Clubs transforming Overtown, Park West, river areas
By Paola Iuspa
Transforming abandoned, paint-faded warehouses into clubs and bars in Overtown, Park West and along the banks of the Miami River, said community leaders, has started to reshape the character of an area that for decades lay dormant.
With three nightclubs already attracting some of the South Beach crowd and as many as six club owners waiting for the city to approve permits to use remodeled warehouses as hang-outs, commercial property values in Overtown appear to be on the rise.
When the city created five entertainment districts in March 2000, officials wanted to fill a void that many club owners found when trying to relocate to Miami. Today, club and bar owners can chose among Overtown, the media & entertainment district, Park West, Brickell River and Brickell Village entertainment districts to open a business.
Efforts to change the city code were in part started by the owners of now-established Club Space at 142 NE 11th St., Fuel at 60 NE 11th St. and Gold Rush at 15 NE 11th St., said Ben Fernandez, a zoning attorney with the law firm Bercow & Radell.
"We even helped to draft the ordinance," Mr. Fernandez said.
The new law overrode a distance requirement in the districts that kept bars and clubs away from each other, a city document said.
The hours of operation for places selling alcohol were expanded but the number of bars or clubs allowed were limited, said Lourdes Slazyk, assistant director of the city's planning department.
Only 11 places holding a liquor license can operate in Park West, six in Overtown, seven in the media & entertainment district, five in Brickell Riverside and six in Brickell Village districts, according to the document.
"We drafted our ordinance after Miami Beach's," Ms. Slazyk said. "But we learned from their mistakes. We decided to limit the number of clubs we would allow in each district. We made it a little bit stronger."
Before the city passed the ordinance, clubs were required to serve food. Now owners are allowed to serve drinks only, said Mr. Fernandez, who represented the owners of Club Space, Fuel and Goldrush a year ago. He said his clients paved the way for the zoning changes.
"Because the sale of alcohol was not allowed 24 hours," he said, "we needed to come up with something. So we came up with the idea of having special districts like New Orleans has Bourbon Street. The idea is to create a synergy."
Dean Panton, owner of Fuel, said he and Mr. Fernandez approached city officials with the idea and got a good response. That, he said, encouraged him to come up with a new concept.
"We are trying to put cobblestones in the alley behind 11th street," Mr. Panton said. "We want to turn it into a pedestrian street for cafes and restaurants."
Joe Boyer, president of operations of Knight Properties in Tampa, said he is few weeks away from getting a long-awaited permit to open a club on the Miami River. He said he decided to lease a warehouse at 66 SW Fifth St. behind Tobacco Road about a year ago, do about $1.5 million in renovations and open Club 66.
Mr. Boyer said opening night is planned on May 12.
"Someone I know told me of the area," he said. "I came, took a look and I liked it. It is a great location. It is close to Brickell Avenue and people are starting to put a lot of money into it."
Patti Allen, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, said there is another club in the making Club Exile at 90 NE 11th St. could open in September.
The owners, Ms. Allen said, plan to have a recording studio on the upper floor and a club and concert stage on the first floor.
The owners started seeking permits four weeks ago after they bought an old warehouse four months ago, she said.
Ms. Allen said her job is to guide club owners through permitting and inform them where to go to get financial assistance.
She said the Empowerment Zone Trust, a city- and county- created group that gives loans and grants to business owners to promote economic development in Overtown and along the river, among other areas, is one of the agencies she recommends.
"They think it will cost them $500,000 to remodel the place," she said about the owners of Club Exile. "They hope part of that money will come from the empowerment zone, which has money allocated to help buy old warehouses, remodel them and buy the necessary equipment to open a business."
George Sanchez, a painter and sculptor, said he recently bought a 4,000-square-foot warehouse at 75 NW 12th St. with the idea of converting it to a multipurpose space where he could have art exhibitions and hold private parties. He said he is also waiting for a city permit to start.
"I don't need a liquor license for that. But I applied for one just in case in the future I want to use it."
Mr. Sanchez said he could eventually use his warehouse to reproduce a concept very popular in Barcelona where furniture or clothing design stores also have an area for customers to dine or have cocktails.
"Once I get the financing," he said, "it may take four months of construction before I can start renting the space as an art venue."
Mr. Fernandez said there is still one issue that needs to be solved parking. To get a permit to open a club, the owner needs to be able to provide enough, he said, but warehouses were built with little parking.
A solution, Mr. Fernandez said, is for club owners to work out parking agreements with owners of properties at walking distance from their clubs.
"If you don't satisfy the parking requirement, you can not get the permit," he said. "You need to get a variance, which should be easy because there is plenty of off-site parking space in the area. But the city has been a little bit reluctant to grant variances for parking. They are afraid of creating a parking problem."
Also, he said, the city should study the possibility of expanding the boundaries of some of the districts such as Park West to include more warehouses.
Ms. Allen said a conglomerate of clubs and bars would entice people to move to the area, bringing residential development.
"People," Ms. Allen said, "may start wanting to live close to where the action is. I think the Park West district may be fully developed in about a year" in terms of the club quota.
Wayne Stringer, a principal at Foram, 600 Brickell Ave., which owns and manages buildings across downtown Miami, said the new interest in the area has driven property values up.
"Values have increased tremendously," he said. "Property taxes have gone up as all market forces are coming together at the same time. All of the sudden, the area became attractive for entertainment and technology.
He estimated the price per square foot in the Park West and the Miami River districts could now be around $100. "That," he said, "is double what it was a year ago."
Mr. Panton said he agreed.
"I was able," he said, "to buy properties in the area for a very good price two years ago. But after the district was formed, prices went up 400% to 500%."