Builder's plan for west of Biscayne: city within a city
Despite the condos and cranes already lining downtown Miami, some developers believe there's still gold in Miami's urban core that's been overlooked.
For several years, Boca Raton builder Art Falcone and business partner Marc Roberts have been quietly buying pieces of nine city blocks between I-395 and the central business district.
Now, with more than 20 acres bought or under contract, they are preparing to lay out detailed development plans and seek city approval for the first phase of a massive project: soaring office and hotel towers, condos, shops and plazas immediately west of Biscayne Boulevard.
The project, if successful, could bind together a downtown already revitalizing rapidly but in disconnected pockets, like the Carnival Center area and near the mouth of the Miami River. The patch where Falcone plans to build, known as Park West, remains a scruffy area that's seen little development. Many parcels are still parking lots.
''We want to make a city within the city,'' Falcone said.
It would also prolong a building boom that has included a raft of condominiums, some hotels and new offices.
Experts said they can't recall a bigger parcel of land assembled in downtown Miami, or such ambitious plans. ''It's the biggest project I've ever seen for downtown,'' said Matt Gorson, a real estate lawyer in Miami for more than 30 years who doesn't represent Falcone.
To be sure, success is not certain. Many developers have announced ambitious building plans that later fizzled. For example, Leviev Boymelgreen, a venture between a Tel Aviv billionaire and Brooklyn developer, trumpeted big plans for downtown in 2004, only to scale back.
The biggest question is whether an area already bursting with new construction can support more. Lenders have tightened purse strings amid a credit crunch, and the slumping housing market hasn't hit bottom.
''I just don't see the need for it right now,'' said Kerry Newman, a broker with Koniver Stern in Miami Beach. ``Not for retail, not for residential, maybe hotels.''
Others think the timing may be good. ''If proposed five years ago it would have failed,'' said lawyer Neisen Kasdin, a Downtown Development Authority board member. ''Yet now you have a lot of pieces in place that allow it to happen.'' He said a strong office market, inflow of residents into downtown, the arena and performing arts center are setting the stage for ``the next great leap forward in development.''
Falcone and his partners say they are taking a long-term view. They say they have the financial strength to wait out the slump, construction is a ways away, and expressed confidence they're targeting viable niches.
The sweeping project is the brainchild of Roberts, a sports agent, and Falcone, who made a fortune two years ago selling his home-building business, Transeastern, to Hollywood-based builder TOUSA.
Falcone's timing was perfect. Since he sold, the housing market has gone into a tailspin and TOUSA's stock has plummeted from more than $20 a share to less than 80 cents. Falcone walked away with more than $1 billion.
Downtown Miami represents Falcone's next big bet. Since 2003, Falcone and Roberts bought or put under contract about 85 percent of the land reaching from North Miami Avenue to Northeast Second Avenue and Northeast 11th Street to Northeast Sixth Street.
County records show Falcone and Roberts have already closed on about $70 million worth of the property.
Specifics are scant. Falcone says it's a project that will be built over many years that is still being tweaked.
But he also said the project has been the subject of intense planning and design for more than a year. Elements include offices and shops, hotels and meeting spaces, residences and entertainment and an educational component.
''Fifteen months ago, the plan started coming together,'' Falcone said. ``That's when the process of visiting other projects and meeting with architects started. We have traveled the world to get the best practices.''
Falcone said his team has flown to Europe, China, Dubai, Japan, India and across South America and the United States for ideas. Favorites include Tokyo's Roppongi Hills, Paris' Champs Elysées, Dallas' Victory Park and Rio de Janeiro.
The firm held a private charrette with six architectural firms that flew to Miami to survey the property and make presentations, ultimately hiring Boston-based Elkus Manfredi as master planner. Miami architect Bernard Zyscovich has also been retained as a local consultant.
The developer pledged that all buildings will meet U.S. Green Building Council standards.
SETTING UP SHOP
Falcone, whose privately held company in Boca Raton has interests like finance, construction and telecommunications, also plans to set up shop in Miami. Nitin Motwani, principal and managing director of the project, is moving to Miami to oversee operations.
For office tenants, the team said they're looking abroad at firms with no local presence. For retail, they're avoiding big-box stores.
Talks are under way with hoteliers to serve the luxury and affordably priced travel market, they said.
Falcone said they intend to sell homes for no more than $500,000, less pricey than the luxury condos dominating new construction. He argues the lower-priced units he wants to build represents an underserved market, and because construction is years away, the housing market may have improved by then.
Falcone, who has submitted a bid to build a Miami Dade College building on Biscayne Boulevard, refused to elaborate on other aspects of the project, such as educational components or entertainment destinations.
''The first quarter of next year,'' he and Motwani said several times when pressed.
That's when the builders plan to submit the project's first phase for city approval, decide on a name for the development and possibly announce tenants. They refused to say when they'll start construction.
The project comes as the city is considering Miami 21, a new zoning code for the entire city. But Falcone said Miami 21 wouldn't change the project, and under current law, the project doesn't need any rezoning.
It also has support at City Hall.
''The project is the poster child for Miami 21,'' Miami Mayor Manny Diaz said. ``It is exactly what a well-designed city should look like: the mixed-use, different heights, the street experience. This is the next generation of development in the city.''
BY MATTHEW HAGGMAN - Sun, Nov. 04, 2007 - Miami Herald