It's no sure bet, but residents putting money into Miami River area
By Samantha Joseph
It wasn't long ago that the Miami River was known for moving cargo and contamination. Now, the area around the river near downtown is becoming hot for young professionals looking for a home with potential - even if it still might be something of an investment gamble.
"Everyone thought I was crazy because of the neighborhood," said Jeanette Maseda, a physical therapist who moved in December into a new home at Neo Lofts, a $27.5 million development.
Neo Lofts is the first residential development in the River Drive neighborhood in about 20 years, said developer Lissette Calderon. The neighborhood is a low- to middle-income community at the river's southern end in east Little Havana.
"The price was right but there was a lot of risk," Ms. Maseda said. "It was a new concept, a new area, a new developer. We were living without walls in an area that has had no new development."
She said her risk was one she "didn't think twice about. If I had more money, I would have invested in more property there."
Ms. Maseda said she believes a planned revitalization of downtown Miami will reward her by bringing culture, art and entertainment almost to her door. Promised attractions such as restaurants, parks and the $370 million Miami Performing Arts Center would be blocks away.
"I thought I wanted to be one of the first ones on the river because I knew it was an idea that was going to catch on," she said. She was the first Neo Lofts resident to close on her home.
The river has caught on with several developers, according to Brett Bibeau, Miami River Commission managing director, who said the area has attracted $2.5 billion in private development.
About 16 residential developments are active around the 5.5-mile river that runs from near Miami International Airport to Biscayne Bay, according to the river commission, which oversees policy and projects. Those that have broken ground are to add 7,000 residences to the river, Mr. Bibeau said.
One developer, Miami Riverfront Partners LLC, intends to invest $184 million in Latitude on the River, a mixed-used complex near Brickell at 615 SW Second Ave. The project would include 455 condominiums in a 44-story building scheduled to open by December 2006.
"This was just a natural, based on the opportunity to be along the river," said development director Steven Gelb.
To live there, residents will have to spend $170,000 to $600,000.
"The Miami River corridor is going through a renaissance period," Mr. Bibeau said. "Most of these parcels have been vacant for decades. Some of them have even been contamination sites."
In the past three years, city officials have recommissioned a cleanup vessel and created four riverfront parks and plan to add a picturesque walkway to bring visitors and residents to an envisioned "24-hour neighborhood," Mr. Bibeau said.
Ms. Calderon is planning her second river development, NeoVertika, which is to break ground in May. She said 95% of its 443 split-style condominiums have been pre-sold.
"Here we were in Miami and we had neglected the river for several years, for the most part just using it as a working river," she said. "There's a lot of life and energy on the river. It's a unique experience in the heart of the city, and we continue to be great believers in the Miami River area."
Real estate broker Edmund Mazzei, who purchased a two-bedroom loft along the river for $270,000 as a second home, said he views each new project as a catalyst for further development along the river.
His daughter, Tanya Grijalva, who lives in the loft, said she sees the property as a valuable investment that will grow as development continues along the river.
"I'm excited to see what the area will be like in a couple of years," she said. "My father figured that this was the time to buy and saw it as an opportunity."
Ms. Grijalva, an accountant working on Brickell Avenue, moved downtown from Coral Gables for a shorter commute and to enjoy the area's nightlife and entertainment.
"I wanted to live somewhere that was nice and clean but happening," she said. "I live five minutes away from where I work, and that's definitely one big fringe benefit for me. I definitely do not see myself moving any time soon."
Thomas Franco, 33, director of UBS Global Asset Management, said he considered homeownership on Brickell Key but opted two years ago for a River Drive address instead.
"You can almost see the potential there," he said. "It just seems that there's a lot of room to grow there that I haven't seen in other parts of Miami.
"Right now, more and more people are talking about the river," said Mr. Franco, "but two years ago it was a hidden gem. It reminds me of Brickell Key about five years ago and seems to be poised for that kind of growth."
He said lower prices along the river reinforced his decision.
"I am one of those people who like to be part of a growing community," Mr. Franco said. "The whole vibe of the river and what they're planning to do with it as they move forward appeals to me, but the risk is that the river won't develop as fast or to the capacity that a lot of people think it will.
"My vision of development is not 12 or 24 months. It's more long-term," he said. "I'm not in this for real estate speculative play. This is going to be my home."