iraq to

escape anti-Jewish persecution. “My grandpa was walked out of his warehouse with a gun to his head,” Mana says, “and he came to Israel penniless.”

Because of his fluency in Arabic, Mana served in military intelligence with the Israeli Defense Forces. When he was discharged from the IDF, Mana went to college for a year, dropped out, and published a newspaper called Eye Service, so named, Mana says, because it had a very nice design, and therefore “it had a lot of advertisers, it was a very good paper.” Actually, he later admits, Eye Service was more like a leaflet.

Whatever it was, Eye Service was a venue for Mana to voice what he calls his “radical” opinions about Israel’s takeover of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. “Because, politically, I disagree with the Israeli position and the Israeli handling of the occupation,” he says, adding: “I am for having a Jewish state [where] the Jews are the majority. The way to keep the state with a majority of Jews is by not annexing other properties where there are non-Jews. The minute you start annexing properties, not only is it morally the wrong thing to do, it’s strategically the wrong thing to do.”

CoverStory_8

Mana says that opinion wasn’t well received: “My father told me that I’m going to go to jail if I continued in that direction.” So Mana decided to leave Israel. “I said, ‘I rather be a stranger in a foreign country than be a stranger in my own country.’”

He arrived in New York City in his late twenties in 1983 with just $800. “I did dishwashing,” he recalls. “I did many things. I was a street kid. I came to a place where I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t know English. I figured that if everybody manages, I can manage.”

One of the odd jobs Mana tried was construction. A contractor gave him a truck in lieu of wages, which Mana used to start a delivery business that he named A Man with a Van. And that’s how he met Lemay, who was born in Michigan and immigrated to Israel when he was 13.

“I was in a kibbutz,” says Lemay. “I’d finished in the army and I came back here [to the U.S.] just to travel, and I got stuck with Moishe Mana.” It was 1984. Mana was looking for a job, and by that time he had two trucks. “I worked with Moishe on the truck,” he says.

Mana and Lemay were in for some wild and dangerous times. The moving industry in New York City was controlled by organized crime back then, and Mana had inadvertently muscled in on that racket. The two were often shot at. Mana even claims to have received a phone call from mob boss John Gotti. “I told him to come and shoot me now,” Mana told the New York Times in July 2014.

In spite of the mafia’s wrath, Mana’s moving business thrived. Today, Moishe’s Moving Systems, which Mana no longer directly oversees, serves the entire New York City Tri-State area.

“I was stupid, maybe naive, desperate, but I did get it done,” Mana tells the BT. “I used to say to reporters at the time: ‘Some people succeed because of inspiration. Some people succeed because of desperation. I had inspiration and desperation at the same time.’”

In addition to moving furniture, Mana ran businesses that stored furniture, documents, and wine. He also got into real estate development. In 1998 he and another Israeli entrepreneur, Erez Shternlicht, turned the former National Biscuit Company headquarters in New York City’s Meatpacking District into a film production studio called Milk Studios.

CoverStory_9By the early 2000s, Mana also wanted to launch a business that stored artwork for private collectors, and he pestered Lemay to help him figure out a way to do it.

“He’s telling me, ‘Gene, you’re getting old. You got to do something new.’ And I’m an artist, so he said to me: ‘I want you to do art storage,’” Lemay recalls. “I said, ‘Moishe, I don’t want to do art storage. We’re a moving company with bubble wrap. We’re wrapping couches, we’re not wrapping paintings. I’m not interested in that.’” Mana, though, kept bugging him. “He drove me crazy,” he says.

Turns out, there weren’t any businesses out there dedicated to managing the collections of private art collectors, Lemay says. That realization led to the conversion of a 1920s-era tobacco factory in Jersey City into a sprawling 35-acre campus, Mana Contemporary, in 2011. Art wasn’t just stored there; it was also exhibited. The campus provided art space for artists, as well. By 2014, a Mana Contemporary was being set up in Chicago within a 500,000-square-foot building in the lower west-side neighborhood of Pilsen.

“It works like a gem,” Lemay says. “The first opening [in Jersey City] was in May 2011, and there were about 800 or 1000 people. Now the openings attract 7000 or 8000 people. The building is packed. People love it. And even though we do major shows, they love walking through the artist galleries. Now we have over 400 galleries [in Jersey City] and about 200 in Chicago.”

The key to the success of both places is content. “Content is music performances, programming, master classes, and how-to classes,” Lemay explains. “It’s discounted framing, discounted art supplies. TED Talks about the arts world. In Jersey, professionals come in and speak about the arts.”

To further augment the content experience, Lemay launched Mana Mass last December. It’s a membership program for artists affiliated with Mana Contemporary’s residency programs. So far, 400 people have signed up.

“The idea is to create a million members,” Lemay says. “Education and career development is the main goal, but it’ll also provide services like health insurance, dental insurance, life insurance, and liability insurance.” It may even lead to further discounted physical space for artists participating in the Mana Mass program.

At least that’s the aspiration. It’s a work in progress. “Health insurance is the hardest part,” Lemay admits. Mana Mass isn’t being offered in Miami yet. But he’s working on it.


MCoverStory_10ana has an abundance of dreams for Wynwood and Miami’s downtown, some of which include changing the landlord-tenant relationship with artists, and building “cool” affordable housing. Yet he also expresses misgivings and even regret about his foray into Miami.

Besides his frustration over city and county bureaucracy, Mana, a naturalized U.S. citizen, is fearful of the country’s direction and future. He dislikes Donald J. Trump. Three years ago, when Trump was still a presidential candidate,

Mana publicly displayed a statue of a nude, obese Trump, created by the INDECLINE art collective -- first on top of a billboard facing I-95, and then on the rooftop of one of his Wynwood buildings. On September 22, 2016, the naked Trump statue was stolen. The alleged thief was arrested a few days later, and the statue was returned to Mana, minus its head.

A couple of months later, Trump was elected president. Says Mana: “I was depressed. I was shocked.”

Mana particularly abhors how Trump demonizes immigrants. “They’re willing to come to America and sacrifice in order to build a better life,” Mana says. “Some of them have two or three jobs. And it really breaks my heart when I see a guy who never did a day of real work in his life, that he can label [them] as lazy people and criminals.”

Mana insists that Trump has been bad for business, too. The developer still aspires build the Mana Wynwood Asia Trade Hub, a sprawling complex of office space, showrooms, retail, and hotels. “I totally see Miami as a city for trade, for finance, for connection,” he says. “Miami is the missing link for the connection between Latin America and North America and the Far East.”

CoverStory_11However, Trump’s stances on trade, and his overall behavior in office, have turned off potential foreign investors. “When I go to other countries and they refuse to put money with us in Miami or invest in Miami, they’re telling me that America is not stable,” Mana says. “This I heard from the Chinese, to be more specific. When the Chinese are telling us that America is not stable, we should really ask ourselves: ‘What are we doing wrong?’”

When asked if the Trump factor had slowed down his projects in Wynwood and downtwon, he replies, “Of course! It really has almost closed them down.” Mana even claims he has a “memorandum of understanding” to purchase 1000 acres near Panama’s airport. That way, if trade relations with China and the rest of the world continue to sour, Mana can always build his free-trade hub in Panama.

“Trump has made it easy for the Chinese to go to Panama,” he maintains.

But what really worries Mana is not Trump himself. It’s the Trump supporters who are “ignoring all the facts and all the writing on the wall” -- what Mana sees as America’s slow slide toward fascism. He’s also noticing that Trump’s hostile rhetoric is filtering down to the public.

“One of the guys I play soccer with, he was here 20 years, and he has a food truck,” Mana recalls. “People yell at him that he’s not fast enough and that they’re going to call immigration on him. Stuff like this. It’s stuff that people did not used to do.”

So if he’d known that Trump was going to be elected four years ago, would he have bought so much Miami property? “The truth? I would not have done all this crazy stuff,” he admits.

“I hope we don’t have another four years of Trump, and if this is the direction, I’m not going to stay in America,” he says. He later clarifies that he might leave for a period of time, maybe a couple of years, if Trump is re-elected. But whatever happens, Mana assures, he won’t scrap his plans to develop in Wynwood and downtown Miami.

“We need to continue this project, even if it’ll be emotionally difficult for me,” he says, later adding: “I would have to close my nose.”

Eugene Lemay dismisses any notion that Mana will walk away from Miami. As for himself, Lemay is enamored of Flagler Street.

“I love this part of the city,” he says. “I love the restaurants. I love the people. It’s very authentic. It reminds me of Brooklyn -- because it’s changing every day.”

 

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