Coconut Grove

CocoWalk, Miami’s original hotspot, lost its spunk. Now a comeback is afoot.

CocoWalk is getting revamped

CocoWalk and the nearby Coconut Grove area will be adding hotels, shops, and restaurants.
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CocoWalk and the nearby Coconut Grove area will be adding hotels, shops, and restaurants.

To anyone who’s been around long enough, it’s an astonishing sight: Half of CocoWalk, the open-air mall that was once the toast of Miami, reduced to rubble to make way for the newest thing in pleasure-seeking Coconut Grove.

Offices.

Just as the faux-Mediterranean mall redefined the Grove in the ‘90s as a magnet for mass tourism and big-chain shopping, food and fun, the cleanly contemporary new CocoWalk that will rise from the dust of demolition augurs yet another turn in the quaint hamlet’s never-ending series of transformations.

The Cheesecake Factory, Fat Tuesday and Victoria’s Secret are vamoose (though the Gap and the Cinepolis movie theaters remain). In their place will be an entirely fresh roster of restaurants, mixed with new boutiques and personal services like a spa and hair salon. Those will be located in half of the original mall, radically refaced and redubbed Two CocoWalk. A glassy five-story office building, One CocoWalk, will be set across a tree-shaded public plaza that’s to replace the mall’s ungainly old central pavilion.

But it’s not just CocoWalk that’s getting a reset.

Big changes are afoot all across the Grove’s compact commercial heart, a one-time redoubt of Bohemian chic that in recent years has experienced a sharp, unhappy comedown. Overshadowed by the hip, youthful allure of Brickell, Midtown and Wynwood, the Grove commercial district had become a maze of vacant stores, shuttered restaurants and lifeless sidewalks.

Now the cool and the interesting are popping up all around, as long-in-the-making plans by new property and business owners begin to bear fruit. The upshot, they say, will be a Grove revitalized by a blend of renovations and denser, infill construction — an urban work-and-lifestyle village with a distinctly local focus.

And while not everyone in the often-cantankerous Grove is happy about the alterations to the landscape, others have embraced the changes as long overdue.

“I don’t think anyone can say the Grove five or 10 years ago was a place anyone wanted to be,” said Michael Comras, a developer and broker who helped engineer the revival of Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road and is now significantly invested in the village center’s turnaround.

“In two years, it will be transformed. It will be vibrant. A place where people want to go. All that’s happening, it’s lifting the whole village.”

The most obvious signs of change center around its principal intersection, where CocoWalk sits and Main Highway, Grand Avenue and McFarlane Road meet.

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A new office building and public plaza will replace the north wing and central pavilion at the CocoWalk mall in Coconut Grove. The rest of the Mediterranean-style open-air mall is being refaced in a modern look. CocoWalk

Kitty-corner from CocoWalk, on the corner of Main and McFarlane, a set of revamped shops is now home to new-breed retailers Bonobos and Warby Parker, which essentially function as showrooms; clothes and eyeglasses are delivered to shoppers’ homes.

Next door is a brand-new, two-level outlet of Miami literary stalwart Books & Books, with a coming wine bar. Mere steps away is another newcomer, Belgian boulangerie Le Pain Quotidien. They join a lineup carefully picked by their landlords, the family of Grove-based architects Bernardo Fort-Brescia and Laurinda Spear, with the help of Comras. Other outlets include Panther Coffee, Juicense and chef Michael Schwartz’s Harry’s Pizzeria.

Now under construction behind the shops: A hotel on stilts that will bear the Mr. C brand, an offshoot of the Cipriani family of Venice fame. It’s the first new hotel in the Grove in years, and the first of what could be three new boutique hotels in the center Grove catering to upscale, urbane visitors. A few blocks east, the Ritz-Carlton hotel is set for a $10 million refresh under a new owner.

When it opens this winter season, the 100-room Mr. C Coconut Grove, designed by Fort-Brescia’s and Spear’s Arquitectonica and developed by a family company, will boast a rooftop pool, restaurant and cabanas overlooking Peacock Park and Biscayne Bay. At ground level, beneath the elevated hotel, will be a garden courtyard and lobby and bar.

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A new Mr. C. boutique hotel, designed by Miami’s Arquitectonica and developed by the family of its principals, rises on stilts on McFarlane Road in Coconut Grove’s village center. The hotel is one of several redevelopment projects aimed at revitalizing the center Grove. CARL JUSTE cjuste@miamiherald.com

Fort-Brescia’s hope is that Mr. C, in conjunction with the adjoining shops, will serve both as a full-fledged urban waterfront resort for guests — there will be a motorboat for their use at nearby Dinner Key — and as a hangout for Grove residents.

“It’s almost like a club for the neighborhood where people can just stumble in and relax,” Fort-Brescia said. “There is no place like that in Coconut Grove. It’s a restaurant that happens to have a hotel.”

By the same token, said Comras, who is also a minority partner in the CocoWalk redevelopment with Maryland-based Federal Realty and the Grove’s Grass River Property, the overhauled mall would again become “the place to be” for locals, though the focus will be far less on tourists than it once was.

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A new office building and public plaza will replace the north wing and central pavilion at the CocoWalk mall in Coconut Grove. The rest of the Mediterranean-style open-air mall is being refaced in a modern look.

Across Grand, a Blue Bottle cafe, for fans with a refined coffee palate, is widely expected to open in a now-gutted corner building that once housed a hamburger chain outlet, though RFK, the broker for the building, did not respond to a request for confirmation.

That means Groveites will have their pick of caffeine and cafe culture within a few steps.

Starbucks just moved from CocoWalk to the opposite corner, across from Panther Coffee and Le Pain. A few more yards down Main Highway from the new Starbucks is The Bookstore and Kitchen, newly renamed and relocated from Mayfair on the edge of the village center. The former Bookstore in the Grove now occupies separate but adjoining cafe and shop spaces.

Comras professes to be untroubled by the close profusion of coffee choices. More businesses draw more people, and everyone benefits from the additional foot traffic, he said.

Perhaps the most thoroughgoing change — the addition of 250,000 square feet of office space in three new buildings, including One CocoWalk — will only augment that critical foot traffic, Comras said. Developers like Comras and his partners are seeking to capitalize on the successful conversion of the long-troubled Mayfair luxury shopping mall into a place for business at a time when the Grove’s Class A office-vacancy rate sits at a minuscule 1.7 percent, according to a report by real estate advisers JLL.

On Main Highway, on what had been a desolate row of restaurants that failed in the wake of the closure of the Coconut Grove Playhouse a decade ago, a five-story building now under construction directly behind Grove mainstay GreenStreet cafe will further boost the neighborhood’s stock of office space. The redevelopment may already be helping stem that end of the village: A block south, Miami River seafood purveyor Casablanca is opening a restaurant in one of those vacant spaces, behind the legendary Taurus watering hole.

At the edge of the business district, David Martin of Grove-based Terra Group is adding offices atop the former city Oak Avenue garage, which the parking authority controversially sold to him for $16 million. The expanded building, sheathed in glass and renamed Mary Street, will incorporate ground-floor restaurant and shop space and retain two popular existing tenants, a gym and physical therapy center, Martin said.

The under-construction Mary Street complex overlooks a small corner park Martin built as part of his three-tower Grove Park condo project, developed in partnership with the Related Group and designed by the firm of superstar architect Rem Koolhaas. A new full-service restaurant by Schwartz, the chef, will open out into the park.

Residents are moving into the first two Grove Park towers, joining new condo dwellers at a another nearby Terra 90-unit condo project. The twisting twin towers of Grove at Grand Bay, designed by former Koolhaas disciple Bjarke Ingels, opened in late 2016. When finished, Grove Park will have 263 condos. Directly behind CocoWalk, a 52-unit, five-story condo, Arbor, is under construction.

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Terra Group’s Grove at Grand Bay is designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, a former disciple of Rem Koolhaas. Rasmus Hjortshoj

Village merchants say an influx of new business from the luxury condos is not yet evident, but say they’re banking on it materializing soon.

Like the addition of affluent new Groveites, the expansion of the Grove’s work space will be critical to the economic survival of the village center, developers and supportive residents say, and the proof is in Mayfair. The hundreds of new office workers brought in by tenants such as Sony BMG Music and the Sapient marketing group starting in 2014 have brought new life to formerly sleepy sidewalks, and help keep nearby restaurants in business, especially in the daytime.

On nights and weekends, thriving new restaurants are again turning the Grove village center into a playground for locals — and what developers and business owners hope will be a sophisticated tourist crowd looking for an authentic, picturesque Miami experience in the city’s oldest neighborhood.

The counter-intuitive trend, perhaps the biggest change over the Grove of old, is driven by Miamians weary of fighting traffic and who now wish to live as locally as possible for everything, from work to cafe, culture and home — preferably within easy strolling distance of all of it.

That close-to-home lifestyle is increasingly sought out by the professionals and young families who seek out the Grove’s lush residential neighborhoods and can afford the high and rising home prices, say developers.

“It brings people into the Grove during the day and at night,” Comras said. “Businesses can’t be sustainable on a few hours a day.”

It may also represent Miami’s urban future: a connected series of such villages where no one has far to go for work and school, or to work out or eat out.

Those include Coral Gables’ downtown, with its recently revamped Miracle Mile and its extensive infill redevelopment; Doral with its new, small-town-style downtown; and surging Wynwood, where developers are rapidly adding offices, condos and apartments to complement the shops and restaurants that have filled block after block of renovated industrial warehouses.

“The only way to save the Grove, or any other community in Miami-Dade, is to make pockets of living areas where you don’t need to leave, where you have shopping, school, church, parks in one neighborhood,” said Marcelo Fernandes, a Grove activist and homebuilder who serves as chairman of the Coconut Grove Village Council, an elected body that advises the city. “I think offices is good. Retail is good.”

Such development fosters increased walkability and walking, a critical element in reducing automobile use, planners and developers emphasize.

“More people walking promotes more people walking,” Terra’s Martin said. “That’s one feature of the Grove we’d like to see more of.”

But Fernandes, echoing a broad consensus among longtime Grove residents, also warns that too much development in the village center could obliterate the small-scale charm that makes the place so appealing in the first place. Fernandes said the city needs to be vigilant and close zoning loopholes that permit occasional abuses by developers.

Because zoning across much of the commercial center allows buildings up to five stories, he said, developers could in theory replace much of its mostly one- and two-story fabric with denser construction. Or they could seek waivers to go even higher — though that would likely ignite a political firestorm from Groveites, known for zealously guarding the neighborhood’s historic feel.

“There’s a finite number of buildings and people that can occupy the Grove. If everything gets built that’s allowed as of right, we’re going to get killed,” he said. “It’s getting to be a bit much. Most people are a little surprised there is so much density going in. The idea is not to stop it, but to keep it from steamrolling us.”

It’s not just the increased height and density that sends some Groveites into conniptions, though. It’s also the sleekly modern architectural style that Arquitectonica exemplifies and that Grove developers have embraced. It’s meant the replacement of some old buildings made of stucco, brick and masonry with steel and glass.

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Sylvano Bignon, left, owner of GreenStreet cafe, and longtime Coconut Grove resident Harry Gottlieb, outside the popular restaurant. After a long downturn, the Grove village center appears poised for a revival, but Bignon says too many vacant storefronts remain and are holding back the neighborhood, whole Gottlieb is concerned about overdevelopment and rising prices. CARL JUSTE cjuste@miamiherald.com

By far the most controversial is Miami-Dade County’s planned redevelopment of the historic but long-shuttered Coconut Grove Playhouse in the village center. The county plan, which goes to a key vote before the city planning board Sept. 5, would restore the theater’s wing-shaped front building but replace its auditorium with a smaller, minimalist stand-alone theater designed by Arquitectonica.

“The Grove is being ruined,” groused longtime resident Harry Gottlieb, who said contemporary architecture is fine — somewhere else. “Some of us who have been here 30 years don’t like the changes.”

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An architectural rendering shows the restored front building at the Coconut Grove Playhouse to the left, with a free-standing new theater at the right. Arquitectonica

The issue, he noted, is that only one building in the village center, the long-shuttered Playhouse, is protected by historic designation by the city. The commercial center needs more designations and better architectural controls for hew construction, Gottlieb said.

“Coconut Grove is one of the most historic neighborhoods of Miami, but nothing is designated, so anything can go up,” he said.

Not to mention that everything has gotten expensive, including lunch, he said. The prices and the affluent-hipster approach in combination with the physical changes, conspire to alienate many oldtimers, he acknowledged.

“It’s hard to find a hamburger and a beer for less than $20 in the Grove,” said Gottlieb, who recently moved into the historically black West Grove from the South Grove in search of an affordable rental. “The Grove has gotten beyond me. It’s all millennial stuff. I’m not a millennial. So I don’t come into the Grove so much, even though I want the Grove to succeed.”

To be sure, new property and business owners are consciously catering to the well-to-do. The area, including adjoining Coral Gables, South Miami and Pinecrest, has some of the highest household incomes in Miami-Dade, Comras noted.

Terra’s Martin defends the choice of contemporary architecture as a reflection of evolving tastes, in particular among the younger bunch now making the Grove home. But he noted that the Grove has a long history of eclectic architecture, including some modern and cutting-edge designs.

“The market dictates a lot of it,” Martin said. “It’s the architecture of the time.”

Fort-Brescia and CocoWalk’s new owners say they’ve been mindful of the scale around them and sought to respect it. Chris Weilminster, executive vice president of principal owner Federal Realty, says that, to succeed in the Grove, new development must fit in.

The original CocoWalk faded despite its initial roaring success as tourists migrated elsewhere, and the new one won’t thrive without local patronage, he and Comras said. To that end, the redeveloped enclave will have a layout and access significantly more open and connected to surrounding streets.

That planning approach should provide an experience much more in keeping with the essence of the Grove than its predecessor did, and contributed to a lack of opposition from residents when the new plan was unveiled, Weilminster said.

“We’re happy we could do all this without creating a hornet’s nest in the community,” he said. “We’re going to work really hard to make sure the scale is right and the community embraces it.”

Still, significant obstacles could slow or crimp the village center’s resuscitation.

Traffic and parking woes have been worsened, at least temporarily, by the spate of construction and the loss of the Oak Avenue garage. The city parking authority is building a new garage on the waterfront and trolleys will eventually run into the village center from there, but a planned new garage at the Grove Playhouse is mired in the planning stages amid heated debate over the fate of the theater project.

A new centralized valet system established by the Grove Business Improvement District helps, but the service is hampered by the shortage of parking garage space, which forces long waits for cars, business owners complain.

And more development inevitably means more cars, no matter how pedestrian-friendly it is.

To blunt traffic, the city and the Business Improvement District, an agency that uses a special tax on property owners, financed the $400,000 purchase of two trolley buses to serve new Grove routes that connect to the Grove Metrorail station on South Dixie Highway and Coral Gables’ trolley line. The agency has also made a deal that brought the on-demand Freebee electric golf-cart service to the Grove.

Many also complain that stretches of the center Grove center remain dingy, especially the narrow, badly buckled and sloppily patched brick sidewalks on Main Highway. The BID is focused on a project to replace the sidewalks and spends $200,000 a year on greening and maintenance of the business district, said new director Nicole Singletary.

Perhaps the biggest hindrance to the Grove’s comeback, though, may be the persistence of vacant storefronts. In some cases, critics complain, investors and speculators — some of them from outside Miami — sit on properties while waiting for the value to rise before flipping them, or demand exorbitant rents.

And values are indeed increasing sharply as developer interest in the center Grove rises. Grove real estate investor Peter Gardner’s group sold the Grove Corner property to be occupied by Blue Bottle for $23 million last year to Chicago investment firm L3 Capital after paying $10.3 million for it in 2013. Gardner, who was traveling abroad last week, could not be reached.

One consequence is that some shops, particularly on Commodore Plaza, have been empty for years. That’s left the charming street, where wider new sidewalks installed by the city a couple of years ago to spur their reopening, in a peculiar state: The street’s four corners are the liveliest in the village center, with restaurateur Sylvano Bignon’s GreenStreet and Lulu’s on one end, and on the other end relative newcomers Maurizio Farinelli’s Strada and Farinelli, and LoKal hamburgers and beer and Atchana’s Homegrown Thai.

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Diners enjoy lunch at GreenStreet cafe, a long-popular spot in Coconut Grove that has successfully weathered a prolonged downturn in the village center. CARL JUSTE cjuste@miamiherald.com

So successful has Farinelli been that he’s just opened a third Commodore Plaza dining spot, the French bistro La Rue. He came in at a low point, but said he sensed Groveites were hungry for better food, service and ambience, and he was able to snag advantageous leases.

But the center of Commodore Plaza remains a forbidding bank of long-vacant storefronts and, with the closing of the Academy of Arts and Minds charter school, an entire empty multi-story building.

“The speculators are hurting this community,” Bignon said. “We cannot allow buildings to stay empty. It’s about caring. No community will go anywhere with empty buildings. Empty buildings kill communities. It’s a political and money issue.”

The prospects for a turnaround on Commodore Plaza are uncertain. Federal Realty and its partners have bought the rundown former Moe’s, with plans to divide it into three restaurant spaces, but nothing is leased yet, Comras said. Meanwhile, a developer announced plans for a boutique hotel in the tiny parking lot next to GreenStreet, though Bignon said he heard that deal may be off.

The issue, Terra’s Martin said, is how to weave businesses that are doing well together cohesively into a whole, encouraging new business and development to fill in the existing gaps — such as parking lots and empty storefronts that deaden street life, discourage foot traffic and hurt businesses.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity,” Martin said. “The debate is, how do we piece everything together? The idea is that we need the entire Grove to succeed.”

The key, said restaurateur Farinelli, will be vigilant balance to retain the village’s historic charm and ambience. There’s no Grove without that, he said.

“Some of the residents don’t want anything to change in Coconut Grove. Unfortunately, life changes,” Farinelli said. “This place is going in the right direction. But you don’t want massive amounts of building. If they pay attention to how to develop properly, it can only get better.

“But it has to retain the village feel. That’s the essence of Coconut Grove.”

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