By  on October 16, 2007

Refurbished shopping areas sprout in three neighborhoods.

MIAMI — Residential real estate has slowed here, but several refurbished commercial centers are serving new high-rises and gentrified neighborhoods. Here are three areas, once noted for a hodgepodge of random and seedy businesses, where much of the action is taking place.

Biscayne Boulevard

After three years of dust and traffic jams, the Florida Department of Transportation's $60 million makeover of Biscayne Boulevard is nearing completion, said Robert Flanders, co-founder of the Upper Eastside Miami Council, a homeowners' association founded in the late Nineties to improve and economically revitalize the street. As palm-lined medians, historic lighting and wide sidewalks with shade trees and cafe seating have been installed, upscale boutiques and restaurants, many based in Miami Beach, have replaced liquor stores and motels that attracted drugs and prostitution.

"Using South Beach's evolution as our blueprint, we knew some businesses would be dislocated, but those didn't appeal to our 18,000 residents, especially young families that have followed the gay population's gentrification efforts," said Flanders, adding new zoning bans health clinics, used clothing shops and building heights exceeding nine stories.

Andrea Singer-Love, who remembers prostitutes wandering into Rebel, her 4,000-square-foot contemporary women's store with brands such as Sheri Bodell, Black Halo and J Brand, when she opened in 2002, said sales dipped 15 percent during road construction. She remains optimistic with fall's return of local celebrity regulars, as well as new clients from Miami Beach who have tired of Lincoln Road's crowds and parking fees, or from nearby Blue Condominiums.

"I've always been a destination store, but now I'm getting foot traffic from people who live in $800,000 homes, out walking their dogs or eating at Michy's [a trendy restaurant]," she said.

Julian Chang, who has operated a showroom for an eponymous women's and men's clothing collection, and a contemporary, multilabel boutique next door to Rebel since 2006, survived summer's 30 percent sales decrease by arranging trunk shows and private appointments off-premises. With rent increases of 7 to 10 percent annually, he is looking to make up the difference in sales during high season.

"I'm lucky to have a fair landlord, who's painting the building when construction ends, and to be part of a tight-knit group that informs business owners, unlike Miami Beach where I had a store," said Chang, who also doesn't feel threatened by fashion newcomers like Oyuki and The Transit Shop. "There are enough clothing lines to go around for even more competition."Owning a smaller Oyuki branch in Miami Beach with a sexier selection, Joyce Chehebar launched a second, 2,000-square-foot store in August on Biscayne's west side, where a cluster of boutiques has blossomed, with her signature imported women's brands such as Italy's Phard, Argentina's Carolina K and the U.K.'s Story Sac. Predicting first-year sales of $500,000 to $800,000, she reports that business is better than in Miami Beach because of fewer parking and traffic issues, more reasonable rent and year-round locals versus seasonal tourists.

"People are starting to hang out here," Chehebar said. "Being on the boulevard is free advertising, too, since drivers spread the word."

Former Dolce & Gabbana U.S. president Eric Silverman and wife Margaretha are restoring the once seedy Vagabond Motel for shops, yoga studios and eateries by 2009. Their 1,000-square-foot Transit boutique carries contemporary women's and men's wear from Italy-based Transit, which Margaretha represents for North American sales, along with outside clothing, accessories and shoe vendors.

"We've got gated parking and a guard dog in case any stragglers from the old days return," she said, predicting annual sales of $800,000-plus once construction wraps up.

Miracle Mile (22nd Street SW between 37th and 42nd Avenues)

Joe Vitucci, who took over his father's retail space of 35 years in 1993 to open Curves N' Waves, a women's swimwear and contemporary clothing boutique, witnessed the Coral Gables street's transition from shoe stores to men's wear and bridal to its current status as restaurant row with Houston's, Benihana and Morton's. He recalled how fussy old-timers shrieked when they saw skimpy bikinis in his windows.

"You can't stop progress," he said, of Miracle Mile's "mall-ification," with retailers such as American Apparel, which opened a 2,000-square-foot unit in 2006, and Sunglass Hut, which bowed in winter in about 2,400 square feet. "But my sales increased 10 percent to 20 percent each month during summer because of all the new attractions."

Vitucci isn't the only independent retailer taking advantage of diners waiting two hours for a table at Houston's. The restaurant's valet stand sits in front of Adriana Salcedo's Cybele Boutique with contemporary women's wear by Michelle Mason, Ecliptica and Tufi Duek. But she wonders how much foot traffic is worth the skyrocketing rents."Since I have a triple net lease, my rent doubled this year from $6 per square foot in 2006," she said, adding that empty spaces are multiplying as landlords wait for nationals.

Retailers Mari Alarcon-Grimalt and Daisy Casuso are taking the risk. In May, the friends opened Hip.e, where University of Miami students and South Floridians from as far north as Delray Beach come for clothing by Poleci, Ya-Ya and Vivienne Tam and jewelry by Kenneth Jay Lane and Alexis Bittar. They've even been able to sell crocodile and python belts and handbags by Nevalia for $300 to $2,500.

"Rent's high, but it's $20 more per square foot in South Miami near Sunset Place," said Casuso, predicting first-year sales of more than $400,000. "The Mile is becoming one of the hottest spots in town."

Traffic grew too congested for Catherine Fox-Milian, who moved her Chic Parisien bridal and eveningwear salon south to Ponce de Leon Avenue in June after being on the Mile since 1975.

"I'm a destination business rather than reliant on foot traffic, so it didn't make sense for my customers to fight crowds," she said, remembering a few years back when the Mile would be a ghost town after 7 p.m. "Now it's really happening for happy hour, but it takes 20 minutes to drive the 10 blocks there from my store."

Mari Molina, executive director of Coral Gables' Business Improvement District, said the Mile is heading in Lincoln Road's direction. Though it will never be a pedestrian mall, tenants are deciding whether to leave diagonal parking or reconfigure with parallel parking and widened sidewalks for cafe seating. By spring 2008, an enhancement plan partly funded by the city will begin with $5.5 million to $7 million going toward aesthetics from lighting to street furniture to new surfaces.

"This center has been here since 1925, and it's too valuable to neglect," Molina said.

As companies like Bacardi, Del Monte and Club Med bring more than 40,000 white-collar workers, and luxury residential towers rise near the Mile, Molina said there's no way around increased rent and taxes. She said rents average $50 per square foot, and can go as high as $70. Taxes have shot up 113 percent annually on average from 2002 to 2007."It's a delicate balance of wooing nationals and keeping jewels," she said. "I hope it turns out like Washington's Georgetown where H&M and mom-and-pops coexist."

Flagler Street

Underserved for decades, downtown Miami has renewed interest from fed-up suburban commuters and high-profile developers like The Related Group of Florida, said Dana Nottingham, executive director of Downtown Development Authority. Upscale businesses and services, including Whole Foods Market, Barnie's Coffee and chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud, have begun to sprout or announce plans.

"The government has invested hundreds of millions, while the private sector is betting on billions with more than 1 million square feet set aside for retail," said Nottingham of the area from Interstate 95 to Biscayne Bay, about 40 blocks from north to south. "But the focal point is Flagler Street, the east-west axis of the city's grid."

Since the late 1800s, Flagler has served as the main commercial thoroughfare where Macy's Florida's flagship store, formerly Burdine's, is headquartered, said Robert Geiter, project manager for the Downtown Miami Partnership, a nonprofit organization to promote businesses. He said its historic architecture doesn't appeal to national chains, so better independents cater to more than 120,000 office workers. A total of 12,000 residential units are under construction.

"The days of smash and grab retail crime are gone, as are...tourists who filled up suitcases with sneakers and jeans," Geiter said of the corridor known for discount luggage, jewelry and electronics in the last three decades. "Cheap consumer goods are being pushed out by demand."

As leases expire, spaces stand vacant, ready for the next wave, and rents have increased $40 to $60 per square foot, he said. Empowerment zones donate $23 per square foot plus incentives to new tenants for building out property, and the city granted $13 million for Flagler's new sewers and beautification, including granite pavers, decorative lampposts and landscaping. The agenda also calls for planters, banners and traffic signals.

"An ambassador program to give directions and answer questions starts in December," Geiter said.

The family-owned department store La Epoca has been a downtown fixture since 1965, after relocating from Havana, where it opened in 1885. Partner Tony Alonso generated buzz this summer for his letter published by The Miami Herald, rebutting negative comments about downtown crime and dilapidation by Macy's Florida chairman Julie Greiner."Julie knows it's time to fix up Macy's too. Yes, we have a long way to go, but there are really good things already in place," said Alonso, whose store advertisements promote downtown and free parking for customers. He has brought on his 23-year-old son Randall Alonso to update store decor and merchandise. "We've gone from Levi's and Le Tigre to Diesel, Hugo Boss and BCBG, and our customer base has shifted from 95 percent to 20 percent Latin American. Most shoppers are locals, or European cruise and airline employees."

A six-story Art Deco gem built by Walgreens in 1937, the store occupies four stories, about half its 55,000 total square feet. But Tony Alonso said he would like to expand over the next decade and even erect the original plan's rooftop restaurant and bar.

Joking that the store still stocks Casio watches and Samsonite suitcases because of its location, Randall Alonso also shops Las Vegas and New York shows for Laundry, Joie and Custo Barcelona, and premium denim from Seven For All Mankind, Paige and 1921.

"Once we secured one good denim line, they all started taking my call," he said. "Being isolated makes vendor distribution easy for us, unlike other Miami shopping areas."

This season Randall Alonso plans to create an exclusive women's boutique inside the store with sheer curtains and oversize photographs of his grandparents' wedding in Cuba. To make room for the turnover to bona fide contemporary, a blowout sale started Sept. 17.

"Since our store's name means 'the age,' it's our mission to stay with the times," he said.

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