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Brickell's draw: A feel of city life

At the new Segafredo cafe in the Brickell Avenue neighborhood, a Friday night crowd presses against velvet ropes. Inside, it's impossible to catch the bartender's eye, impossible to weave through all the bodies to find friends.

Just down the street, the Novecento restaurant is just as claustrophobic. A couple of blocks north at Rosa Mexicano, there's an hourlong wait for dinner, and servers are a blur of tableside guacamole-mashing.

Not long ago, the Brickell area, although home to a string of posh condo towers that went up in the 1980s and 1990s, was more a business district that seemed deserted after dark. But Miami's building boom is changing the skyline and street life.

Today's market is tough for condo sellers on Brickell, with some investors taking proverbial baths, and foreclosure rates climbing. But even with many of the new glossy towers seemingly half empty, the area is jelling as the real-estate slowdown offers a positive: It's opening the door for eager young professionals to snag rental bargains in an area they could not have afforded a year ago.

"I have a lot of friends who live and work on Brickell," Mario Baltizar, a 31-year-old accountant who moved to Miami from Argentina two years ago, says while sipping a vodka tonic and scoping the single girls at the Rosa Mexicano's bar. "So I think I'm going to find a place down here to rent for a year and then maybe think about buying later when things get cheaper."

More and more pedestrians are filling the sidewalks at night, taking their fancy-breed dogs for walks, strolling to just-opened restaurants, coffee bars, lounges.

That feel of city life is what attracted martial-arts teacher Darryl Lipsky, who used to live a few minutes from the karate school in West Kendall where he has worked for 16 years.

In 2006, Lipsky bought a loft with stunning bay and city views at Neo Vertika, on the Miami River at 690 SW First Ct. Now he has a serious commute to work. But the extra time behind the wheel is worth it.

"I can walk to restaurants, to clubs. I used to call where I lived the country," says Lipsky, 36. "Kendall is great if you have kids, I guess. But I don't. For me, the city is the place to be."


On weekends, most of the new spots that have opened in the neighborhood (among them Andu, Badrutt's Place, Abokado, Blue Martini), plus the handful of old standbys (Perricone's, Rosinella, Tobacco Road), jump with crowds lured by the growing urban scene.

And there's the promise of more: An Epicure Market at the Off Brickell project west of Brickell Way on Southwest First Avenue. A Whole Foods and a movie theater at the Met Miami complex, on Biscayne Boulevard just north of the river. A Balans restaurant, a Publix supermarket and an L.A. Fitness gym at Mary Brickell Village, the recently opened restaurant-and-retail mall on South Miami Avenue between Southeast Ninth and 10th streets, epicenter of the action.

"Brickell has always been in the back of my mind as the place where I wanted to buy my first condo," says Marcia Martinez, 30, the Cuban-American vice president of Zakarin Public Relations, which just relocated from Coral Gables to a new space at Mary Brickell Village.

Martinez has lived in South Beach and is now in Key Biscayne while she keeps an eye on slipping real-estate prices in the Brickell area. She hopes to buy something within the year.

"I can't wait to start walking to work -- and to happy hour," she says. "The big difference between Brickell and Miami Beach is that most people on the Beach are transient . . . and basically just looking for a good time. I'm more focused on meeting young, serious professionals who are local, preferably Latin, and have ties to the city like I do. And that's Brickell."

In fact, many call Brickell the new South Beach, even though the neighborhoods are different. Brickell has a decidedly urbane, Latin American vibe as many of the well-to-do from Venezuela, Argentina and other places leave tumultuous governments and economies behind and gravitate toward the one area of Miami that is developing a big-city feel.

South Beach is about tourists, Brickell about locals who work at nearby law firms, accounting firms, banks. And, unlike South Beach, it's not the edgy, Bohemian crowd that's making Brickell pop but the suit-and-tie set.

Of the 6,500 new condo units currently available between the Brickell area (from the Miami River south to the Rickenbacker Causeway) and the adjacent pocket just north of the river where Met Miami and other new high-rises are sprouting, an estimated 4,000 are empty, says real-estate consultant Peter Zalewski, who is working with several international vulture funds planning to buy blocks of distressed units in the area. Once the dust settles on the current building boom around Brickell, there should be 30 new towers offering 16,000 units.

"The funds are going to rent stuff out at a price that will poach residents from Aventura, South Beach, Kendall," Zalewski says. "You'll be able to get a sleek, new, 1,000-square-foot unit on Brickell for $1,200."

Even at current discounted prices, a unit that rents for $1,200 would cost twice as much a month to buy once you figure in maintenance fees, taxes, insurance.

"You would pay about $2,600 a month for a place that costs about $300,000," Zalewski says. "If you can rent the same place for $1,200, you suddenly have an extra $1,400 a month to spend at Segafredo, Novecento, Big Fish. That's what's making Brickell so attractive to the young professionals."

Real-estate agent Maritza Cuellar has shifted from selling units to leasing them. Buyers are circling but waiting for deeper discounts. On a Saturday afternoon, Cuellar rushes to meet clients at Neo Vertika. Three or four other agents, with potential buyers trailing, pass one another in the lobby on their way to show units that likely won't move, although prices have dropped about 30 percent from a few months ago.

"I have to be honest. I haven't made a sale in more than a month," says Cuellar, who specializes in Brickell buildings. "It's very slow."

Cuellar takes young Colombian architect Andrés Osorio and his wife, Lina, to Latitude on the River, 625 SW Second Ave. They look at two-bedroom units with bay views, sleek kitchens and spa tubs. There's a listing for $379,000, which Cuellar thinks can be talked down to about $340,000. But as much as the couple fantasize about a condo just like this one, they say they'll wait for a better price.

"We have a condo in the Gables now, and it's great," Andrés Osorio says. "But a lot of our friends live on Brickell. This is just more the life we want."


Brickell was a showcase Miami address from the city's start. After arriving in 1871, pioneer William Brickell and his British wife, Mary, paid $3,000 for 2,000 acres that ran from just south of the Miami River to Coconut Grove. They set up a post to trade with the Seminoles and built a house at the edge of Biscayne Bay. Mary Brickell developed the Brickell thoroughfare after her husband died in 1908. She also created the Roads area nearby.

By the early 1900s, Brickell Avenue was becoming Miami's Millionaires Row. Among those who lived there: Carl Fisher, developer of Miami Beach; James Deering, who built Vizcaya; artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, famous for his work in stained glass; presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan; Dr. James Jackson, namesake of Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Those who know Brickell's more recent history are confident that the neighborhood's condo market will rebound relatively quickly. They point to the boom in the 1980s, spurred in part by the free flow of drug money. When that business dried up, and when the economies of Latin America tanked and the U.S. debt crisis worsened, Brickell wound up with a huge inventory of empty upscale apartments.

"I moved to the area in 1989," says Miami historian Arva Moore Parks, who picked up a 1938 colonial-style house on South Miami Avenue for $237,500, according to property records. "It was a depressed area. I couldn't have bought a house like that in Coral Gables. There were several new buildings up in the neighborhood, but none of the lights were on. It was a lot like it is now. But eventually, those units all got absorbed. And they will be again."

Bernardo Fort-Brescia, founder of the internationally famed Arquitectonica, the architectural firm that has put the biggest stamp on Brickell, is optimistic about a quick turnaround.

"What happened during that bust in the 1980s is that within three years, the market was coming back, and people were saying, 'We should have bought when it collapsed,' " says Fort-Brescia, whose firm designed the iconic Atlantis, Imperial and Palace condo towers on Brickell Avenue that went up in the early 1980s and, this go-round, Icon Brickell, 500 Brickell and Latitude on the River, among other projects.

As the trend to leave the suburbs and return to the urban core continues across the country, Fort-Brescia says, Brickell will be the segment of Miami's building boom most likely to right itself first.

"Brickell Avenue itself is becoming very much like our Madison Avenue," he says. "The infrastructure is there. Every day, there are more restaurants, more shops, more of what people look for in city life."

Jorge Perez, head of The Related Group, the biggest high-rise condo builder in Florida, built several residential towers in the Brickell area in the early 1990s. Now, with more than 4,000 new condo units at Icon Brickell, 500 Brickell, The Plaza and 50 Biscayne, Perez shrugs about developers who may be losing their shirts.

"What's important is not whether Jorge Perez goes broke, or X developer goes broke.... People will live in these buildings either way. What you see now is nothing compared to what it's going to be," says Perez, who has joined a Wall Street firm to create an investor fund that would pick up troubled new properties at bargain-basement prices, including those built by his company.

"You have to remember that when the bust came to Brickell in the 1980s, there wasn't an urban trend, and it still turned around quickly," he says. "Nobody really wanted to be in downtown Miami then. There were no restaurants, no performing arts center, no American Airlines Arena. Now, this is the cool place to be."

Cooler than South Beach, say some folks who have recently opened restaurants and nightspots in the area.

"We looked at South Beach," says Johannes Badrutt of the Swiss hotel family, who recently opened one of the Brickell area's poshest new restaurant-lounges, Badrutt's Place, 1250 S. Miami Ave. "But I don't like seasonal places. Brickell is year-round. And the crowd here is more elegant. This is the place in Miami that has the buzz."

Although the U.S. economy is shaky, Badrutt -- like many folks developing residential and commercial properties along Brickell -- is betting that healthy Latin American economies will bring in more and more high-end Latin American companies (and those that do business with them) to set up shop here.

Says Loretta Cockrum, chief executive officer of Foram Group behind Brickell Financial Centre, the 40-story office tower going up at 600 Brickell Ave.: "The commercial market is very strong on Brickell, and it will get stronger as more multinationals open offices in Miami, especially those that do business in Latin America. This is like a mini-Manhattan with a focus toward the south. And Brickell Avenue has had global cachet for a long time. There are streets in the world that if you say the name, everybody knows where you're talking about. Brickell is one of those."


Brickell may be hot, but for the most part, restaurant and nightspot owners are trying to refrain from copping too much blown-up South Beach attitude. Valet parking at lunch time is $5 at most places, $15 in the evening, a substantial savings from Miami Beach, where valet parking is usually $18 to $30.

At Andu, a Mediterranean restaurant and lounge on the ground floor of Neo Vertika, a Grey Goose and soda is $10. In Miami Beach, it could be $18 to $25. Some weekday nights can still be slow at Andu, which opened in February, but owner Antonio Viejo is not discouraged.

"We're confident about this area," Viejo says. "We've only been open a few weeks, and it takes time, like it does with any business. But we're doing great. Our focus is to become a real neighborhood spot in a real neighborhood. We want to be a place that's affordable and easy to be at."

Segafredo's owner started out with the same idea. And a premium vodka cocktail remains a down-to-earth $9.50. But there was no way around the velvet ropes at the front door.

"We were expecting a big crowd when we opened. But we were surprised by how big," says owner Alejandro Ferllen. "We are open from lunch until late evening, 18 hours a day. And we are packed almost 18 hours. There comes a point where we can't fit anybody else inside.'

Posted on Sun, Apr. 06, 2008 - BY LYDIA MARTIN - Miami Herald

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