It's a Monday morning in late December on a corner of Buena Vista Avenue in Midtown Miami, where four burly workers are laboring to place a Romero Britto sculpture onto a metal stand. They are the only sign of human activity on the street, where four art galleries, including one bearing Britto's name, have set up shop.
"It's been quiet," admits New York-based artist Michael Perez, who opened his art gallery shortly after Thanksgiving. "I didn't expect it to be so quiet."
Anna Craft, owner of Galerie 88, next door to Perez's space, concurs: "The foot traffic could be stronger. I would love to see it busier."
Perez and Craft moved to the area believing they were going to be at the center of a bustling arts and entertainment district. Indeed, four years ago, city and county leaders hailed Midtown Miami as an economic catalyst for the Wynwood neighborhood, where the 4-million-square-foot mixed-use project is located. The developers, led by Miami native Joe Cayre and his partners at New York-based real estate firm Midtown Equities, laid out an ambitious plan to transform the former rail yard used for storing shipping containers into $1 billion worth of condos, shops, offices, and restaurants. Midtown Equities purchased the 56-acre site for $34 million.
Formerly known as the Buena Vista rail yard, the Midtown site is located just south of I-195, between North Miami Avenue and NE Second Avenue. When Cayre initially inspected the property, he found a place overrun with homeless drug addicts and blight.
To help the developers, the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County gave Midtown an estimated $177 million in tax breaks to pay for a parking garage and street improvements. So far, Midtown Equities has delivered three residential buildings, and Developers Diversified Realty Corp. built a shopping center that includes Target, Circuit City, Marshalls, Loehmann's, West Elm, and other stores. (Midtown Equities sold a 660,000-square-foot slice of the project to Ohio-based Developers Diversified Realty Corp., which developed the Shops at Midtown Miami.)
But construction delays, lawsuits, the real estate market crash, and a tanking economy have diminished the development's prospects of revitalizing the area. For one, the project is woefully behind schedule; Midtown Equities has not begun construction of a hotel and spa that was supposed to have been completed this past summer. In addition, the developer has also indefinitely halted plans for a fourth building, according to Midtown Equities' local attorney, Lucia Dougherty. "That building is off the table," she says. Cayre did not respond to two messages left on his company voicemail seeking comment.
"Midtown Miami is a victim of the marketplace," says Michael Cannon, executive director of Integra Realty Resources, a Miami-based real estate market analysis firm. "These are very difficult times, and redeveloping that neighborhood is going to take a lot longer than expected."
Compounding Midtown Miami's troubles are more than 50 lawsuits in state and federal court filed against the developers by buyers trying to get out of their contracts; most of them cite the delays as reasons for wanting out. In several cases, Midtown settled for undisclosed amounts and refunded condo buyers. In one instance, the developers settled with 17 unit owners of Midtown 2, the first building to be completed.
Other signs of Midtown Miami's problems include Cayre's initial partner, Miami developer Michael Samuel, bailing out of the project by selling off his interest last year. In addition, Cayre is facing foreclosure on a 5.5-acre site next to Midtown Miami, which indicates his company might not have the financial wherewithal to finish the project.
Nonetheless, local politicians and project boosters remain convinced Midtown Miami will create a vibrant middle-class community in Wynwood. The completed portions of the project have already improved the quality of the neighborhood and attracted shoppers to the big-box retailers — a sharp contrast from the days when addicts were getting their fix behind cargo containers. During this past December's Art Basel, Midtown was a prime destination for popular satellite fairs such as Art Miami and Photo Miami, as well as one of Basel's most captivating exhibits, "Station," on the second floor of the Midblock building on Buena Vista Avenue.
"It is really a nice community when you drive by," says Miami Planning Advisory Board member Maria Sardiña Mann. "It looks like it has the potential to be a really fun live/work-type environment. Hopefully when the economy turns around, the developers will complete what they promised."
Neisen Kasdin, a land use attorney with local law firm Akerman Senterfitt, which represents the Shops at Midtown, says the project has already been a catalyst. "We've created 1,500 jobs," the former Miami Beach mayor notes. "Eight percent of the workforce lives in the City of Miami."
Despite all of that, Midtown Equities is far from delivering on what it promised. The city, county, and developer agreed Midtown would not get reimbursed for construction of the parking garage until 90 percent of the project's first phase was completed by a certain deadline this past July. That didn't happen. Still, city and county commissioners voted to begin paying Midtown Equities an estimated $5.6 million a year to pay off the garage and other infrastructure.
City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes Midtown, told the Miami Herald: "I thought the wiser thing was to allow [the developers] to come as close as they can, let them continue to grow and take a breath."
What's more, city and county leaders were counting on money from the $3 billion port-tunnel/baseball-stadium megadeal to build a street car system that would directly feed into Midtown. But thanks to the Florida Department of Transportation's recent decision to scrap the tunnel, as well as local businessman Norman Braman's lawsuit against the city and county over the plan, some say the megadeal is effectively dead.
Kasdin concedes Miami's overbuilt condo market makes it unlikely any additional residential units will be built at Midtown Miami in the foreseeable future. And that makes it difficult to justify giving the developers taxpayer money when those funds could be used for municipal services around the city, says Miami real estate agent Doris Hall. "How is the developer revitalizing the area when units are sitting empty?" she says. "Taxpayer money was bartered away for nothing."
Mann, the advisory board member, adds that the city and county could also find a better use for the money being set aside for the street car. "I think there are more important issues we should be looking at," she says.
As for gallery owners Perez and Craft, they will reserve judgment for now. "It's been tough because it is such a new area," Craft opines. "But I still think I have a great location. Midtown Miami seemed the perfect fit."
Adds Perez: "It has been a bit of a struggle, but I am willing to stick around and work it out."