The Miami River District is the latest area attracting gentrification and investor dollars. But even in the early stages of transformation, the historic neighborhood is falling victim to the worn-out playbook that has whitewashed others with the same bland, bourgeoise façade mostly devoid of exciting dining options — outside of local institutions such as Casablanca Seafood Bar & Grill and Garcia's Seafood Grille & Fish Market.
Right now, more than $1 billion is slated to be pumped into the shoreline that for years saw little more than boat repair yards and rusted-out cargo ships. The Melo Group's 300-unit Flagler on the River opened in 2014. The forthcoming River Landing Shops & Residences, a $300 million project, will offer 426,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space. New York City's Chetrit Group is planning a $1 billion mixed-use complex with four towers, hotel, shops, restaurants, and a public riverside park. Another New York company, KAR Properties, is pitching a 60-story tower topped with an exclusive members-only club. Developer Shahab Karmely described it as "Rome along the River Po. This is Havana in the days of grandeur. This is Shanghai," according to an interview with the Real Deal. Apparently, no one told him that river is located about 323 miles north of Rome. Still, it makes for an impressive sales pitch.
For all the activity, there's only one moderately inspiring dining option on deck. Flagler on the River will feature the first U.S. outpost of Duck & Waffle, a London-based restaurant offering modern takes on classic British fare. It remains to be seen whether the spicy ox cheek doughnut will cross the pond. The British export is sister to the pricey Latin American-infused Asian spot SushiSamba that will open alongside. David Bracha's plans to move the River Seafood & Oyster Bar were scrapped halfway through last year when his current Brickell landlord ponied up a three-year lease extension.
Other than a forthcoming Avra Jain project, the Miami River District seems to be slipping into the same trap that mires Brickell, the Design District, and sometimes Wynwood in mediocrity: developers building über-expensive real estate with little interest in attracting anyone other than national operations or cash cows.
Take, for instance, the 8,000 square feet at Flagler where Bracha was to reopen his flagship restaurant. It's now on the market for $42 per square foot per year. That works out to a monthly rent of $28,000. Even if the space were broken down into smaller spaces, the rent would still be a lofty reach for a young chef or restaurateur who would also have to come up with the money to outfit a kitchen and dining room.
Additionally, most developers are looking for proven operators and unlikely to take a risk. "I prefer the person... who knows what they're doing, not someone who’s on an adventure and you don’t know if they’re going to be successful," Melo Group Principal Carlos Melo said. "We try to find someone who's been successful somewhere else."
Melo wouldn't rule out subdividing what would have once been Bracha's space, but the money guys expectedly won't be the ones fostering the dreams of Miami's budding chefs.
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Instead, developers ought to leave some wiggle room in their budgets and floor plans to accommodate the kinds of small businesses that help give a neighborhood character before it takes its final shape as a soul-sucking revenue stream. That character is what catalyzed Wynwood's boom and set the foundation for its forthcoming vertical development. There's plenty of money to be made in doing things that serve the community better than a national restaurant franchise.
These small spaces could be incubators for good but unproven concepts. Certainly, some will fail. Even if only a handful succeed and grow, it'll be a welcome respite from the international dining syndicates that dominate the city's most prominent areas. Thousands of years ago, the Miami River was home to Tequesta Indians. It deserves more.