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Written by Mark Sell -- BT Contributor   
January 2013

The soon-to-commence construction frenzy at Biscayne Landing promises big things for North Miami

APix_MarkSell_1-13s 2013 begins, the curtain rises at last on North Miami’s long-awaited Biscayne Landing project, which could take as long as 15 years and cost as much as a billion dollars to complete.

The 184-acre former contaminated landfill east of Biscayne Boulevard looks much as it did a year ago, with the same hillocks and scrub, but with more trucks, fill, and giant PVC. The occasional acrid whiff of hydrogen sulfide from the sewer plant just to the north still lingers, but a solution to that is in the offing -- $249 million in future plant improvements, a condition of a new consent decree between Miami-Dade County and federal regulators.

Indeed much is about to happen, now that North Miami is suddenly solvent, thanks to the $17.5 million that developer Oleta Partners recently deposited with the city in late August to take possession of the land.

Oleta aside, start with the Oaks, the dual 25-story condo-apartment towers on 9.5 acres just south of NE 151st Street, now bursting with renters and their pets, me included. The cavernous two- and three-bedroom units rent from about $1675 to $2500 or more. The 160 bank-owned units are 95-percent occupied.

It’s been a long time since you could slalom past the speed bumps in the dark garage. Now you have to watch it when you back out of your space, as drivers come and go, and wait in line for the security guard to let you back in. As a result of the increase in the number of residents, the condo association has ratcheted up e-mail warnings about leaving trash on the grounds and cleaning up after dogs.

Some previous predictions in this column for Biscayne Landing are panning out; others aren’t. For instance, Oleta Partners, most prominently represented by developer Michael Swerdlow, did not, as expected, snap up the bank-owned units, assume greater influence over the condo association, and start work on a pool and 14,000-square-foot clubhouse.

Those plans are now off, as Oleta Partners and the lender, iStar Financial, could not agree on terms. iStar Financial still holds the 160 units and the condo association intends to submit a zoning application to start construction on the pool, common area, and guard gate this year.

Oleta Partners includes three powerful entities: the Swerdlow Group, which developed the Dolphin Mall and Oakwood Plaza, just east of I-95 between Stirling Road and Sheridan Street in Hollywood; the LeFrak Organization, the 112-year-old New York developer that built the $10 billion Newport development on the Hudson River in Jersey City; and Millennium Partners, headed by Emmanuel and Jean Cherubin, who are interested in building a hotel.

Now that the price of construction materials is rising by double digits, there is fresh impetus to develop sooner rather than later.

Priorities in mid-to-late 2013 are threefold: first, fill the seven lakes and ponds in the former EPA Superfund site, but leave the large lake on the north end intact with a surrounding park; second, level the old landfill with bulldozers to an elevation ten feet above Biscayne Boulevard (17 feet above sea level); third, build the spine road linking the Boulevard and 143rd Street through the site to the Oaks and 151st Street to the north.

If the state turns down Florida International University’s bid for a permit for a skyway road over the wetlands to the campus, expect fresh pressure from FIU in 2013 to open the nature trail from 135th Street to traffic, as the university is determined to build a second entrance to the campus.

In 2014, construction should start on the big-box stores on the property’s southern half, and, very likely, midrange rental apartments, ultimately numbering 3400 units. Swerdlow knows big-box stores; LeFrak has developed apartments for more than a century and is now expanding its South Florida footprint, including by partnering on the $100 million renovation of the Gansevoort Hotel in South Beach. The city is planning a 7.2-acre active park in the site’s southwest corner.

As for the stores, it now looks as if Lowe’s and Ikea are out and Brandsmart is either out or on hold; Ross Dress For Less and Toys R Us appear solid. The master plan and letters of intent are still in their infancy, and the picture should grow clearer come March.

One new player is a likely vertical luxury car dealership similar in layout to Lexus of North Miami. Oleta is in talks with Prestige Auto Imports, which owns the Lamborghini dealership across the Boulevard, and which tried last spring to pay the city nearly $14 million to build a four-story showroom on nine acres at the old Biscayne Landing sales center on the southeast corner of 151st and Biscayne Boulevard. The auto dealer would still like to move into that location.

A movie theater is also a distinct possibility -- not the usual 24-screen cineplex you see in Aventura or Weston, but a dine-in theater, where you can enjoy a meal and cocktail while watching a movie, as in Swerdlow’s Dolphin Mall or in Downtown Disney. For now, an adult-care facility, which seemed likely a year ago, is out of the picture.

Local jobs are key to the plan, but not in a big way until 2014. (Despite that, more than 900 people showed up at the Biscayne Landing job fair October 27, with lines snaking around the sales center.) Oleta Partners will start slow, with 26 hires, mainly truck drivers and crane operators. Expect that number to ramp up to as many as 4000 over the next decade. Oleta Partners is required to ensure that ten percent of the workers live in North Miami, with a goal of 25-percent representation.

Oleta Partners vice president Herb Tillman oversees the project and has high praise for North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre, who saved the deal from collapse last spring after stormy negotiations and public meetings drove Michael Swerdlow and his team to the brink of apoplexy. “The mayor did a bang-up job in negotiations for the benefit of North Miami residents,” Tillman says. “He resurrected this deal from the near dead. This deal has the potential to transform North Miami from one of the poorest cities in South Florida into one of the richest. This is going to provide long-term benefits to the city in terms of jobs and tax revenue. The mayor’s efforts to ensure local workforce representation will make a bigger difference to more lives in North Miami than any other similar effort at any other time in the city’s history.”

If it all comes to pass, that would be a very big deal.

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