The Biscayne Times

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Jan 21st
New Life for an Old Building PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
January 2019

Stripped of its signature aluminum panels, the forlorn former INS building is on its way to being reborn

MINS_1ark Ingraham had mixed opinions when he saw construction workers removing gold-tone metal panels from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service building at Biscayne Boulevard and NE 79th Street.

On the one hand, Ingraham saw the activity as a sign that a hotel and apartment complex will indeed be built on the 1.4-acre site. Called Triton Center, the project, designed by Stantec, the global architecture and design firm, is displayed on www.tritoncenter.us. It is envisioned to include a 139-room Hilton Garden Inn occupying the former INS building, with the top floors converted to loft apartments; three new residential apartments towers for a total of 325 units; a 585-space parking garage; and 25,000 square feet of retail space.

“It’ll help revitalize the street,” says Ingraham, an attorney who lives in nearby Shorecrest and owns a retail building at 853 NE 79th St.

On the other hand, Ingraham didn’t like seeing the aluminum panels that for 56 years adorned the building’s exterior -- decorative grillwork that also shaded windows -- simply thrown in the Dumpster.

INS_2“The building has been symbolic for immigrants and newcomers to our country,” he says, “and seeing this stuff going into the trash was hard.”

So Ingraham bought two eight-foot-wide anodized gold aluminum panels, slated to be sold for scrap, for an undisclosed price, and installed them on the coral rock wall that surrounds the pool of his Shorecrest home. “They’re made of aluminum and they look as good today as they did in 1962,” he says.

Apparently, not all of the gold panels were sent to the scrapper. Jacob Zhang, a Kendall-based accountant representing the project’s developer, Leo Wu, says some of the gold sun grills “will be reused” and reattached to the post-World War II building when the first phase of the $120 million Triton Center project is complete.

That first phase of this mixed-use project includes the old INS building’s transformation into a hotel, as well as the construction of an eight-story apartment building. “The first phase is expected to be completed within 14 to 16 months,” Zhang says, later adding: “This project, we believe, has the potential to reshape the Biscayne Corridor in large and small ways.”

Completed in 1962, the old 11-story INS building was originally known as the Gulf American building, after its first occupant, the Gulf American Corporation, a suspect real estate operation that sold thousands of acres of Everglades swampland in Collier County to naive U.S. investors and foreign buyers.

Back then, the intersection at 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard was still a bustling place. Just north of Gulf American was a popular shopping center called Biscayne Plaza (now Midpoint Plaza). To the east, at 7701 Biscayne Blvd., a Playboy Club operated. (That club has since been replaced by an Auto Zone auto parts store.)

INS_3Nevertheless, the Gulf American building stood out in an area dominated by structures less than three stories tall. “The building was iconic because it was so atypical from the size of anything around it,” says local historian and BT contributor Paul George.

The Gulf American tower also had a news ticker along the roof line that flashed headlines of the day. And covering the windows were the gold grills, which were used to lessen the glare of the sun. “You would see these panels on other buildings but never on that scale,” George observes, “because it [Gulf American] was so tall.”

In 1979, INS opened an office in the building. By 1983 the building became INS’s new Miami headquarters. The agency, now known as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, remained there for the next 25 years, until it moved to three separate offices in Kendall, Hialeah, and Liberty City.

The INS building became an empty real estate commodity after that. Mark and Ian Sanders of the Fifteen Group bought the property for just under $5.1 million in June 2012. The siblings then sold it to Chinese-Canadian developer Leo Wu and his partners for $12.5 million in November 2013.

About two years later, Wu closed on a $14.3 million purchase of the 13-acre Little Farm Trailer Park at 8500 Biscayne Blvd. in El Portal, less than half a mile away. Now cleared of trailers, Little Farm has been rezoned for single-family homes, multifamily buildings, offices, and retail.

Four years ago, Triton Center was going to be at least partially financed by investments from wealthy foreigners wishing to obtain EB-5 visas. Foreign individuals participating in the federal government’s EB-5 program can obtain green cards if they invest at least $500,000 in a venture that creates more than ten jobs. Zhang says he’s “not in a position” to comment on whether wealthy individuals wishing to obtain EB-5 visas are investing in this project. However, he did say that “funding was made possible through lenders, investors, and equity partners.” (Those lenders include Madison Realty Capital, which gave Triton Center a $26 million mortgage in December 2017.)

INS_4Over the years, construction workers have demolished significant portions of the former INS building, including the bottom floors and an adjacent retail strip mall once anchored by a Goodwill. (The Goodwill store now operates at Midpoint Plaza.) As of deadline, a “master plan” permit for new construction is still being reviewed, according to online records from the City of Miami’s Building Department. Zhang says the last permit review is being conducted by the city’s Planning and Zoning Department and is at the final stage.

“The city’s Planning and Zoning Department is doing its job and we’re doing our job, which is moving this project forward and as fast as we can,” he says.

Teri D’Amico, a designer who helped start the movement to preserve distinctive post-World War II architecture known as Miami Modern (MiMo), is less than impressed by Stantec’s design, calling it a “missed opportunity to do something really special on such an important intersection in Miami that’s linked to Miami Beach.”

In an e-mail to the BT, D’Amico says she would like to have seen more of the building’s original MiMo features, including the news ticker and a “light perimeter” pedestal. “Unfortunately, they did nothing to make the existing building form independent of the others,” D’Amico states. Instead, Stantec created a “big/thick brutally average condo building with retail below,” she writes, adding: “It could be anywhere USA.”

Mark Ingraham would like to have seen more elements of the old INS building preserved as well. But more than that, he wants to see the property developed: “It’s better to have something occupying and running rather than a vacant building.”

 

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