Morningside growing as haven for Beach refugees
By Charlotte Libov
With its wide boulevard, charming homes and breathtaking views of Biscayne Bay, Morningside increasingly is viewed as a haven for people in their 30s and 40s leaving the Miami Beach scene, seeking a tranquil neighborhood in which to raise their families.
Among them is Jonathan Lieberman, 42, president and CEO of ISN Telcom, who moved to Morningside about six years ago, having persuaded his wife, Andrea. The couple, who have a 41/2-year-old son and "another on the way," couldn't be happier, Mr. Lieberman said.
"We were living in a Miami Beach condo, but we were looking to buy a house," he said. "We looked on the Beach because we wanted to stay there, but we had a specific idea in mind and we couldn't find anything. There aren't a lot of single-family communities there unless you're talking millions of dollars.
"I knew of Morningside. I had a number of friends living there, but when I first introduced the concept to my wife, she wasn't crazy about moving off the Beach. I persuaded her to take a drive-through one day, and she was just blown away by how beautiful it is. So she fell in love with this, and that's how we've come to be there.
"You're driving down Biscayne, and you have no idea of what you are going to see if you haven't been through there before," he said. "But I challenge anyone to find a planned community like Morningside, with very wide streets with landscaped medians and older Spanish Mediterranean and Art Deco homes. It has great charm."
Mr. Lieberman's story doesn't surprise Stephanie Sacco, who also moved there three years ago from the Beach.
"We just got tired of the Beach, and we wanted a nicer area," she said. "I think a lot of people also feel that way." After looking "everywhere on and off the Beach," she said, she settled on Morningside.
"Morningside is someplace that's seen a lot of change," she said. "People in their 30s and 40s who are starting to raise families started moving here, probably three or four years ago. Before that, from what I'd heard, it was mainly an area of older people who had been living here for awhile."
The Morningside area, which contains 420 homes, is generally between Biscayne Boulevard and Biscayne Bay, from Northeast 55th to 60th streets. It was founded in 1924 by James H. Nunnally, president of the Bay Shore Investment Co. who envisioned an exclusive residential neighborhood overlooking Biscayne Bay. The district encompasses buildings designed by more than 40 local architects.
A key reason Morningside evolved the way it did was that the initial homes had deed restrictions, which allowed for duplexes, hotels and apartment buildings to be built only in specific areas, said William Hopper, president of the Morningside Civic Association.
"There were restrictions on the type of houses, how small they could be and what they could be made out of. They all had to pass an architectural review. That lasted until 1941, and in the '50s, '60s and '70s, it was pretty much anything goes until 1984, when the area was designated a historic district," said Mr. Hopper, who moved there that year.
"Several houses, including mine, had been rented out for rooming houses and had been neglected. Motels on the boulevard had been given over to crack dealing and prostitution.
"With the designation in '84, things started turning around. People bought houses and rehabbed them. The streets were redone. Barricades were put up to cut down on traffic at night from people circling the block looking for business, so to speak, and then guard gates were put in. All of the time, the area has continued to improve," Mr. Hopper said.
The area, Ms. Sacco said, "definitely has seen some revitalization. The younger, family-oriented people in their 30s and 40s have moved in and really renovated the houses."
Currently, 24 Morningside homes are on the market with list prices from $579,000 to $2.5 million, said Ms. Sacco, a Realtor. Last year, she said, 18 homes were sold from $459,000 to $1.13 million. Homes stayed on the market an average 58 days, and sellers received on average 96% of their asking prices.
Sales have slowed a little, Ms. Sacco said, reflecting a common slight softening in the marketplace. This year, five homes have been sold for $535,000 to just more than $1.6 million. Homes have stayed on the market this year an average 74 days, with sellers receiving an average 90% of their asking prices, "which is no surprise since there are more homes for sale."
Another factor lending a unique quality to Morningside is the historic designation, which requires homeowners to obtain a special permit and city approval for work that would change the exterior appearance of a house - including alterations, additions, new construction or demolition.
"Since it's an historic area, there is only so much that can be done. The houses need to maintain their original qualities," Ms. Sacco said.
"There are restrictions as far as shrubbery and everything covering the house as well, so if the house had existing shrubbery in the front, it can't be let go to grow too high," she said. "Fences must be approved. There are no add-ons allowed. The historic society wants to maintain the integrity of the homes as they are seen from the street."
Morningside residents take advantage of the "whole revitalization of the Upper East Side." The area has welcomed a new sushi restaurant, a Starbuck's shop and Michy's, a restaurant opened by Chef Michelle Bernstein.
"You don't feel that you need to go to the Beach anymore to take a break or get good food," Ms. Sacco said. "It's a little difficult to get around with all the construction, but that will pass."
Mr. Hopper said she has noticed the increasing number of families like Mr. Lieberman's.
"These are not starter homes. These are homes for people who have gotten pretty well-established, so there are older couples with young children," he said.
But, he said, everyone in Morningside has one thing in common - they specifically chose the community. "This is a unique neighborhood, so it does seem to attract a special kind of person."