Gorgonzola pizza with white truffle oil, Chilean sea bass, imported Italian prosciutto and craft beers are run-of-the-mill fare in Miami’s trendier neighborhoods from Miami Beach to the Miami Design District. But such a trendy menu isn’t what you would expect on the edge of Overtown in the area broadly known as Miami’s Health District.
The opening last fall of two high-profile restaurants, Balans and Thea Pizzeria and Cafe, at the University of Miami’s Life Science & Technology Park is fueling optimism that the neighborhood sandwiched between the Jackson Memorial Hospital campus and Overtown is on an upswing. Long dominated by rundown industrial and commercial buildings, the area is now slated for additional retail and residential development.
The two restaurants, at 1951 NW Seventh Ave., are owned by local industry veterans with a history as pioneers in Miami’s urban neighborhoods. They say the same early indicators that brought them to Wynwood and Miami’s Upper East Side are drawing them to the Health District.
“When you go into an underserved area, there’s more pressure to make a more interesting place where people want to come,” said Thea Goldman, the owner of Thea Pizzeria. She learned the art of redevelopment for her late father-in-law Tony Goldman and opened Joey’s in Wynwood with her then-husband. “It’s fun to surprise people. They come in a little trepidatiously. There is a curious crowd that will come. They just have to be enticed. Wynwood proved that. Restaurants can ignite a neighborhood like nothing else.”
What attracted Goldman and Balans’ owner Prady Balan to the Health District was the growth plan for UM’s research park. Both restaurants are on the ground floor of the park’s first 252,000-square-foot building, which opened in June 2011. Four additional buildings are planned for the eight-acre biotech research park. The building is currently about 75 percent leased with a mix of offices and laboratories; plans for a second building call for a mix hotel rooms and offices, which could begin construction later this year, pending a deal with UM.
The goal is to create a thriving commercial center feeding off the $200 million in research conducted annually by the nearby University of Miami Miller School of Medicine on the Jackson hospital campus.
Both restaurateurs say developer Wexford Science & Technology, which leases the land from UM and developed the first building, made deals that were attractive enough to support a long-term approach to the area.
“I knew that it was going to be highly challenging, but I was bored in life, so I thought I would do something daring,” jokes Balan, who has successful restaurants in South Beach and London and pioneered eateries on Biscayne Boulevard and Brickell Avenue. “It probably will take three years. Slowly but surely people do come over. They are liking it and becoming regulars.”
Balan figures all he needs is to attract 10 percent of the 55,000 people a day who work or visit the Jackson Memorial Hospital. Miami’s Health District is the second largest in the country, behind only Houston. To attract those customers to the restaurants at the park, Wexford offers a daily free lunch shuttle to the Jackson campus. The park also offers free valet parking or free gated parking for restaurant visitors.