When John Kunkel decided to create a new base for his 50 Eggs restaurant group, he staked his claim on a once-forgotten stretch of Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard.
There, in the MiMo/Biscayne Boulevard Historic District, he bought a dilapidated, gutted, three-story motel that is being rebuilt as his growing company’s headquarters and test kitchen — where chefs soon will be concocting dishes to be served at Yardbird, Swine, Khong River House and 50 Eggs’ other new South Florida dining spots.
He won’t be lonely. With new businesses popping up all around him, Kunkel is part of a wave of redevelopment that’s enveloping the 27 blocks of Biscayne between Northeast 50th and 77th Streets that make up the historic district, a stretch once better known for blighted motels renting rooms by the hour.
“There’s a handful of people that have really put some skin in the game and invested in doing something about this area,” said Kunkel, “to make it what we envision it to be.”
So fast are the changes coming to the boulevard that you need a flow chart to map them.
Directly across Biscayne from 50 Eggs’ new digs, celebrity chef Norman Van Aken plans to open a new cooking school for kids and adults in the old Royal Motel, which will undergo a gut renovation as part of developer Avra Jain’s rapidly expanding portfolio of renovated MiMo District properties. Across Northeast 74th Street from the Royal is Jain’s — and the district’s — gleaming crown jewel: the Vagabond Motel, long vacant but recently reopened as a boutique hotel and neighborhood hangout. It’s the project many along the boulevard say was the catalyst for the resurgent interest in the area.
Up the block from the Vagabond, which is soon to get a new restaurant and bar that is part art gallery, Jugo Fresh is opening a store with a drive-through. The owners of the popular Ms. Cheezious food truck have bought a property and are creating their first brick-and-mortar restaurant. Panther Coffee also plans to branch out to a new building on the boulevard.
The Cushman School, long a neighborhood anchor, is converting a former corner liquor store into a new Innovation Center that will be open to locals after school hours.
Condos and offices are also part of the coming mix, suggesting the trend has real legs. A developer plans a mixed-use project to include an eight-story, 90-unit luxury condo tower on a long-vacant lot just north of restaurateur Mark Soyka’s 55th Street Station complex, until recently a lonely oasis of commercial vitality on the boulevard.
Back across the Boulevard, at 5555 Biscayne, Jain is renovating a four-story glass building into ClassA offices for medium-size companies that don’t want to be downtown or on Brickell. She has also acquired the South Pacific Motel, whose neon sign and ziggurat-shaped façade is a MiMo icon, to convert into small office spaces for the creative class being priced out of Wynwood — another trend feeding the Boulevard renaissance.
In a city undergoing a wholesale reinvention, one crane at a time, the MiMo district is carving out its own distinct identity as a low-scale, stylish but unflashy Main Street for the gentrifying collection of residential neighborhoods that flank the boulevard.
“The energy is there. You can just feel it,” said Nancy Liebman, president of the MiMo Biscayne Association, an organization of business owners and residents, and also a key player in the preservation of South Beach’s Art Deco District. “It’s so reminiscent of what South Beach did. It took somebody like Avra Jain, or Tony Goldman in the case of South Beach, to see the potential and start developing.”
The Boulevard revival is characterized not just by faithful restorations of the MiMo, Deco and Mediterranean Revival buildings that line the thoroughfare, but some new construction that respects the scale and feel of the historic fabric, as well as restaurants and shops that focus on the locals, Liebman and Jain say.
“We’ve seen a great demand for it from the neighborhoods,” Jain said. “I think people have realized that it’s time for Biscayne Boulevard to again be what it once was. Miami wants a Main Street. There is nothing contrived about this. It was already here. The neighborhood wanted it, and they want more of it.”
In fact, change was a long time coming to the boulevard, which had been in decline for decades. The city established the MiMo (short for Miami Modern) historic district in 2006 to protect its unique and largely intact mix of architectural styles, but also in hopes of jump-starting redevelopment. But recession and a controversial 35-foot height limit, established to quell fears about overscaled new construction from single-family neighborhoods that back up to the boulevard, kept redevelopment at bay.
Jain and her attorneys at Greenberg Traurig were the first to figure out how to use a city ordinance created as part of the Miami 21 zoning code specifically to provide financial incentives for restoration of historic buildings. The ordinance allows owners of historic buildings to sell to developers in areas like downtown Miami their unused “air rights” so long as they reinvest the proceeds in renovations.
The timing, just as a new boom of downtown development was getting under way, was fortuitous, giving Jain eager buyers for her air rights.
Without that, Jain said, renovation of the Vagabond, a small property that needed millions of dollars’ worth of work, would have been financially unfeasible. That set the template for her other boulevard projects, including a new building in a contemporary style that will house a Starbucks and join two historic motel buildings at 63rd and Biscayne.
Coming next for Jain: partial demolition and reconstruction of the Bayside Motor Inn, at 51st and Biscayne, which will reopen as a hotel.
“The Vagabond was really the tipping point for a lot of us to realize that the neighborhood is undergoing a major transformation,” said Joel Pollock, co-owner of Panther Coffee, which will open a new location on the corner of Biscayne and 64th next fall.
Three months ago, Jessica Sanchez opened Loba, a Latin and Southern comfort restaurant at 7420 Biscayne, close to the Vagabond. With a background in commercial real estate, she had seen how Jain, Kunkel and others were buying up properties and decided it would be wise to base her first restaurant in the neighborhood.
“It just kind of made sense that eventually, if the right balance of people bring different things to the table, you create a little district that might be substantial,” she said.
Fabrizio Carro and his brother Nicola, former chefs at Quattro in Miami Beach, also chose MiMo to launch Via Verdi Cucina Rustica, at 6900 Biscayne, last December. “We wanted to seize the opportunity in a new area that was growing,” Fabrizio said.
David Martinez — co-owner and operator of Michy’s, at 6927 Biscayne, with his wife Michelle Bernstein and restauranteur Steven Perricone — has watched the neighborhood evolve over the years.
“I have seen more change in the last 18 months than in the previous seven years,” Martinez said.
When the couple opened Michy’s — eight blocks from their home — in February 2006, they were among the only restaurants nearby, along with Dogma Grill and Casa Toscana. “We bought a house, got married and got the lease all in 60 days,” recalls Martinez.
In July, Michy’s closed to make way for a total redesign, reconceptualization and new name that may still incorporate the name Michy’s. When it reopens by mid-December, the restaurant will have a bistro atmosphere, with a semi-open kitchen and new furniture — a more-informal setting that suits the boulevard’s emerging neighborhood feel.
“The idea is to make it a more neighborhood-friendly type of establishment — very happy décor, very approachable,” Martinez said. “The menu is going to be completely different — very vegetable-forward, with fresh veggies, seafood, fresh fish, homemade pastas — what you would find at any good neighborhood restaurant around the country, a good burger, one or two steak dishes.”
Nearby, the new Vagabond Restaurant and Bar, by international restaurateur and art collector Alvaro Perez Miranda, will feature a global menu amid retro décor. When it opens in November at 7301 Biscayne, it will have murals by contemporary artists, a living wall of greenery and a constellation-inspired lighting installation.
Neighbors say they are happy that more dining and shopping options will be just a walk or bike ride away.
“I have never been more excited to live in an area,” said Marc Billings, a technology entrepreneur who has lived in Morningside with his wife and two children for two years and who has previously lived in South Beach, Coconut Grove, downtown Miami and South Miami-Dade. “It’s so incredibly alive.”
Some restaurants are not just opening, but investing in property on the boulevard. Jugo Fresh’s owner, Matthew Sherman, paid $960,000 in June 2013 for a property at 7501 Biscayne that he plans to demolish to make way for a new restaurant and drive-through, with two floors of office space.
Less than a block away, on the other side of the street at 7418 Biscayne, Ms. Cheezious’ owner and a partner are renovating their space in a building with other tenants that they purchased in March 2013 along with an adjacent property for $1.1 million.
“Everyone is seeing the potential in the neighborhood,” said Brian Mullins, owner of Ms. Cheezious, who plans to open by the end of November.
The new ventures are joining others that have launched in recent months, like Hint, an upscale boutique; another boutique, the Weekender; and Flavorish Market, a specialty food store. They join other restaurant mainstays like Dogma Grill, Ni.Do. Caffe and Blue Collar.
“It’s a very exciting time to be in MiMo,” said Blue Collar owner and chef Daniel Serfer, who has been serving American comfort food with Jewish and Latin American influences at 6730 Biscayne for three years.
Without a doubt, investors and developers are re-discovering the area. Broker Lyle Chariff said he has acted as an investor or broker on 11 different buildings in recent months, including the sale of the Coppertone building at 7300 Biscayne, which sold for $5.05 million last month.
Part of MiMo’s allure, developers and brokers say, is the relatively low cost of property compared with such other areas as Miami’s Design District, Midtown or the Brickell corridor.
“I like this area because it is one of the last more reasonably and more accessibly priced real estate in the urban core of Miami, and geographically, it is very well located,” said Tony Cho, chief executive and founder of Metro1 Companies.
Another draw for investors: commercial rents have been on the rise. Cho recalls rents at $10 or $15 a square foot a few years ago. Now, he said he is “doing deals at as much as $45 and $50 [per square foot] in some of the more premium locations, for the smaller spaces.”
Kristina Tew, who is selling the former Biscayne Boxing building at 7200 Biscayne as part of the estate of her late father, attorney Tom Tew, has witnessed the surge of interest. With an asking price of $4 million, she has had multiple offers in the three months since she listed the property, including from New York investment firms. Tew, who grew up in Bay Point and now lives in Los Angeles, expects to sell the building for more than $3 million.
Developer Alexander Karakhanian is among the recent spate of investors who have been scooping up properties, with plans to redevelop them in keeping with MiMo architecture. He calls the stretch of Biscayne “a forgotten jewel of the boulevard.”
As one of the area’s biggest buyers, his purchases include: 6405 Biscayne, to become MiMo Place, which will be Panther Coffee’s new location; 7541 Biscayne, with 10,000 square feet of retail space; 6700 Biscayne, a 6,400-square-foot retail redevelopment where Caldwell Cigar Co. will be leasing space; 5215 Biscayne, an 8,000-square-foot retail development; 6925 Biscayne, where Michy’s is located; and 607 NE 69th St., an 8,500-square-foot existing retail structure at the corner of Biscayne and 69th, that has been leased to Living In Art, which is relocating from Wynwood.
“Timing couldn’t be better with the announcement of the new fashion-oriented Design District and the tremendous growth in Wynwood rents, leading many quality tenants — furniture galleries, architecture/design firms, creative studios, art galleries — in search of a new place to call home,” said Karakhanian, who lives in Bay Point and previously lived in Belle Meade. “The MiMo District is that new home.”
Like others keen on the district, Chariff, who lives in Morningside, and Karakhanian cite the corridor’s attributes, including Biscayne’s prominence as the main artery to Miami’s business core, and its proximity to affluent residential neighborhoods like Miami Shores, Belle Meade, Morningside and Bay Point.
“What we have that Wynwood doesn’t have is a daily car count that they would kill for,” said Kunkel, chief executive of 50 Eggs, who hopes to develop new restaurant concepts in the area. “We have residents within walking distance, and that makes the boulevard a more viable area for restaurants and retail.”
Still, MiMO is not without its issues and growing pains.
Critics of MiMo’s 35-foot height limit say it’s hurting the ability of owners of smaller properties, including some of the MiMo motels, to expand to make restoration economically viable. In South Beach, the MiMo Association’s Liebman said, additions to historic hotels made it possible for owners to bring them up to modern standards. “It was done sensitively,” Liebman said.
The height cap is also encouraging some property owners, especially those with vacant lots, to sell their air rights and then build a bland, one-story retail building that adds little to the street, she said. In one case, the owner of a non-historic motel simply tore the building down, Jain said.
But the biggest issue may be the reconstruction of the roadway undertaken a few years ago by the Florida Department of Transportation. The plan, designed to speed cars along, removed on-street parking and gave the boulevard the look and feel of a highway, discouraging the pedestrian traffic critical to making it a real urban neighborhood, Jain and Liebman said.
FDOT has rebuffed alternatives the association has proposed, including requests for more traffic lights and pedestrian crossings, and an offer by Jain to install several spots of on-street parking in front of her Starbucks development as a trial at her own expense. Planners say on-street parking encourages foot traffic and buffers pedestrians from cars, creating a feeling of safety on the sidewalk.
“We maintain that the boulevard is going through neighborhoods. It is not I-95. They consider it a highway. So they just say, ‘No,’” Liebman said.
Without a doubt, the road to the boulevard’s current resurgence has been rough. The neighborhood went through a long decline in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s, when it had a reputation for prostitution and drug deals, with blighted motels and abandoned properties.
“When we first moved in, it was very ‘up-and-coming,’” Martinez of Michy’s said. “Our customers initially wouldn’t come or weren’t familiar, and were concerned about safety and the ‘nightlife,’ if you will, outside.”
Then came the Great Recession, along with 18 months of heavy road construction from 2007 to 2009.
Through it all, the private, 90-year-old Cushman School has served as an anchor for the neighborhood. Now, it is also participating in its growth.
In the past few years, Cushman has bought several properties adjacent to the school, including a liquor store at the corner of 61st Street, where it hopes to complete construction on its new Innovation Center by the end of the year. Emphasizing science, technology, engineering, the arts and math, the site will be used by Cushman students and will be open to the community after school and on the weekends, said Arvi Balseiro, head of school.
“As an independent school, we understand how important it is to do things for our community,” Balseiro said of the school, which has 505 students from nursery through eighth grade.
This year, for the first time, Cushman’s annual “Halloween Howl Hoedown” carnival will be open to the public. The event, this Saturday, will include rides, activities and a haunted house. Food from 25 restaurants will be featured.
Cushman has also served as a neighborhood lynchpin, drawing businesses like the lifestyle boutique Hint, which Mariella Gonzalez opened last year, after driving back and forth to Cushman for years.
“I’ve always seen the potential,” said Gonzalez of the neighborhood. “I knew Miami is growing and eventually it would come back, and that’s why I chose the area.”
Similarly, Jennifer Frehling and her partner, Alain Guillen, opened the specialty market Flavorish in February after seeing the area surge. The market, at 7283 Biscayne, offers added features like wine tastings and a monthly dinner and movie night.
“We’re trying to have a lot of events and be a hub for foodies in Miami — our part of Miami,” said Frehling, who lives in Miami Shores.
More additions are coming to the neighborhood. Developers the Green Dragon Group paid $15 million in June for a two-acre site between 57th and 58th Streets on Biscayne, to launch their first mixed-use project. Though previous developers had planned to constuct Kubik, a taller, larger-scale project, Green Dragon’s plans call for an eight-story, 90-unit condo tower. The developers have hired Sieger Suarez Architects to design it in keeping with MiMo architecture. The project will also incorporate 35,000 square feet of commercial space fronting Biscayne and won’t require any variances, said Hector Torres, chief operating officer of Green Dragon Group.
Plans are expected to be unveiled during Art Basel, with preconstruction sales starting in January 2015, Torres said. Intended for locals, the project will have large units with sizes ranging from about 2,250 to 5,000 square feet, averaging 3,300 square feet, with large kitchens, high-end finishes and appliances, he said. Prices will start at $1.5 million and run upwards at $600 to $750 per square foot. Construction could begin at the end of 2015, with completion in mid-2017, Torres said.
So far, neighbors support the project.
“We’re OK with the eight stories, but any attempt to rezone bigger than that, in the South Florida love affair with higher, we will vehemently object,” said Billings, who is president of the Morningside Homeowners Association. “To the extent that they deliver a project that is worthy of the neighborhood, they will get our full support.”
Also, just outside the district, at 7880 Biscayne, the former federal immigration headquarters is planned for redevelopment as a hotel, residential and shopping complex called Triton Tower. It is being designed by ADD for a group of Canadian and Chinese developers and investors.
Meanwhile, 50 Eggs is completing its new headquarters at 7350 Biscayne, with its entire first floor dedicated to a test kitchen. When Kunkel bought the Art Deco property in December 2012 from Karakhanian and Chariff for $3.5 million, he said he was met with heavy skepticism. Now he’s sinking another $2 million into it, creating what he hopes will be “a home base or hub for the culinary industry in Miami.”
There, in his R&D kitchen, industry professionals, including everyone from farmers to sommeliers and cheese and charcuterie experts, will have access to seminars and classes. Visiting chefs will have a local base to share their knowledge. The building’s parking lot, adorned with shade trees, will double as an event space. And on the roof, as well as on the ground, a chef’s garden will be planted with edible landscaping.
Now Kunkel is scouting and negotiating for more properties, with plans to develop new restaurants. “We’re very excited about what the area holds,” he said, “and really believe in it.”