Before the first pitch was ever thrown at the new Marlins ballpark, Miami City Commissioner Frank Carollo made a pitch of his own: creating an entertainment district in the city-owned parking garages that flank the stadium.
Months later, the All-Star break has come and gone. But the commercial spaces in the garages remain empty.
City building managers say several leases are in the works, including a deal with an 8,500-square-foot Irish pub called The Tilted Kilt that prides itself on its scantily clad women servers.
“There is definitely some positive momentum,” said Henry Torre, director of public facilities.
But critics say the plan is a mismatch for Little Havana, a working-class residential neighborhood.
“Is the plan for high-end entertainment realistic there? Not today,” said Horacio Stuart Aguirre, a commercial real estate broker and chairman of the Miami River Commission. “The neighborhood is not going to attract a Ruth’s Chris Steak House.”
Others contend the entertainment district idea was created merely to sell the public on the parking garages, which were financed with a $100 million bond issue.
“It’s never going to happen,” said Yvonne Bayona, a Little Havana activist. “They just wanted to lock in their deal for the parking garages and have the taxpayers foot the bill.”
Despite the criticism, Carollo is pushing forward. He blames the sagging real estate market for stalling the leasing process.
“Plus, we expected the Marlins to be doing a lot better going into the playoffs,” he added of the last-place team.
The garages’ leasing agent, Mindy McIlroy of the Terranova firm, declined to be interviewed. Terranova is branding the project “The Shops at Marlins Park.’’
The four stadium parking garages make money in multiple ways.
First, the team pays Miami about $10 per parking spot for every home game, most of which goes to paying down the debt.
Three of the garages also have room for retail.
Leasing the space, city commissioners reasoned, would raise revenue for city coffers while simultaneously injecting life and cash into Little Havana. Most of the retail spaces front Northwest Seventh Street.
Carollo, who represents the neighborhood, took ownership of the project. He envisioned a district dedicated to drinking and dining where fans could hang out before and after the games. He also predicted the restaurants would draw a lunchtime crowd from nearby Jackson Memorial Hospital and downtown Miami.
“Part of the reason we pushed for the trolley system to go [to the ballpark] is that at any given time, there are 50,000 people in the health district and at the courthouse,” Carollo said. “Those people don’t have a place to eat.”
The goal was to have some of the businesses up and running by the start of baseball season in April.
That never happened.
At one point, Miami turned down a supermarket and a pharmacy that were interested in the space, saying they didn’t fit into the plan.
“The plan was to really focus the leasing on more restaurant and entertainment venues,” said Art Noriega, CEO of the Miami Parking Authority, which manages the garages. “We want to make it more of an entertainment area than a grocery store area.”
Critics panned the decision, saying the cash-strapped city should have made a deal with any business that was interested.
Later, Lime Fresh Mexican Grill signed a letter of intent to lease space in the garage. But the restaurant chain backed out in May after being purchased by Ruby Tuesday, Noriega said.
Noriega said the dance with potential tenants came to a halt once the season began.
“Most of them wanted to have a full season of baseball,” he said. “Baseball is sort of the baseline for them to build their business.”
So Miami has not made any money this baseball season.
Carollo and other city officials believe that will soon change.
The first lessee, a cigar shop called 100 Fires, is scheduled to open this year on the ground floor of the First Base Garage, 1502 NW Fourth St. The windows display the name of the store, but the inside remains empty.
In addition, Noriega said Miami is in final lease negotiations with the Subway sandwich chain. Conversations also continue with Lime.
The city is pinning its hopes on The Tilted Kilt, which is eyeing a corner spot in the Home Plate garage.
The Celtic-themed chain has more than 30 locations, including one in Phoenix across from the U.S. Airways Center basketball arena.
Its shtick: buxom female servers in tiny kilts and tartan bra tops.
Torre, Miami’s public facilities director, said other potential tenants were waiting to see who would be the first to sign.
“This is an anchor tenant a lot of people would be excited about,” he said.
Said Noriega: “Our hope is that we are going to, at a minimum, have five or six tenants leased and occupied by the start of the next baseball season” in April.
Jose Casanova Jr., a former city planner who specializes in Little Havana, admitted the plan may be a tough sell in a sagging economy.
“At the present time, it is going to be difficult,” he said. “The stadium is relatively isolated. It’s not connected to commercial activity in Little Havana.”
But he believes an entertainment district could be successful over time.
“In the last five years, especially on Calle Ocho between 12th and 17th avenues, we’ve seen higher-income clientele coming into the area than we have before,” he said. “If they do the right thing with promotions and incentives, a project like this could be attractive.”
For now, the storefronts remain empty.
Aguirre believes the garages will end up attracting an urgent care clinic or an immigration attorney because there is a market for those services in the neighborhood.
“The whole thing was done badly,” he said. “But now that it’s done, let’s figure out how to make it work.”