The country’s fastest growing metropolis is creating a bustling city life just miles away from Miami’s beautiful beaches.
In the fall of 2009—the middle of the financial- and condo-markets crash—Eddy Arriola was in the process of purchasing what is now Apollo Bank in Brickell. He snuck into the building after work hours to do his due diligence because the wealthy Chilean owners didn’t want their employees to worry. “At 9:30 pm I walked out, and there was no place for me to eat, no place for me to grab a drink,” says Arriola, Apollo Bank’s CEO. “I looked up at the residential towers behind our building, and there was not one light on. I remember thinking, The world has come to an end, and we’re buying a bank.”
In just six years, everything has changed.
Brickell is now, unequivocally, the center of Miami. It is the heart of the city’s financial, residential, and soon, commercial, universe, and it seemingly happened overnight. “By April 2010, when I took out the new management team for drinks, there was a happening scene at Mary Brickell Village, and those two residential buildings had half the lights on,” recalls Arriola, who feels moving his company’s headquarters to Brickell was the best decision they made. “I realized afterwards that the financial meltdown and real estate crash had been a great thing for Brickell to fulfill its destiny as a place to live, work, and play.”
The crash allowed an influx of young people, who originally couldn’t afford the high prices, to call the neighborhood home and make the area, for lack of a better term, cool. “We started off in 2009 with 62 percent occupancy, and that grew over the next four years to 95 percent occupancy,” says Alyce Robertson, executive director of Miami Downtown Development Authority (DDA), who estimates the current population base to be largely 25- to 44-year-olds. “There were virtually no condos left to be had.”
That diverse group of young professionals found themselves enjoying happy hours at Truluck’s, downing cocktails at Blackbird Ordinary, and belting out karaoke accompanied by a live band at Blue Martini. And that was just on a Tuesday. “There’s a new generation here who used to go large two or three nights a week on South Beach that are now coming to Brickell,” says Buster Cox, who hosts the karaoke night at Blue Martini. “They have their new condos in Brickell, so this is where they want to be.”
The rise in Brickell’s popularity allowed for a surge in luxury, introducing high-end residences such as The Related Group’s Arquitectonica-designed Icon Brickell, which wowed buyers with its 28,000-square-foot spa and $5 million abstract “faces” sculpture garden entrance. “I think it pushed prices and created a mass of wealthy buyers and renters,” says Carlos Rosso, president of the condominium division at The Related Group. “With those wealthy buyers and wealthy renters came good restaurants, a great hotel, and amazing amenities.”
On the Icon Brickell property alone, there’s Cipriani Downtown, a David Beckham favorite; Cantina La Veinte, where Owen Wilson dined during Art Basel; and Fifty Ultra Lounge, where Pamela Anderson hosted a New Year’s Eve party. Around town, a similar transformation occurred with fine dining and high-end nightlife venues popping up, creating options for locals and visitors with varying tastes in lifestyle.
There’s the award-winning El Cielo, a Colombian restaurant from chef Juan Manuel Barrientos, that’s bringing life to the Miami River, and as Robertson of the DDA says, “has a romantic feel to it.” Komodo, in the heart of Brickell, is the brainchild of David Grutman, the South Beach nightclub king, and serves decadent dishes from lunch until the early-morning hours with a side of energy usually reserved for South Beach. Down the street, Peruvian restaurant Coya offers a members-only lounge with a seasonally changing cocktail list and exclusive events. And El Tucán delivers live shows during two nightly dinner seatings, creating a unique club atmosphere reminiscent of 1940s Cuba.
Many, like El Tucán, could be found in South Beach, but partners and founders Michael Ridard and Mathieu Massa (who also own Bâoli in South Beach) opted for the new bright lights of Brickell. “One reason is the local Latin community, and the other is that there was no nightlife entertainment here and all those people didn’t want to drive to South Beach,” says Massa, who has seen everyone from locals to Will Smith dance the night away in his club. “We wanted to attract locals instead of tourists. That’s who makes you survive.”
Proving the neighborhood’s diversity, residents also love Sidebar, a place where businesspeople can loosen their tie and grab a cocktail among skater kids and local artists. “We get so many walks of life,” says owner Jason Odio, who is also opening Baby Jane this year. “Locals seem to be clamoring for new experiences in new areas.”
The catalyst in the urbanization of Miami is Brickell City Centre, the $1.05 billion mixed-use development that will include luxury shopping, two residential towers, an East Hotel, and two mid-rise office towers. “We felt the development was a symbol for the future of Miami,” says Clare Laverty of Swire Properties, the developer. “We were trying to curate a lifestyle and build off the model that we have in Hong Kong and China, where you have these very successful mixed-use urban developments where people live, work, and play, and stay on the hotel side.”
Brickell City Centre will create a hub within the urban core and fill in the gaps, allowing more Brickell residents to ditch their cars and live the city life they so desire. People will stroll up on foot, ride a Citi Bike, or take the Metrorail or Metromover to dine at Quinto La Huella, sip cocktails at Sugar, and shop at Valentino, Chopard, or the 107,000- square-foot Saks Fifth Avenue. “Miamians are learning how to walk again,” says Related Group’s Rosso, who notes that Latin American buyers used to places like Mexico City, Caracas, Buenos Aires, and São Paulo enjoy an urban center. “All those characters that were in our brochures walking the streets are starting to show up in Brickell.”
And much like the influx of youth, Miamians can also thank the market crash for the creation of Brickell City Centre. According to Stephen Owens, president of Swire Properties, the initial two blocks of the now five-block center were on the market in 2007 for $110 million. “We bought it in October 2008—roughly two weeks after Lehman Brothers went out of business and the banking industry was in total chaos—for $41 million,” says Owens. “It was probably overpriced at $110 million, but we think we got a pretty good buy at 40 cents on the dollar.”
You can call it good fortune, but anyone tracking Swire’s work in Brickell knows the deal was simply shrewd business. The company’s vision for this thriving city life began in 1979, when it purchased Claughton Island and renamed it Brickell Key. “We did that because we wanted to be part of the Brickell community,” says Owens. “There were certainly some that challenged our thinking and said, ‘Why don’t you stay this exclusive, private island?’ But we felt being part of the Brickell district was where we should position ourselves for the future.”
The deal, which in retrospect was a Louisiana Purchase-like steal at $17 million for 80 percent of the island—“You’d probably get 10 times that for just one of the building lots today,” says Owens—laid the foundation for the mixed-use environment with residential, commercial, and office space, and a pedestrian day walk surrounding the island to boot. Swire added the upscale Mandarin Oriental in 2000 because the international brand shared the company’s vision for Brickell’s future. “They didn’t look at Miami as being exclusively a by-product of the US economy, but one that was an economy expanding in a different direction, which was clearly to the south,” he says. “They saw the prospect of Miami, not just the potential.”
It sparked a growth that led to necessary hotels like Conrad Miami and Four Seasons, and a flood of luxury high-rise condominiums that despite a market crash could not be built fast enough. Yes, there were scary moments (“There was a period of time when [the company] sent me back to Hong Kong for three years,” says Owens), but those, like Swire, The Related Group, and Ugo Colombo’s CMC Group, who “saw the prospect” prevailed.
On this cycle alone, Related Group has residential towers 1100 Millecento and My Brickell completed, and Brickell Heights—a two-tower, 690-unit luxury condominium with five rooftop pools and 50,000-square-foot Equinox and Brickell’s first SoulCycle studio—set for completion this year. The company also has SLS Brickell and SLS Lux Brickell Hotel & Residences in the works, separate projects in collaboration with hospitality group SBE that will welcome fine dining like Katsuya and offer a combination hotel and residence with amenities unparalleled in Miami. Possibly the largest project of them all, One Brickell, will contain three towers combining residential, hotel, office, and retail—continuing the all-in-one trend that is the wave of the future in town.
Colombo, who helped shape the Brickell skyline early on with Bristol Tower and Santa Maria (and Epic Residences and Hotel just across the river), is also playing a major role in what his company calls the “Manhattanization” of Brickell, with the addition of Brickell Flatiron, a 64-story residential tower that will be the largest of its kind south of New York. “Back then, buying a condo was about living in a house without the hassle of the house,” Colombo says of his first buildings. “Today, the perspective has changed, and the focus is on the convenience of living in the urban core.”
Among the conveniences of Brickell Flatiron when it opens in 2018 will be a rooftop gym, pool, and Sky Spa in a spot where Colombo opted for a common area instead of a multimillion-dollar penthouse in order to cater to the needs of the modern resident. “I wouldn’t be surprised if on a really clear day you can see Bimini,” he says of the rooftop view. “As they say, the sky is the limit.”
That’s the common mantra among Brickell developers, restaurateurs, and shop owners. There is no limit to what the neighborhood can become, and it’s all happening because the goal of city living is universal. “At the end of the day, we in the development community are all building this new urban Miami together,” says Owens. “It’s not one against the other. We’re doing it collectively.”