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Brickell CitiCentre ready to break ground

Think Madison Avenue in New York or Michigan Avenue in Chicago: Urban shopping is a major attraction in any savvy city, but in Miami, that has long been the missing link.

The groundbreaking Wednesday for Brickell CitiCentre marks a key step in changing that paradigm and boosting Miami’s evolution as a 24-hour metropolis. The $1.05-billion urban shopping and mixed-use development will be spread over three blocks just west of Brickell Avenue and south of the Miami River. Connected by bridges and covered walkways, the 5-million-square-feet project will include a department store, luxury shops, restaurants, a hotel, office towers and condominiums.

For developer Swire Properties, Brickell CitiCentre is an investment in Miami’s future.

“This project is not about what exists today or three years from now when we open,” said Steve Owens, president of Swire Properties. “It’s about what exists 10 years from now. The transformational aspects of this project are contagious. It’s not just about doing a large development. It’s about changing this community.”

Outside the retail shops, many of the individual elements of the project aren’t that different from what already exists in Miami’s urban core. But put them all together, and the open-air design by Miami’s Arquitectonica creates a vibrant gathering spot and a sense of place among Miami’s sea of high-rise towers.

Unlike some of the hotel and condominiums in the area, Swire is not targeting an ultra-luxury audience but a more contemporary, upper-moderate demographic. The project also hopes to find unique specialty niches like its wellness center office building targeting medical tourism

“Most of what we’ve seen in downtown are all independent pieces that sit there without any relationship to what’s next door to them,” said Andrew Dolkart, economist and president of Miami Economic Associates. “When you have a project that creates a sense of place you get a different result.”

During construction alone, Brickell CitiCentre will generate 1,700 jobs per year and more than double that number upon completion in 2015. The overall economic impact is projected at $1 billion, according to a study by Miami Economic Associates.

Since Brickell CitiCentre was announced a year ago, the spillover impact has begun, with at least five new condominium projects launching sales in the surrounding area and two more are on the drawing board.

One of those is the Related Group’s MyBrickell, which was planned before Brickell CitiCentre and has already broken ground. But the prospect of a new urban destination nearby has become a key part of the marketing package for potential new residents.

“It will be a great amenity,” said Jorge Pérez, Related’s chairman and chief executive officer. “This is the type of mixed-use development we have all wanted for the Downtown Miami / Brickell area. It really rounds off what we have been trying to do for over a decade. Miami is not just about fun and sun anymore. We are becoming a much more complete city.”

The changes are already evident in the growth of the residential population in downtown Miami and Brickell Avenue. Over the past decade that number has nearly doubled, reaching 71,600 in 2011 as residents filled up the new condominiums. By 2016, that population is expected to hit 85,000. Add in the existing work-day population of about 200,000, and the combination becomes extremely attractive for both restaurants and retailers.

“There is pent-up demand from retailers to locate in that marketplace,” said Greg Masin, a retail broker with Cushman & Wakefield. “They just haven’t been given the appropriate envelope. What’s being proven out is that this market can support more units than retailers originally thought.”

But the question is, how many?

Swire isn’t the only one that sees a retail void in Miami’s urban core. The area is on the verge of going from famine to feast. There’s still more development to come at Midtown Miami just south of the Design District and Met Square in downtown Miami just north of the Miami River. There’s also the unknown future of The Miami Herald and Omni International Mall sites owned by the Genting Group in the area surrounding the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

But perhaps the biggest competition Swire will face is from DACRA’s Craig Robins, who is in the process of turning Miami’s Design District into a luxury fashion destination. Robins already has the financial backing of the LVMH Group (for Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) and commitments from some of the biggest names in luxury retailing including Louis Vuitton, Cartier and Hermes.

These are some of the same tenants that Swire has its eye on for the 40 percent of its 520,000-square-feet that will be devoted to luxury retailers. The rest would be a mix of more of the type of upper moderate specialty retailers found in Aventura or Dadeland malls, plus 100,000-square-feet of restaurants and entertainment and a 90,000-square-foot department store.

“We’re not going to just be a luxury shopping center,” Owens said. “We have to be realistic. We want to appeal to the greater urban market that exists now.”

Swire has worked with many of the top luxury retailers over the years in the company’s similar development projects, such as Pacific Place in Hong Kong and Sanlitun Village in Beijing. Owens says he has been “pleasantly surprised” with the amount of retail interest, although he has no signed letters of intent. Even if some of the luxury retailers don’t agree to open stores at Brickell CitiCentre immediately, Owens says that eventually they may decide to locate in both projects.

“We’ll have to see in time,” he said. “Shopping centers are defined by how they mature and how they impact the shopping patterns. I don’t know any shopping centers that the tenants who were there when they opened were all there 10 years later.”

Industry experts say that working in Swire’s favor is the project’s location in the middle of what is already a densely populated urban area. But the Design District has the head start on signing leases with luxury retailers.

“To some degree there will be differences in the customers,” said Cynthia Cohen, president of Strategic Mindshare, a retail consulting firm with offices in Miami. “Retailers are going to look at the frequency of residential visits, which is going to be higher in the Swire project. The Design District is going to get more tourist traffic because of the artsy environment. You’re going to get more of the higher-end brands going to the Design District and more of the value priced retailers going to Swire.”

Cohen suggests that Brickell CitiCentre should target international retailers who haven’t entered the market like Top Shop and Uniqlo.

“These are hot retailers with good sustainable concepts,” Cohen said. “They are real traffic drivers.”

Brickell CitiCentre’s goal is to keep Miami’s new urban residents from getting in their cars and driving to the Dadeland or Aventura areas. An existing Metromover station will be part of the project, dropping passengers on the third level amiddining and entertainment.

Incorporating the Metromover station is just one of the many challenges that will come with the construction of a project that includes 5 million square-feet sandwiched into nine acres and built almost completely in three years. Only a 700,000-square foot office building will come in a second phase. By comparison, Swire’s previous development of the entire island of Brickell Key included 6 million square feet of development in 44 acres that was built over more than 30 years.

Swire has spent much of the last year focused on refining the design elements of the open air project that is covered by a climate ribbon to keep shoppers dry and protected from the sun. To keep patrons moving easily between levels, Swire’s plans include a higher ratio of escalators than any project in the United States.

“Brickell CitiCentre is more complicated than any project ever attempted here,” Owens said. “The experience of the user is extremely well thought out. It’s not just about building something inexpensive so you can flip it. We take a different view than many of our competitors.”