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The Further Adventures of Biscayne Plaza PDF Print E-mail
Written by Karen-Janine Cohen   
April 2011

There’s a new supermarket, and a fledgling farmers market, but definitely no Walmart

BiscaynePlaza_1Calling it a renaissance would be a wild stretch, but recent events at Biscayne Plaza, the iconic shopping center at 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, are giving nearby residents hope that one day small retailers, yoga studios, and cafés might join with anchor tenants to create the kind of neighborhood nexus they’ve long desired.

Mindy McIlroy, a top executive at Terranova Corp., the Miami Beach-based firm that manages the center, says several million dollars will be spent on upgrades, and ink is almost dry on a lease with a national “soft-goods,” retailer. “We need some of those big-name retailers to come to Biscayne Plaza to drive leases into the smaller spaces,” she says.

Sabor Tropical Supermarket swooped in at the last minute to replace Presidente after that chain balked at signing a long-term lease. Sabor not only signed a ten-year lease, but agreed to spend more than a million dollars on improvements. A Saturday farmers market has been at the plaza since February, and plans are afoot to attract local artists to vacant second-story office spaces.

McIlroy, herself an Upper Eastside resident, has taken a personal and public interest in the center. “This really speaks to me,” she says of the plaza. “I know that corner is irreplaceable real estate. It’s such a powerful corner.”

And after years of wild rumors (Publix? Target? Walmart?) and residents frustrated by Terranova’s opacity about its intentions, McIlroy is reaching out to homeowner associations and neighborhood groups from all areas that border the plaza to keep them apprised of events. So far her efforts seem to be paying off.

BiscaynePlaza_2“I’m enthusiastic about the future and I have a lot of faith in her, and what she’s trying to do,” says Jack Spirk, immediate past president of the Shorecrest Homeowners Association.

McIlroy is even willing to confront rumors. While Terranova has talked to Walmart over the years, and the Arkansas retailer may ultimately find a spot along the Boulevard, McIlroy states flat out: “They are not coming to Biscayne Plaza.”

Still, she knows that making Biscayne Plaza work is like fitting together a jigsaw puzzle. While the more affluent neighborhoods to the east and across the causeway would like to see upscale retailers -- Whole Foods is mentioned often -- it’s the working-class areas to the west that supply the center with most of its customers.

And the plaza’s owners, Green-East #2 Ltd. (Stephen Bittel, Terranova founder, has a small stake) not unreasonably want to make money. “From the retail perspective, it’s a balance between the profitability goals and the desires of the investors, and marrying that up with what the community wants to see,” McIlroy says.

The farmers market, run by the Urban Oasis Project, could be one step in assembling that puzzle. It’s pulling shoppers from all the adjacent neighborhoods. On a recent Saturday, Alejandra Slatapolsky arrives at about 11:00 a.m. and is soon absorbed in selecting arugula while eyeing an assortment of organic tomatoes. “I love this,” enthuses the North Bay Village resident, there with her husband and one-year-old girl. She first came to the market several weeks earlier. On this trip, she even ventures into Sabor. “We started coming to the plaza because of this [the farmers market],” she says.

The covered stalls hold an abundance of well-priced organic produce: corn, beans, greens of all kinds, giant red onions, and edible nasturtium plants with yellow blooms. Also under the canopy is flute player and entrepreneur Gregory Norflee, selling a variety of African-American and African-themed goods, such as dashiki shirts.

Each week brings more customers, says Melissa Contreras, a founder of Urban Oasis, which aims to provide healthy produce to all of Miami’s residents, including areas such as Liberty City that traditionally have few organic and farm-fresh produce options. “It takes a while for any market to be established,” she says. “Last week was so crowded we could hardly keep up.”

Biscayne Plaza’s neighbors can’t be blamed for clutching at small signs of progress at the center, whose ups and downs the last few years have included a close brush with demolition as well as the possibility of joining the nearby MiMo Biscayne Boulevard Historic District. (That plan, still under consideration by the city, has been modified and would now only include portions of the plaza bordering the Boulevard.)

Few Miami shopping centers come with such an interesting past. Built in the mid-1950s, it was part and parcel of the auto-centric aesthetic that underlies the design of nearby motels and other Boulevard buildings. Tucked up against the center is the old Admiral Vee Motel, a masterpiece of midcentury Miami Modern architecture. The plaza was once home to such staples of Americana as J.C. Penney’s and the Lerner Shops. But over the years, residents saw one store after another leave for bigger, enclosed malls.

About five years ago Green-East was ready to raze the mall and replace it with a $400 million mixed-use development, complete with high-rise towers. Then the real estate market went bust. In the wake of the demise of that plan, the property seemed to look more forlorn with each passing year, upkeep an afterthought. Immigration lawyers whose offices once filled the second floor left when the federal government moved its immigration agency out of the 79th Street building across the street. Many in the neighborhood despaired last year when even Big Lots picked up its lawn furniture, dog beds, ramen noodles, and fled.

Yet as commercial real estate comes back, Green-East seems willing to give the plaza another chance -- at least for now.

It will take more than goodwill, however. The farmers’ market, which like all local markets goes on hiatus in the summer, will only have use of the plaza until the end of the year -- unless Rafael Castro, who owns Sabor Tropical, can be persuaded that customers the market pulls in offset any loss in produce sales.

And the name of that soft-goods retailer remains to be seen. McIlroy says the announcement will come in about two to three months. She also says a number of artists have called to ask about the second-floor spaces, and hopes some will move in by August. She needs about a dozen to start. The plaza’s owners back the initiative, she says, which could also include murals on some buildings. “We must figure out a way to reintroduce the community to Biscayne Plaza,” she adds. “I think creative individuals bring energy and enthusiasm.”

Some say that if Biscayne Plaza’s owners want to make it more than a placeholder for eventual development, they should court higher-end stores now, even locating them alongside value chains. “It needs more density,” says Bob Powers, president of the Palm Grove Neighborhood Association. “You can have your dollar stores, but what does a dollar store bring to the neighborhood? People who buy dollar-store stuff.”

The area is without middle-of-the-road stores, he says, such as a Sears. “The plaza needs to do an evaluation of what is there, what is the market, who spends money in that area, and what is lacking.”

As gas gets more expensive, Powers observes, people are looking to move closer in to Miami, intensifying an ongoing trend. “The neighborhood is already becoming more middle-class.”

Both Powers and Spirk believe the next step is to persuade Green-East and Terranova to consider green space. Spirk would like to see areas behind the mall bordering the Little River become a park. Powers says landscaping would go a long way toward making the plaza more welcoming. “They need trees,” he says. “They need trees in that parking lot. If they relandscape that place, it would make all the difference in the world.”

 

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