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Written by Erik Bojnansky, Senior Writer; Photos by Silvia Ros   
May 2015

Priced out of Wynwood, Midtown, and the Design District, artists and developers are transforming Miami’s Little River neighborhood

A Coverlarge aerial photograph hangs on a wall in the main office of Little River Miami Investments LLC. It’s basically a grid of an industrial area, crisscrossed by streets, offering a bird’s-eye view of the roofs of scores of warehouses clumped together in blocks, with the roofs of houses, apartments, and other structures mixed in.

Avra Jain, the developer primarily known for revitalizing old motels in the MiMo Historic District of Miami’s Upper Eastside, is standing next to the photograph; her business partner, Matthew Vander Werff, sits nearby.

“We own this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this,” Jain says as she points at spots on the photo. “This, this, this, this, this, this entire block, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, bought this, just sold this, this, this, this, got a contract on this, and we got a couple of parcels down here….”

In all Jain, Vander Werff, and their financial backers own or are contracted to buy more than eight acres of land -- some contiguous, some not -- roughly between NW 71st Street and NW 75th Street, and N. Miami Avenue and NW 2nd Avenue. That’s roughly 20 city blocks.

“We wanted to find a neighborhood where we could own enough land to achieve critical mass, so we quickly and quietly assembled quite a few properties,” says Vander Werff, formerly an executive with the Fifteen Group, a land acquisition firm. “We started out with seven [properties] at the very beginning, and we’re now up in the 50 range. And we’re still going.”

Jain and Vander Werff even have a name for their piece of Miami: Little River // Miami. The twin slashes symbolize the Florida East Coast railroad that transects their future neighborhood. “They’re a part of the history of Miami,” Jain declares. “It’s what connected Miami to the rest of the country.”

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A mile west of Biscayne Boulevard and the MiMo District, Little River // Miami’s neighbors include rag shops, car mechanics, and a couple of metal recycling ventures. There are also a few cafeterias nearby and churches -- the largest being the ornate Cathedral at St. Mary’s, which has existed at 7525 NW 2nd Ave., in one form another, since 1936.

For the past few years, this area has been attracting artists and specialty businesses in growing numbers. On NW Miami Court, one of Little River // Miami’s future main streets, there’s a music production studio, a surfboard manufacturing shop, a sprawling gym frequented by professional athletes called Fast Twitch, and a warehouse, Fountainhead Studios, that serves as a base for 40 artists.

But this is just the beginning. Jain and Vander Werff say they intend to pack Little River // Miami with galleries, tech startups, restaurants, bars, art studios, and other unique businesses. Among their confirmed new tenants are Vanity Projects (a video gallery and designer nail salon from New York), Hot Satellite (a pizza establishment from Los Angeles), Bill Brady Gallery (a contemporary gallery founded in New York), FJ Company (a car restoration business specializing in Toyota J40 Land Cruisers), and a mysterious cocktail bar that’ll apparently announce itself at a time of its owners’ choosing.

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Local artist Carlos Betancourt will be building his own 2000-square-foot studio, designed by his partner, architect Alberto Latorre, on a plot of land they purchased from Jain and Vander Werff last November for $60,000. Jain also hopes to bring Car2Go to the area, plant more trees, and push for a linear park along the railroad. Someday soon, Jain says, she hopes to add new apartments and condos to the mix.

“This is about the arts, creatives, entrepreneurs, startups, food and beverage, interesting spaces,” Jain says. “We love the adaptive reuse possibilities. That’s part of what makes it interesting. It creates a sort of interesting organic vibe.”

Besides the dozens of warehouses, Jain likes the area’s wide streets and its proximity to I-95. And while it’s somewhat removed from Miami’s hot neighborhoods, Little River // Miami isn’t exactly in the middle of nowhere.

“We’re due west of the same thing that’s going on along Biscayne Boulevard,” she says. That “thing” is the revitalization of the MiMo District, which she helped inspire (see “Rebuilding the Boulevard,” March 2014).


BCoverStory_3ut Little River // Miami is also part of a larger, gritty swath of Miami that’s north of 51st Street, east of I-95, west of the FEC railroad tracks, and south of the Village of El Portal.

Within this sector of Miami are the historic neighborhoods of Lemon City and Little River. Since the 1980s, they’ve also been known by another name: Little Haiti. For decades, this once-forgotten part of Miami served as a kind of Ellis Island for Haitian immigrants. It was also a hub of commerce where numerous Haitian-owned businesses, churches, and other nonprofits opened up.

Now the warehouses, strip malls, and other commercially zoned properties are being snatched up by investors like Jain and Vander Werff, people in search of new frontiers in Miami’s overheated real estate market.

“They’re buying almost everything they can put their hands on in Little Haiti,” says Jan Mapou, owner of Libreri Mapou at 5919 NE 2nd Ave. “They’re buying like crazy. They’re offering a lot of money for the old buildings, and they’re putting people out there to encourage [current landowners] to sell.”

Peter Zalewski, a real estate analyst and founder of CondoVultures.com, says long-term investors are looking approvingly at Little Havana and Little Haiti, thanks to the overflow of development occurring in nearby boom areas. In Little Haiti’s case, he explains, developers are moving north from the anticipated success of the Design District, Midtown Miami, and Wynwood.

It’s in the midst of this buying spree that the old names of Lemon City and Little River are being asserted over Little Haiti once again -- mainly by non-Haitian property owners and developers. (For more on the Little Haiti vs. Lemon City/Little River naming dispute see “Names Matter,” January 2014).

CoverStory_4Precisely where these neighborhoods lie depends on who you ask. “They never had any exact boundaries,” says Paul George, a Miami-Dade College history professor and BT contributor (“Picture Story”). Lemon City sprang into existence around the 1870s but had never been an official municipality when it was annexed by the City of Miami in 1925. In George’s opinion, Lemon City’s perimeters are I-95 on the west, NE 4th Court on the east, and from 54th Street north to 79th Street.

Little River started out as a farming community within and a bit north of Lemon City until it was labeled “Little River,” after the Little River waterway, in the early 1900s. The Little River neighborhood was also annexed by Miami in 1925. Little River partly overlaps Lemon City and Palm Grove as its edges are roughly between I-95 and Biscayne Boulevard, and from 64th Street north to the banks of the Little River, George says.

Within the overlapping Lemon City and Little River regions, significant real estate transactions have been taking place at a fast pace. For example, Todd Oretsky and Philippe Houdard, founders of Brickell-based Pipeline Workspaces, plan to build a five-story, 80,000-square-foot building that will serve as their company’s fourth and largest “co-working” office space for private contractors, artists, and other businesses.

CoverStory_5Besides shared meeting room space, refreshments, and state-of-the-art Internet for its tenants, publicized plans for the proposed project envision communal storage space and retail on the bottom floor. The building is slated to go up on a 13,905-square-foot parcel at 6900 NE 2nd Ave. that Oretsky bought for $400,000 this past December.

There’s plenty of buying activity farther south in Little Haiti, too. Among the new major players is California venture capitalist Bob Zangrillo. Since 2013, Zangrillo’s companies have invested $26 million, obtaining at least ten acres of land and several warehouses east of NE 2nd Avenue, according to records examined by the BT from the Miami-Dade Property Appraiser website. Zangrillo’s biggest buy was the $15 million purchase of 6.5 acres of land at 6001 NE 2nd Ave., which includes Magic City Trailer Park and the deteriorating 113-year-old Dupuis Medical Office and Drugstore building.

Tony Cho, president of Metro 1 Properties and Zangrillo’s partner, says they plan to upgrade and lease out the warehouses they now control. As for the former trailer park, “our goal is to re-landscape it, improve it, and make it an amenity for the neighborhood where cultural special events can be held,” Cho says. “That’s for the short-term. We don’t know anything beyond that. We don’t have concrete plans for the assembled lands.”

Up north in Little River, between 83rd and 84th streets on NE 2nd Avenue, Urban Atlantic Group bought four properties in April 2014 for $5.2 million. In a joint venture with Conway Commercial Real Estate, UAG invested another $1 million transforming the old J.J. Dessalines C. Center at 8325 NE 2nd Ave. into its own co-working venture called MADE at the Citadel -- the MADE standing for Makers Artists Designers Entrepreneurs.

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The purpose of MADE, which opened April 3, is to provide a creative space for young professionals, nonprofits, and artists to interact and make things, says Thomas Conway, principal of Conway Properties. Current tenants include the radio station Shake 108 FM and Focal Point, a nonprofit that teaches photography to underprivileged teenagers.

Across the street from MADE stands an empty, 64-year-old, 65,000-square-foot building that Conway says he intends to renovate and reopen as a traditional office building with retail on the ground floor.

While Vander Werff is focused on developing creating Little River // Miami as a cohesive community, Jain has been buying properties with other investors elsewhere in Little River. One such investment is hard to miss. On March 31, through a California holding company, Jain bought the former seven-story Bank of America building at the corner of NE 2nd Avenue and 79th Street (7924 NE 2nd Ave.) for $6.2 million from Pedro Rodriguez, owner of the Presidente Supermarket chain, who previously tried to transform the 178,810-square-foot building into an affordable-housing project.

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“It’s spectacular, right?” Jain asks rhetorically. “It’s got 13- to 15-foot ceilings, lots of parking, and three acres on a big corner.”

Her plans for the building? Jain says she’s still figuring that out, but she notes that there are lots of possible users, some of whom were displaced from Miami’s boom zones and are in search of large spaces. “We have some schools and institutions that are maybe looking to relocate into the area,” Jain says. “We have some really interesting music venues. Lots of fun things.”

But some Haitian businesses aren’t having a fun time right now, particularly in Little River, where shuttered and gutted storefronts are a common sight. There are still clusters of Haitian shops, restaurants, botanicas, and outdoor peddlers north of 79th Street along NE 2nd Avenue, though several proprietors complained to the BT about a lack of business. The reason: many of their regular customers, fellow Haitians, are out of work or have moved to North Miami and Miramar.

The buying frenzy adds to their apprehension. Jean Clement, owner of Clement’s Glass & Mirror at 8255 NE 2nd Ave., says real estate agents offered his landlord twice the amount his building is actually worth. Thus far, the landlord who “isn’t hungry for the money,” has rebuffed the offers, Clement reports. “Something is going on,” he says, “They [real estate investors] want to bring downtown here.”

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Mireille Laurent has been running a fruit stand called Mimi’s Garden at 8291 NE 2nd Ave. for the past two years. She has mixed feelings about her neighborhood’s transformation. “It’s changing, changing in a good way, and investors are spending more,” Laurent says. “But when people invest, they expect something more.”

That “more” will come in the form of higher rents, she predicts. “Once it goes up, they cannot just keep charging me and charging me,” she says. “Everybody knows it’ll be better to get rid of me instead -- so, you know....”

But Thomas Conway, her landlord, says the last thing he wants to do is evict Laurent. “Her business is about to take off,” he ventures. “Our goal is to keep this area local, keep it community-based.”

That means creating an environment where newcomers and longstanding businesses can both thrive, adds Sarah MK Moody, an artist who helped design MADE at the Citadel’s interior.

“The prices are going up in Wynwood. A lot of people are moving out,” says Moody, who co-produced the “Little Haiti Country Club” exhibit last August at a nearby retail building co-owned by Jain at 8267 NE 2nd Ave. “Now we’re working to carefully gentrify this neighborhood, to keep people here rather than doing the same thing.”


OCoverStory_9n the surface, at least, Little Haiti/Little River is similar to Wynwood. Both places have warehouses. And both have artists. In Wynwood’s case, artists and galleries played a huge role in reviving an area once wracked with crime and poverty following the departure of much of its manufacturing base in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Twelve years ago, only galleries were interested in renting in Wynwood, says David Lombardi, principal of Lombardi Properties, which owns several Wynwood buildings. Today the neighborhood is visited by an estimated 150,000 people each month and is flooded with restaurants, stores, bars, and offices, while various developers are hatching plans for new retail and residential projects.

“Wynwood,” Lombardi says, “is going through an incredible transition.”

That transition has jacked up rents. In 2011, rents in Wynwood ranged between $15 and $20 a square foot, Lombardi notes. Now they’re anywhere from $20 to $60 a square foot.

Lombardi, who insists he’s still enthusiastic about Wynwood’s future, also owns property in Little River, just north of MADE at the Citadel. There he’s asking for rents at about $12 a square foot. “It’s in its infancy,” Lombardi says of this northern neighborhood. “It’s like the early Wynwood days. It’s got a good energy up there.”

A small number of artists have been operating in warehouses in Little Haiti and Little River for more than a decade, but their numbers are growing fast. Yuval Ofir represents local artists and runs the Yo Miami arts studio out of a converted warehouse his family has owned for decades at 294 NE 62nd St. His family also owns a perfume distribution business in Wynwood’s fashion district.

According to Ofir, many galleries and artists once based in Wynwood are migrating northward because their landlords increased their rents. “Artists were forced out [of Wynwood] a long time ago,” he says. “The biggest migration happened two or three years ago.”

Bill Brady, owner of Bill Brady Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri, says he has plans to open a gallery at Little River // Miami later this year because he wanted to be part of an emerging art scene. Wynwood’s rents, Brady admits, were also a turn-off; the rents demanded in Wynwood rival the asking price in New York City, “and I couldn’t understand why.”

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Part of what made Little River’s warehouses so affordable for artists (at least a couple of years ago, anyway) is that -- much like Wynwood in the 1990s -- hardly anyone else wanted to be there. Built roughly 75 years ago, the warehouses of Lemon City and Little River once made up the backbone of a Catholic, blue-collar neighborhood. Then, starting in the late 1960s, middle-class families fled to the suburbs. Crime, particularly in Little River, rose.

“By the 1980s, the mindset was: ‘This is going to be dicey. I’d rather be somewhere else,’” says historian Paul George. So business owners looked elsewhere along the railroad -- Hialeah or Medley -- for warehouses to store their inventories.

Steve Rhodes was subdividing showrooms in the Design District and warehouses in Wynwood when, in 2004, he started buying warehouses in Little River, amassing a stable of 12 facilities. More recently, he has sold most of those warehouses to Jain and Vander Werff. “There were a lot of auto body shops and mechanics,” Rhodes recalls. “Most of the buildings were just abandoned. Nobody could find a tenant.”

So Rhodes subdivided the spaces, just as he did in Wynwood and the Design District, and leased them out for $5 or $6 a square foot. “The area took off slower than I expected,” Rhodes remembers. “There were a lot of crack houses. Definitely a lot more crime and drugs. It was a rougher character than Wynwood.”

Rhodes and his agents courted artists and creatives. Among those enticed to set up shop was Kathryn Mikesell, an art collector and philanthropist interested in creating a workspace for artists that was both flexible and affordable. In 2008 she opened Fountainhead Studios in a 9000-square-foot space with no air-conditioning. “My deal was half the rent for half the space,” she says, “and it just grew.” Today’s space, located at 7338 NW Miami Ct., is 30,000-square-feet and includes air conditioning. (Rhodes sold Fountainhead’s current space to Jain and Vander Werff as part of a $2.6 million, “multi-parcel deal” this past September, according to records.)

Carlos Reyes has been making custom surfboards in a small space next to Fountainhead Studios for the past four years. Four years before that, in 2007, he closed his Hialeah surfboard shop and was considering a move to Hawaii. While he was waiting to sell his car, he kept getting calls from his Miami customers asking him to make surfboards, and a pesky real estate agent kept trying to persuade him to set up a business in Little River.

“I realized that I have a lot of pull here in Miami, and I didn’t want to dump all that,” Reyes says. “The price was right and I decided to start over. And here we are now.”

He’s glad he did. Reyes says he’s looking forward to seeing how Jain and Vander Werff, his new landlords, will transform the area. “I really like what they’re doing to the place,” he says with a smile. “They’re doing a great facelift.”

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But how much longer can artists or small-business owners afford to rent in Miami’s northern reaches? Ofir of Yo Miami notes that developers are renovating warehouses all over the area, and they’re already asking for higher rents, an observation confirmed by Tony Ulloa, a broker with Keyes Commercial Realty. “Prices have gone up significantly over the past year,” he says. “There’s a demand for space from artists being misplaced from Wynwood and the Design District.”

But the current demand isn’t just from artists, Ulloa adds. Thanks to the PortMiami expansion, which is projected to increase freight traffic, buyers are scrambling to acquire warehouse space near the railroad tracks, which run east-west near 73rd Street. The Little River area, Ulloa explains, has “the highest concentration of warehouses serving the rail system, north of Wynwood.”

Actually, providing affordable workspace for artists was what Jain and Vander Werff say led them to conceive of Little River // Miami in the first place. “One of the reasons this all happened,” says Jain, “was because I had some artist friends who were like, ‘Hey, we’re getting kicked out of Wynwood.’ Or galleries saying they were getting kicked out of Wynwood.”

Instead of rents as high as $50 or $60 per square foot, Little River // Miami will offer rates between $12 and $22 a square foot. “We’re at least half or a third less expensive,” Jain continues, noting that her locale will also be easier for visitors to find than Wynwood: “You just take N. Miami Avenue and stop at 73rd Street.”

But there’s something else Miami needs in order to for its burgeoning arts scene to grow, notes Edouard Duval-Carrié, an acclaimed Haitian-American painter and owner of the Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance at 225 NE 59th St. That would be affordable housing. Such a thing is becoming a scarcity in most parts of Miami. “For an artist, who doesn’t own, to live comfortably, they’re going to be pushed to the Everglades,” he says.

Aside from several subsidized housing projects in Little Haiti, much of the housing available in the area -- while far from being in pristine shape -- is inexpensive compared to most places east of I-95. This could change in a few years.

CoverStory_12eal estate analyst Peter Zalewski predicts that when the next development cycle commences, buyers will look at Little Haiti’s residential areas. “The appeal is cheap nearby real estate relative to what properties are trading for in the more established markets,” Zalewski says. “At this point, Little Havana has the advantage because of the looming up-zoning process. That being said, Little Haiti enjoys the advantage of catching the attention of the big-money developers who are attracted by the area’s lack of modern housing.”

With new housing will come higher rents, and it won’t just be artists who have a hard time making monthly payments. Most of the poorer residents living in Little Haiti, many of whom are renters, are Haitian. If they’re forced elsewhere, will that truly be the end of Little Haiti?

“Whatever happens,” Duval-Carrié replies, “it will still be a hub for the Haitian population in Miami.”

His confidence may have a lot to do with his location. Unlike Haitian-owned businesses farther north, Duval-Carrié has the Little Haiti Cultural Center and the reopened Caribbean Marketplace as neighbors. Both were built thanks to more than $20 million from taxpayers. For the past year or so, bus tours have been bringing tourists to the places near the Caribbean Marketplace as well.

“What makes this area interesting is the ethnic footprint that the Haitian community left here,” says Sandy Dorsainvil, cultural arts manager of the Little Haiti Cultural Center, who has helped organize the tours.

It was the tours that inspired another Haitian-American painter, Wilfrid Daleus, to move his gallery and workspace from North Miami to a space across the street from the Caribbean Marketplace. “I just want to find the tourists and the collectors,” he says.

But Daleus is doubtful this part of Miami will be known as Little Haiti much longer. “You see so many Haitians moving from here,” he sighs.

This is one reason he’s proud of the mural he painted at the Little Haiti Cultural Center, depicting a market in his native country. It’ll be a permanent reminder that Haitians once lived here, Daleus says, “because I know that one day all of them will be gone.”

 

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