New businesses follow pioneer to Miami's upper east side
By Paola Iuspa
After Mark Soyka converted a vacant warehouse into a trendy restaurant on Biscayne Boulevard a few years ago, other entrepreneurs followed, bringing momentum to an area once notorious for crime.
In three years, Mr. Soyka said, he has converted a blighted corner off Biscayne Boulevard at Northeast 55th Street into a small strip mall. Next to Soyka's Restaurant Cafe & Bar - a lofty-looking restaurant - he built space for a small theater, a delicatessen shop, a travel agency, a pizza place, a soon-to-come sushi restaurant and a well-lit parking lot.
"As the lights go on, those people move away," Mr. Soyka said, referring to criminals. "They don't like bright light."
Many consider Mr. Soyka, known for co-owning the News Cafe on Ocean Drive and Van Dyke on Lincoln Road, both on Miami Beach, a pioneer in the redevelopment of the upper east side.
Six months ago, another Miami Beach restaurateur opened up on the boulevard at 50th Street. Xavier Lesmarie, owner of the Les Deux Fontaines on Ocean Drive, bought a two-story decaying motel and an adjacent vacant lot for $750,000 more than two years ago. After investing $2 million in the property, he rehabilitated a 1940s building into 5061 Eatery Deli & Books.
The spacious restaurant with exposed pipes, concrete floors, gray-painted metal stairs and bookshelves covering some of the walls was designed to look like a transplant from SoHo in New York.
Mr. Soyka and Mr. Lesmarie have much in common. Both live in the eastside neighborhood and both bought properties to use for storage or a kitchen to supplement other restaurants. They later changed their minds, turning their Upper Eastside venues into successful eateries. Both are normally crowded for lunch.
The area's ample single-family residential base serves as a good foundation for businesses, said Mr. Lesmarie, although his dinner clientele is still weak. Mr. Soyka said one-third of his clients are from the neighborhood.
Some adjacent communities include Bay Point, Morningside, Belle Meade, Bayside and Shorecrest. Morningside and Bayside are designated as historical districts.
Most of the neighborhoods off Biscayne Boulevard are gated communities with Mediterranean-style homes. West of US 1 is Little Haiti, a contrasting low-income neighborhood.
At least some Little Haiti residents welcome the new businesses because they represent employment opportunities, said Leonie Hermantin, a member of the Upper Eastside Miami Council, a nonprofit focused on the cleanup and revitalization of Biscayne Boulevard.
"Many of the new restaurants make the effort to hire people from the community," Ms. Hermantin said.
Real estate broker and property owner Jeff Morr said another restaurant is about to start serving upper eastside residents. He said a French restaurant will open in 90 days in a building he owns at Biscayne Boulevard and 73rd Street.
Mr. Morr said it would have some industrial-theme decorations and would be housed in a 1950s, four-story building. Mr. Morr, who bought the 23,000-square-foot building for $870,000, said he invested $1 million in renovations and resuscitated the building's Miami Modern architecture - a style from the '50s and early '60s that art and architecture buffs call MiMo.
Mr. Morr said Sushi Box is another newcomer. The Japanese restaurant opened less than two months ago on Biscayne at 72nd Street, he said. Also, Starbucks coffee shop is preparing a new space on the boulevard at 69th Street.
Mr. Morr started investing in South Beach 13 years ago, but when prices skyrocketed, he and his partners four years ago started buying in Miami's eastside neighborhood, north of the Julia Tuttle Causeway, or 38th Avenue, south of 87th Avenue and east of the boulevard.
Mr. Morr said many businesses are moving to the Biscayne Boulevard corridor, where he owns about 34,000 square feet in real estate including office space.
Michael DeSimone, who represents a group of New York investors, said many of his tenants at Bay Point Office Tower, 4770 Biscayne Blvd., moved there from Miami Beach and downtown Miami. The centralized location, parking abundance and low rental rates - about $18 per square foot compared to above $30 in downtown Miami and Brickell Avenue - make their restored properties appealing.
Mr. DeSimone said his group is investing close to $2 million in modernizing the 20-year-old, 14-story building. This is the first property the New York group has bought in Miami. It is also one of the highest buildings north of the Julia Tuttle Causeway, where low-rise commercial buildings are the norm.
"People now say 'We are on Biscayne Boulevard' and it is OK," he said. "A decade ago it wasn't OK."
With 75% of his office building leased out, Mr. DeSimone said, property owners in the area don't compete among themselves to entice tenants. On the contrary, he said, they work together to draw tenants from other parts of Miami-Dade County.
"The more good landlords come to the area and invest in their properties," he said, "the more tenants we are going to be able to attract."
Jud Laird, president of BC Property Investments, four years ago started buying the 250,000 square feet of office space he now owns. He also started investing in Miami Beach and later moved west. He said the area's turning point was the opening of Soyka's, 5556 NE Fourth Court.
"While people knew the neighborhood was changing," he said, "they did not notice the change until restaurants and retail started to move in. Restaurants are sexy. Office buildings aren't. People don't care who is moving to the 10th floor of an office building."
Biscayne Boulevard is also set to receive a face-lift in early 2004. The Florida Department of Transportation, which controls the road, plans to spend $25 million to $40 million to add a median with palms, widen sidewalks from 6 feet to up to 14, install drainage and changing lanes configurations. It would help traffic move slower but in a more regulated pace, said Gregory Gay, a city urban community planner. He has been working closely with the state in gathering community input, he said.
To curb crime, the City of Miami has prohibited some land uses and encouraged others in the past 10 years, Mr. Gay said.
Because some of the prostitution and drug problems were tied to some motels renting rooms by the hour, the city no longer allows the motels along the boulevard. Existing motels were exempted from the new code, but if they close for more than six months, they are not allowed to reopen.
As motels are being sold to become office buildings, restaurants and retail space, there seems to be less room for illegal activity, Mr. Gay said. Another deleted land use is public health care facilities, he said. Encouraged uses include office, retail and restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating.
As motels are converted into offices and restaurants, crime may fade away, Mr. Morr said.
"The area still has that rough edge, as South Beach did 10 years ago," he said. "But some people like that. It makes the area a little bit mysterious. To some, it is not always about feeling safe."