By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Miami's skyline is spiked with construction cranes. Drive down Biscayne Boulevard south from the Julia Tuttle Causeway and that's what you see -- that and small armies of orange-vested construction workers cutting across the roadway or stopping traffic so cement trucks can back into the busy boulevard. For the average citizen it all adds up to a temporary nuisance, especially during rush hour. For those living near one of the many construction sites, however, it can be more than a fleeting annoyance; it can mean lives utterly and permanently transformed -- and not always for the better.
For others, like millionaire developers Willy Bermello and Gustavo Miculitzki, the forest of cranes means money, big money. Where many see ground-level inconveniences, Miculitzki and Bermello look skyward and see the ghostly silhouettes of giant buildings, phantoms of future residential towers. To them every slice of affordable property, no matter how small, holds the promise of luxury housing and lavish profits.
While some real-estate analysts warn that Miami's construction boom cannot be sustained, that a collapse is inevitable, and that some neighborhoods will be despoiled by abandoned projects or vacant skyscrapers, guys like Bermello and Miculitzki are laughing their merry way to the bank. Miculitzki scoffs at the idea of a slowdown in the market. "I have a worldwide perspective, and Miami is just getting started," says the Argentine developer. "More and more people will come every year, from the north United States as well as Europe and Latin America."
The people Miculitzki has in mind are wealthy, and they're not interested in just South Beach penthouses anymore. They're buying in downtown Miami, along the gritty Miami River, in Wynwood, and in even more unlikely areas. So the buildings keep going up. In the Edgewater neighborhood alone, a staggering 28 condominium buildings are now planned or under construction. (Edgewater is that narrow strip of land between Biscayne Boulevard and the bay, from NE Fourteenth Street to the Tuttle.)
As absurd as it may seem to the people who live and work in scruffy, blue-collar Edgewater, many a developer is betting on a kind of social revolution, a spectacular change that will be sparked by the opulent condos themselves. By this reckoning, today's Subway sandwich shop will be tomorrow's upscale restaurant; ramshackle dollar stores will miraculously morph into chic boutiques. To confidently take that kind of gamble, Miculitzki says, a developer must possess intuition. "There has to be an ability to know instinctively which pieces of property are right for certain projects," he says.
It must have been instinct that led Bermello and Miculitzki to NE 28th Street, because logic certainly would not. At the eastern terminus of 28th, a quiet, narrow dead-end street just one block long, the developers envisioned a 50-story monolith soaring above tiny one- and two-story homes. Onyx 2, as they've christened their condo behemoth, will be a massive cylinder rising nearly 600 feet into the air. (In renderings the neighboring houses look like ants trudging to a can of Red Bull.) It will be ribbed with balconies on the south side, but the northern face will be covered by a sheer, featureless concrete wall. The 117 condos will range from 1200 to 2300 square feet, topped off by 4500-square-foot penthouses. Other features will include a wine cellar, rooftop garden, pool, and spa. The residences are expected to command prices ranging from $400,000 to $6 million.
It's highly unlikely anyone from the neighborhood could afford even the smallest unit at Onyx 2, and that has thrown into sharp relief the differences between developers like Miculitzki and Bermello and local residents like Dana Murphy. "The decisions that were made to allow this building to come into this neighborhood were decisions for the future residents of Miami, without any regard at all for the people who live here right now," fumes Murphy.
A homeowner on NE 28th Street, Murphy will soon reside in the literal shadows of Onyx 2. The 39-year-old entrepreneur's harangues are punctuated by a strong New England accent and a glare that threatens to cross the line from anger to rage. He's mightily pissed off, and he's smart, and as a former aide to a Massachusetts state senator, he understands that governmental bureaucracies are great tools for gumming up the works of projects like Onyx 2. Last year, when he found out the property three houses east of his would be turned into a colossal condo, Murphy set about doing just that.
Extending one block from Biscayne Boulevard east to the bay, Murphy's section of NE 28th Street consists of nine single-family homes and a modest, two-story apartment building. Despite occasional intrusions by hookers, drug dealers, and homeless men looking for a place to crash, Murphy's block remains a relatively sleepy refuge from the grimy storefronts and relentless traffic rushing by just around the corner on Biscayne.
After decades of convulsive change, Edgewater recently seemed to have finally settled into an identity. Originally developed in the Twenties, the area was first called Miramar, its large homes and mansions modeled after those in Havana's Miramar district. The neighborhood was one of Miami's toniest, benefiting first from an influx of rich northern industrialists and then from the post-World War II economic boom. Miami's urban core, however, festered in the Sixties and Seventies, and that downward tick in the quality of life was enough for some residents to begin selling their homes to wealthy South Americans looking for safe investments. But many of those foreign investors allowed their properties to slide into disrepair as they waited for the market to get hot again. Then, in the mid-Seventies, the collapse of many Latin economies halted investment altogether.