It Makes a Village

Once an Industrial Warehouse District, the Area now Known as Merrick Village is Becoming the Gables’ New Multi-Family Bedroom Community, with Thousands of Units Under Construction

By Doreen Hemlock

Fall 2019

When Frank Trabold was growing up in Coral Gables, he remembers the area around Bird Road and South Dixie Highway as industrial. You’d drive by and see auto shops and warehouses, but you wouldn’t head there to have fun or walk around.

Now, Trabold is investing more than $50 million in that area, completing a 10-story building with 120 rental apartments above and retail below. He’s excited to be part of a fast-emerging neighborhood where residents stroll, shop, dine, and hop on public transport. “When you’re on the streets in the area, it’s quiet and private, because there’s not a lot of transient traffic. People feel safe walking their dogs,” says Trabold, a principal at Terrace Mountain Investors. “It’s a nice walkable area.”

Trabold’s venture – The Henry, named for Florida real estate pioneer Henry Flagler – exemplifies the transformation of a stretch of Coral Gables now referred to as the Village of Merrick Park neighborhood. A triangle of land bordered roughly by Bird Road, Le Jeune Road and U.S. 1, the area began changing with the 2002 opening of the upscale Shops at Merrick Park. It’s booming today because of a decade-old zoning change that allows mixed-use development in the industrial district, with retail downstairs and housing above.

“We have about 1,500 residential units now, with the addition of Merrick Manor, and we’ll be delivering some 2,000 more in or on the edge of the neighborhood by 2022. The market is on fire,” says Myles Stepner, an associate with real estate firm Avison Young, who represents The Henry for ground floor retail, and describes himself as an “ambassador” to the area. “To give some perspective, this tiny Merrick Park triangle – which is about 20 percent the size of Wynwood [Miami’s industrial-turned-arts district] – will be adding double the number of units as Wynwood. That’s pretty staggering.”

Myles Stepner, an associate with Coral Gables real estate firm Avison Young

New projects run the gamut from the $330 million, three-tower, 496-unit apartment Gables Station being built adjacent to the Metrorail, to Baptist Health’s just announced plan to develop a senior citizen community at 250 Bird Road near Ponce de Leon Boulevard. Developers like Trabold are busy tearing down older one- and two-story structures and replacing them with residential-focused buildings, mostly mid-rises. The new housing is attracting young professionals, young families, executives relocating to Miami, empty nesters, and folks linked to the University of Miami. Residents like the central location, with easy access to downtown Miami and UM by Metrorail, plus proximity to downtown Coral Gables and to Miami International Airport – at a price generally lower than the Gables’ Miracle Mile area and with less density and a mellower vibe than Miami’s Brickell corridor. Little wonder then that Stepner now finds himself in the area, both day and night, for work and play. For work he’s often busy finding retail tenants for new building projects. In the evening, he frequently hangs out with friends, preferring an area “fun, but not wild” and “urban, but clean, polished and spacious.”

Luxury Condos Just Opened, Steps from the Shops at Merrick Park

Henry Torres felt the allure of the neighborhood while frequenting one of his favorite restaurants, Villagio, in the Shops at Merrick Park. The trend for multi-family housing had already started with the Residences at Merrick Park, mid-rise apartments that were connected to the outdoor shopping center. Down the block on Bird Road were another couple of apartment mid-rises in the works, but nothing yet in the luxury category.

Henry Torres, developer of Merrick Manor

So, Torres started buying up land in 2010 to develop a high-end building where residents could walk to the nearby tony stores and restaurants of the mall, or simply relax in its courtyard. It took him years to assemble the 1.5 acre parcel that now hosts elegant Merrick Manor, a 227-unit luxury condo complex featuring warm bronze tones, original artwork and a lush swimming pool/garden deck.

The 10-story modern Mediterranean building debuted in March at 301 Altara Ave., offering well-appointed condos starting at $380,000 for a studio and climbing to $2.65 million for a penthouse. Torres and his Astor Companies invested $110 million and some nine years in the Village’s most upscale project yet.

“I built this building like I wanted to live here,” Torres said during a recent visit. He was standing by a marble-tiled outdoor grilling area near tall potted plants rustling in the morning breeze. Across the pool deck was a sunny social room with TVs on the wall, where residents can meet neighbors or take a break. All the units feature high ceilings at 13 feet, plus Italian cabinetry, European appliances, and other top-notch finishes. “I’ve taken a lot of my own personal time to come in,” he says of the many details added, even 24-hour valet service. “And I put a lot of money in this building into landscaping.”

Merrick Manor condos now are about 60 percent sold, many to South Americans and some to empty nesters downsizing from houses in the Gables. For remaining units, interest has come from Mexicans and families from China, says Torres. His only regret is that he has no more land in the area to develop. “If I could do a replica of this, I’d do the same across the street,” says Torres. “But it’s not for sale.” Indeed, most property apt for mid-rise development in the Village triangle “is already spoken for.”

Merrick Manor

Mostly Apartments for Rent in the Transit-Oriented Area

Like Merrick Manor, most of the housing projects rising in the Village area consider the Shops as an amenity. The multi-story mall now has grown to some 100 tenants, including high-end stores, a movie complex and fitness centers. Its first direct housing spinoff was the adjacent Residences at Merrick Park, built in 2003 and offering 120 apartments in mid-rise buildings, with ground-floor retail.

As the area’s mixed-use zoning took off, the next wave of projects also centered on apartments targeting young professionals. Those included One Village Place, a 112-unit building opened in 2008 at 4100 Salzedo St., with retail below and plenty of two- and three-bedroom units above. Apartments there now list for rent from about $2,600 to $4,000 per month and for sale from almost $300,000 to $1.1 million. Next came Gables Ponce, at 310 Granello Ave., which added 370 apartments in 2013, followed by Berkshire Coral Gables and Modera Douglas Station, both on Bird Road, which added 278 and 262 apartments, respectively, in 2014 and 2015.

Nowadays, projects in the Village marketed more broadly, even to seniors. Nonprofit healthcare provider Baptist Health South Florida announced plans this spring to develop a 2.8 acre site on Bird Road with Houston-based Belmont Village Senior Living, a specialist in communities for the over-55 set. Details have yet to be announced, but the partners say they aim to start construction in 2020 and take two years to build residences that offer seniors independent living, assisted living, and memory care.

Perhaps the most ambitious venture in the triangle is Gables Station, with 496 apartments and 120,000 square feet of retail, anchored by a 90,000 square foot Lifetime wellness center offering a gym, salons, and co-working space. NP International plans to open late next year, with rents likely averaging $3 per square foot, says chief executive Brent Reynolds. He came up with the project while commuting on busy U.S. 1 and realizing the area “was ripe for transit-oriented development, adjacent to the Metrorail.”

“I consider the location really to be a convergence point for Brickell, Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, the University of Miami, and South Miami,” says Reynolds. “The intent is to take this underutilized, lack-of-master planning corridor and turn it into something more of a boulevard.” He sees Gables Station becoming a destination for residents on both sides of U.S. 1 because of its ample outdoor spaces, public art, and links to the Underline park planned for the pathways beneath the Metrorail: “The more you create a community that’s walkable, the more you can shed the single-use vehicle,” he says.

Brent Reynolds, developer of Gables Station

Not all Village projects are big, of course. Roger Development plans Laguna House, a roughly $15 million, deluxe condo venture near the Shops. The group had proposed just 13 condos above ground-floor retail, each unit half a floor or larger, and slated to sell for $1.5 million and up. Now, it’s looking to “broaden the market for a wider range of buyers,” perhaps offering some two dozen units from studios to three bedrooms, says executive Oscar Roger Jr. “Ideally, we’d like to start construction within the next year,” says Roger Jr., calling the area “a hot destination.”

Also on tap for visitors: an upscale hotel adjacent to the Shops. Hersha Group of Pennsylvania already has some city approvals for the project, initially intended to rise seven stories, offer 135 hotel rooms and cost $35 million. But there are no imminent plans to build, says a spokesman from Hersha Hospitality Trust.

A Push for New Urbanism: To Live, Work and Play in the Area, Relying Less on Cars

For architect Burton Hersh, the Village development is a more sustainable turn toward new urbanism, where people live, work and play in the same area, walking more and driving less. He collaborated with the city and developer George de Guardiola on the mixed-use “overlay” of the industrial area.

Hersh says that in the early 2000s, de Guardiola – a new urbanist known for the Abacoa planned community in Palm Beach County – started buying up land in Merrick Park, picking up the former Deel Ford property. He hired Hersh’s firm to work on urban design. They advocated for mixed-used zoning and secured it. Hersh also designed two 10-story buildings for the property, but de Guardiola later sold the land. One design was pursued by a different developer and then modified to become what’s now Gables Ponce, says Hersh, a long-time Gables resident. “When you put people together with retail, it creates a neighborhood,” says the architect. “It’s the old Main Street we got away from after World War II, and now you see people fleeing the suburban sprawl to get back to the urban core.” Still, with many traditional downtowns expensive, the opportunity for new neighborhoods lies in “these little pockets near downtown city cores,” says Hersh.

Ron Shuffield, the real estate veteran who runs Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices EWM Realty, also credits Gables officials for vision – starting with the innovative lease for the Shops, which had the city buy extra acreage to lease out to the mall developer longterm. “The city and developer were very smart in that negotiation, and we all won,” said Shuffield, calling the Shops a magnet for development and source of solid, longterm revenue for the city. Add in officials’ mixed-use zoning approval for the neighborhood, and “it’s almost a textbook on how to build a community and turn from a pre-existing use of an area.”

Success in the Village also is spilling into adjacent areas – in projects small and large, says Shuffield. Some single-family, mid-century houses near Ponce de Leon Boulevard are being renovated, their kitchens, bathrooms, and closets made bigger and more up to date. Families in those houses now can reach the mall and other nearby retail by foot. “They’re so happy to be in a more urban setting, where you can walk to everything,” says Shuffield.

Gables Station

On the multi-family side, there is more to come. Just over the Coral Gables city limits – but still within the Village triangle — the $500 million-plus the Link at Douglas Station project has broken ground. Adler Group and 13th Floor Investments started this spring on the first of five towers set to rise by Metrorail’s Douglas Station: a 22-floor building to host 312 apartments and 6,000 square feet of retail. In all, Link developers plan some 1,500 apartments, 25,000 square feet of retail and a 200,000 square feet of office space on seven acres in unincorporated Miami-Dade County over the next five years. One of its towers is expected to be the largest in the area, rising 36 floors.

Still, within the Village, some gaps remain to be filled. Trabold, the developer of The Henry, sees the need for more restaurants, especially casual eateries that don’t require hours for a fine-dining experience. “That’s a very difficult use in the Gables, primarily because of parking,” says Trabold, principal at Terrace Mountain Investors. Fortunately, when he’s in Coral Gables, he doesn’t drive.