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Miami's Little Haiti is South Florida's next frontier for investment – South Florida Business Journal – The Business Journals

Neil Fairman is a major investor in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. Since 2017, his Plaza Equity Partners has been the managing developer of the Magic City Innovation District, an 8.2-million-square-foot project in Little Haiti.
Jock Fistick / South Florida Business Journal
Neil Fairman, founder and chairman of Plaza Equity Partners, was once skeptical about building anything in Miami’s Little Haiti or Little River. Most of his company’s projects were luxury waterfront high-rises in places such as Miami’s Edgewater, South Beach, North Miami Beach and Hollywood.
But Fairman’s friend, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, wanted him to see some properties being assembled by Metro 1 Properties founder Tony Cho and Dragon Global CEO Bob Zangrillo near 61st Street and Northeast Second Avenue in Little Haiti.
After touring the area, Fairman began to view it as ripe for opportunity – and he wanted in.
“It’s a mile away from the Design District. It is a block-and-a-half away from Biscayne Boulevard,” he said. “And at the other side of the boulevard were multimillion-dollar homes in Morningside.”
Since 2017, Fairman’s Plaza Equity Partners has been the managing developer of the Magic City Innovation District, an 18-acre territory that includes a former trailer park and dozens of warehouses. In the next few years, there will likely be 8.2 million square feet of apartments, hotels, offices, retail and exhibition space built there.
The warehouses have been converted into over 200,000 square feet of retail and office space that is now 90% leased, Fairman said.
Other investors and developers have followed suit, investing millions of dollars into the Little Haiti-Little River area, two overlapping neighborhoods bounded by Interstate 95, 54th Street, Northeast Fourth Court and the Little River canal.
Industry insiders tell the Business Journal there are plenty of opportunities for more stakeholders to build projects there.
“There is still a lot of undeveloped parts of Little River and Little Haiti. And as we see the supply dwindle, investors are going to rush in to create more product,” said Juan Andres Nava, managing director of Metro 1 Properties.
Before there was a Little Haiti, or even a city of Miami, there was Lemon City, a settlement built in the 1850s, predating Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway. A farming community called Little River emerged just north of Lemon City in the early 1900s. Miami annexed both places in 1925.
Fast-forward to the 1980s: Lemon City, Little River and other nearby neighborhoods had become part of an enclave called Little Haiti, home to Haitian immigrants and hundreds of Haitian-owned businesses.
By the early 2000s, a lot of non-Haitian businesses and artists were moving in, too.
Edward Petti, senior VP of debt and structured finance in CBRE Group’s Boca Raton office, said many were homegrown businesses gentrified out of the Wynwood Arts District and the Design District.
“[They were] pushed up into Little River and Little Haiti,” he said. “And that area finds itself with funky cafes and antique stores.”
That influx helped attract investment. In 2017, there were $20.85 million worth of real estate deals in Little Haiti-Little River, according to Real Capital Analytics and Colliers. Sales reached $68.62 million in 2021, and $32.2 million in the first quarter of 2022.
Two years ago, rents for a renovated commercial space in the area were in the low $20s per square foot, Metro 1’s Nava said.
“Right now, you would be lucky to find a space in the mid- to high $20s,” with rents up to $40 a square foot in some high-demand places in Little Haiti-Little River, he added.
One of those high-traffic areas is The Citadel, a 1950s-era former savings and loan building at 8300 N.E. Second Ave. that was transformed into a three-story food hall and office complex by Nick Hamann of Miami-based Urban Atlantic Group Construction. Around The Citadel are trendy restaurants and shops that have replaced most of the Haitian-owned businesses that once operated there.
Thomas Conway, principal of Conway Real Estate, redeveloped two shopping plazas, which he dubbed Ebb & Flow, on either side of Northeast Second Avenue at 82nd Street. Both are fully leased, and Conway said he still gets inquires for space.
“If I had [another shopping plaza] and it was empty, in a matter of minutes it would be leased out,” he said.
Scott Ebbott, principal of Nashville, Tennessee-based AJ Capital Partners, has a similar dilemma. His company invested $92.75 million in a 24-acre warehouse area near Northwest 71st Street and Second Avenue that’s been converted into offices and retail. Dubbed Little River//Miami, all available space has been leased to 46 tenants, including galleries, interior decorators, law firms and eateries, Ebbott said. Most of the warehouses now under renovation have been preleased, as well.
“We have so many businesses [that] want to get into the neighborhood that we just don’t have anywhere to put them,” he added.
But Ebbott isn’t just focused on retail and office tenants. He wants to build more apartments in a part of Miami that already includes single-family homes. Phase one will be a 270-unit apartment building, constructed in partnership with New York developer Dasha Zhukova, that will break ground within 18 months.
“There just seems to be a … need for housing in Little River,” Ebbott said, adding that rents will be market rate.
The project comes as such rents are on the rise.
A one-bedroom unit in Little Haiti and Little River now averages $1,166 a month, a 23% increase in three years, said Oscar Banegas, senior associate of multifamily investments in the Fort Lauderdale office of Franklin Street.
Magic City Innovation District partners have unveiled their own plans to build a 25-story project with 349 residential units and 13,010 square feet of retail. The residences will be among the 2,630 units slated for construction in the district in the coming years.
The units will average 900 square feet and offer luxury amenities and Biscayne Bay views, Plaza Equity’s Fairman said, adding that he’s confident he’ll find renters. “Some of the people that are living in Miami Shores and in Edgewater are going to move [there].”
Visit Little Haiti on a Saturday afternoon, and Haitian music can be heard from the covered pavilion at Northeast 59th Street and Second Avenue as vendors sell food and goods inside the city-owned Caribbean Marketplace.
But less than a block away, a giant sign spelling out “Magic City” serves as a reminder that change is on the way.
Jan Mapou, who’s owned Creole bookstore Libreri Mapou for 32 years, said he isn’t sure the name Little Haiti will stick if most of the Haitian businesses and working-class residents are pushed out by rising rents.
Mapou said he owns the land on which his store sits, but most business operators rent. Many are shutting down or moving to more affordable areas such as North Miami or Miramar, he added.
“Sooner or later, Little Haiti will turn into Magic City,” Mapou said with a sigh.
Fayola Nicaisse, a former member of the Little Haiti Revitalization Trust, said two popular Haitian restaurants have recently gone out of business, and several other Haitian-owned shops are in danger of closing.
“If these businesses don’t get help, they are going to disappear because a lot of them are on a month-to-month basis. They don’t have a lease. The landlord can tell them to go at any time,” said Nicaisse, owner of Ebene Naturals, a skin and hair product business with a store in Overtown and a booth in the Caribbean Marketplace.
Financial assistance for small businesses and affordable housing was supposed to come from a $31 million trust that Magic City’s developers pledged to fund in exchange for massive zoning rights. So far, $6 million has been paid, but that money hasn’t been spent, a city spokesperson said. The trust won’t receive the other $25 million until Magic City Innovation District secures permits to build 1 million square feet of new development.
CBRE’s Petti anticipates that Little Haiti and Little River will attract more investment thanks to changes in other neighborhoods, its location within a federal opportunity zone, and its underground infrastructure.
A possible Brightline or Tri-Rail train station is another potential plus for the area’s growth, said Eric Fixler, CBRE’s executive VP of capital markets. Its proximity to downtown makes for a manageable commute.
What’s more, as concerns over sea level rise grow, more lenders are backing projects built on high elevations, which bodes well for structures in Little Haiti and Little River, he said.
Plaza Equity’s Fairman said elevation wasn’t a factor for his investment. Instead, he saw Little Haiti’s parks, cultural facilities, road grid and neighboring Wynwood as reasons to buy in.
“We always saw, as rents went up in Wynwood, we would be a fallback position for artists and businesses who could not afford it,” he said.
Metro 1’s Nava said Little River-Little Haiti is generating excitement because it still has “a good local feel.”
“That validation is causing a rush to find space … and the supply can’t keep up with the demand,” he said.
And that will generate even more change in the area.
“There are still a lot of underinvested properties [and] buildings that are not fixed that could use a little bit of life,” he said.
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