Guess which percolating Miami neighborhood is getting a new mega project by a Danish star architect?
Would you believe ... Allapattah?
With surprisingly little fanfare, Miami commissioners have given the thumbs-up to an otherworldly plan in the industrial heart of Allapattah, the multi-ethnic, working-class enclave that’s been stamped as Miami’s next hot ‘hood.
The project design, by the Bjarke Ingels Group, would dramatically “float” a collection of staggered apartment and office blocks on stilts over the old Allapattah Produce Center. The center’s three industrial-style warehouses, each the length of two football fields and still operating as a produce market, would be converted into retail, a trade school and possibly even an urban farm.
The eight-acre center, just half a mile north of the Jackson Memorial Hospital campus, would also be planted with lush landscaping and rooftop gardens, turning what’s now a stretch of treeless asphalt and concrete into an island of green.
Led by Miami Commissioner Willy Gort, who represents Allapattah, city commissioners praised the project as “transformative” and overdue as they voted 4-0 on Thursday to approve the Miami Produce Special Area Plan on first reading. Commissioners granted a waiver because the property is three-quarters of an acre short of the nine acres required for a Special Area Plan — a zoning category, controversial in some cases, that allows significant flexibility in designing a large-scale project, including higher densities.
Because commissioners voted to approve the far more contentious and massive Magic City Special Area Plan in Little Haiti during the same meeting, the Allapattah proposal seemed to slip in under the radar. But Allapattah residents, including several members of the Unite Here union who were at Miami City Hall to support the Magic City plan and an accompanying $31 million aid package for Little Haiti, took notice.
They said the Allapattah plan raised the possibility of gentrification in the mostly low- and moderate-income neighborhood but, unlike the Magic City Special Area Plan, provides little in the way of aid to the barrio aside from setting aside about 100 of its proposed 1,200 apartments as workforce housing, generally defined as affordable to cops and teachers.
Some residents, though, enthusiastically backed the plan as a source of jobs and needed amenities for Allapattah. Cynthia Aracena, a lifelong resident, blamed the lack of both for the fact that many young people, including her siblings, leave the neighborhood.
“There was nothing there for them. No Publix, no restaurants,” Aracena said. “I think this is a wonderful project. We deserve to have something nice.”
Commission Chairman Ken Russell asked the developers to come back for the second and final vote with a “more robust” guarantee of construction and permanent jobs for Allapattah residents, more specifics on the contemplated school, and a greater measure of affordability. Given low incomes in the neighborhood, even workforce housing could prove unaffordable to many residents, he said.
But Gort said that, if anything, Allapattah has a surfeit of affordable housing projects sponsored by Miami-Dade County. Commissioner Manolo Reyes complained that the neighborhood for too long had been a “dumping ground” for facilities no one else wanted, including the county jail and maintenance yards.
“Enough is enough,” Gort said, arguing that Allapattah residents, many of them homeowners, could benefit from an increase in property values if the produce market project succeeds.
Should it win final approval, something that now seems virtually assured, the Allapattah project and its star architect would draw significant attention to the neighborhood, which some tout as the next Wynwood. Real estate speculators have moved into the area, buying up commercial and residential properties and driving up prices.
Allapattah, which sits directly west of Wynwood across Interstate 95, is already set to steal some of its neighbor’s star power. Later this year, the Rubell Family Collection, the private art exhibition space in an adapted warehouse that helped spark the Wynwood transformation, will move into a lavishly converted industrial space in Allapattah.
Allapattah, which gets its name from the Seminole word for alligator, was once a rural area first settled around the time Miami was incorporated in 1896. Today, it’s one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city. It is also known as Little Santo Domingo because it boasts a high concentration of Dominican immigrants among its 45,000 residents.
The neighborhood is bisected by an industrial band that runs from Miami International Airport to Wynwood — land that’s increasingly attractive to developers looking for the next big thing.
The produce market project is the handiwork of developer Robert Wennett, best known for building the singular 1111 Lincoln Road parking garage in South Beach. The dramatic structure, designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, became an instant architectural landmark when it opened in 2010. (Wennett, who sold the garage to a German investment firm for $283 million in 2017, lives in an expansive apartment atop the structure.)
Wennett also put together a winning bid, along with Dutch star architect Rem Koolhaas, for the Miami Beach Convention Center renovation and new hotel project, though the city later canceled it. In second place was a team that included Ingels, a former Koolhaas pupil .
Looking for a new endeavor, Wennett bought the Allapattah market in 2016 for $16 million, attracted by its industrial allure, its central location and the abutting Santa Clara Metrorail Station — a key element that puts public transportation at the project’s doorstep, said Jeff Weinstein, director of development for Miami Produce. That means residents could easily commute by rail to the Jackson health district or downtown Miami, for instance.
“Being on transit is really the future of the city,” Weinstein said in an interview Friday.
Looking also to save the produce market buildings and combine unusual uses on the site, Wennett thought of Ingels, whose firm has broad experience in complex projects that skillfully fuse disparate elements — such as a ski slope on a garbage-to-energy plant in Copenhagen.
“We did not want to scrape the site of its history,” Weinstein said. “We wanted someone to take a fresh look at the site, and they do an amazing job jamming different programs together in an interesting and elegant way. We love the interplay in the design between the history and the new.”
The remade produce center could function as “connective tissue” that the area lacks, Weinstein and the team’s attorney, Javier Aviño of Bilzin Sumberg, told commissioners. They would create a public street through the center of the property and make the now-forbidding property an appealing place to walk through.
“Miami Produce addresses our community’s growing demand for new housing options that lower the barrier to entry for residents in search of a central location with access to public transit,” Aviño said in a statement released after the commission vote.
About half of the 1,200 apartments in the complex would be “co-living” units — four bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, with a shared living room and kitchen. It’s an affordable arrangement increasingly popular in cities across the country with young adults, and it would be the first time in Miami where zoning rules are tailored specifically to allow it, planning director Francisco Garcia told commissioners.
“You’re creating dorms!” Reyes said from the commission dais, describing co-living as a “fancy term” for what he experienced at his University of Florida residence hall.
Reyes did express concern that the model could open the door to rooming houses elsewhere in the city. But Garcia said the co-living regulations would be restricted for now to the Allapattah Special Area Plan.
“We think there is a market. We think this is the right location. We think it will work,” Garcia said. “If it works here, we will explore it [elsewhere].”
Weinstein agreed the units could be appealing to students in the proposed trade school, but said the buildings would also boast an extensive suite of amenities to distinguish them from traditional dorms.
The project won’t break ground for some time, he cautioned.
The produce market remains very much in full operation, with about 40 retailers and wholesalers on site. But the first conversion is already under way, Weinstein said. The operator of Hometown Bar-B-Que in Red Hook, Brooklyn, which has made the Thrillist best-in-America list, will open at the Allapattah market this summer, he said.
“I can’t wait,” Weinstein said.