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Written by Mark Sell   
November 2009

Village Place makes its Miami Shores debut, and now comes the hard part

Like Cinderella at the ball, downtown Miami Shores blossomed for one evening in the form of a street fair on Friday, October 2. It was downtown’s debut as “Village Place at Miami Shores.” Also like Cinderella, the area’s empty storefronts are seeking princes with magic slippers in the form of paying customers and clients who create happy tenants and landlords.

The fair was a roaring success, with an estimated 4000 to 5000 people attending -- double projections. More than 64 concessions and attractions representing nearly every neighborhood institution or business of consequence offered throbbing reggae, mellow jazz, face-painting, ice cream. Popcorn, and just about anything in between.

Village Café gave away 300 meals and served 269 inside before running out of food. The tiny Côte Gourmet took 120 seatings for its French cuisine and served 100 bottles of wine. A WSVN-Channel 7 mobile crew cranked out DVDs of kids doing mock weather reports.

“I have headed up a lot of initiatives, and I have never seen such wide support and participation,” says organizer Jim McCoy, a commercial real estate broker with Holly Realty in Coral Gables, ex-mayor of Miami Shores, and former president of the Greater Miami Shores Chamber of Commerce, which has driven efforts for a downtown revival since the middle 1990s. “We started three months ago and figured we’d do a little ribbon-cutting with our tails between our legs. But we were blown away by the support.”

This time the support didn’t come just from the usual suspects. Trump International, Citibank (and not coincidentally, Holly Realty) threw their corporate weight behind it, as did Barry University, the Playground Theatre, the Miami Shores Fine Arts Commission, WPBT-Channel 2, Miami Shores Village Hall, and the Chamber, among others. All the area’s schools participated.

The reason for the party: Celebrating the $4.5 million, two-year gussying-up of NE Second Avenue, complete with road work, broadened sidewalks, fresh oak trees, outdoor seating, and freshened storefronts with new awnings, sprinkled with the occasional pioneering boutique and salon.

However, the more serious agenda was to introduce potential landlords and investors to Miami Shores with a bus tour and cocktail reception preceding the street fair. The “Village Place” name and notion caps an effort of the last dozen years to revive a once-vibrant downtown that for more than a generation has been noted largely for its somnolence.

The elemental riddle of NE Second Avenue persists: Will they come? If so, will they spend? Which comes first: the tenants or the sewers? Unlike nearly any other downtown in South Florida, Miami Shores is on septic tanks.

“The reality is you cannot be a pedestrian-friendly downtown without restaurants and cafés, and you cannot have more cafés without sewers,” says Ruben Matz, who with his wife Gladys owns much of the southeast and northwest corner of the avenue at NE 96th Street. Matz is promoting a special assessment district and says the county is showing some interest in helping confirm 2009 costs for a sewer system. He says 70 percent of downtown property owners have signed a petition of willingness to tax themselves in order to install a sewer system.

For more than a generation, downtown Miami Shores has been fallow as a retail center, its postwar bustle an ever-fleeting memory. The current revival effort is an outgrowth of a late-1990s design charette involving 100 interested citizens. During that event and ever since, residents have returned with similar ideas: cafés and restaurants (ethnic preferred but not necessary); a good bookstore or two; children’s stores; perhaps even an alehouse or two. The village council has responded by loosening restrictions, relaxing outdoor seating rules, and easing the path to a wine and beer license.

Most important, during the mid-2000s, ownership of downtown real estate changed, with a new generation of visionary owner-investors. Ruben Matz bought up blocks near 96th Street and NE Second Avenue. Ari Sklar bought the old Howard Johnson’s site on the southwest corner of 95th Street and built the Starbucks building. Investor James Quinlan purchased the 9999 Building and sold it to Alex Edelman. At the same time, Miami Shores was growing younger and slightly more affluent as a popular destination for families and same-sex couples with buying power.

Two major surveys bore out this desire for change. More than 95 percent of respondents said they wanted more retail, 57 percent said they would patronize food establishments at least once a week, 81 percent wanted a bookstore, 85 percent a gourmet food store, nearly 97 percent more restaurants. More than two-thirds said they thought downtown Miami Shores looked worse than the rest of village.

At the Village Place street fair, Sean Saladino was digging his scooper hard into a vat of Blue Bell Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream to feed a snaking, growing line across 96th Street. He was in front of his promised sit-down ice cream-and-panini-and-WiFi hangout, Miss Moo’s, where the cow on the sign promises “MOOING SOON!”

“So when are you opening?” he heard yet again.

“Three weeks,” he barked, not looking up from the cone assembly line.

Opening day now looks closer to mid-November. The reason: delays getting a water permit from county agencies. Saladino says he finally got the needed permits October 21, but neither he nor Matz, his landlord, expected such an ordeal.

Saladino’s story within the successful street event represents the promise and peril of NE Second Avenue and downtown Miami Shores. The promise: a willing, organic community, great demographics, a central location, and plenty of enthusiasm and good will. The perils: still-unproven market support, a clattering local economy, problematic parking, and the eternal issue of septic tanks and water lines.

Saladino, a Miami Shores resident who has run nightclubs in South Beach, still comes down firmly on the side of promise. “This was obviously a different crowd from South Beach,” he notes. “In South Beach, an event like this would have bombed. South Beach is on marketing overload. They are jaded. People respond to a marketing concept in Miami Shores. There’s real enthusiasm here.”

If enough people buy a panini, grab an ice cream, and take a stroll, a thriving downtown Miami Shores could be more than a fairy tale.

 

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