April 19, 2024

Urban Living Celebrating 50 Years

Tale of Two Neighborhoods

Two Florida communities -- unlike demographically and geographically -- followed similar paths as they declined, then rose again over the past 50 years. Today, they face the same challenges going forward.

Cynthia Barnett | 9/1/2008

SoFi: 2000s

The Former Brown's Hotel
The former Brown’s Hotel, later a flophouse, is now Prime One Twelve, a high-end steakhouse that draws celebrities and sports figures. [Photo: Daniel Portnoy]

SoFi: On a balmy evening this summer, a bright yellow Maserati idles among the cars lined up for valet parking outside a popular steakhouse called Prime One Twelve. The elegant restaurant, where the least expensive entree is a $20 Kobe beef hot dog, is in an impeccably restored, two-story wooden building — The Brown’s Hotel, raised three feet and moved 15 feet back to comply with city codes.

The remarkable transformation of the old hotel came as a surge of interest in historic preservation in the mid- and late 1990s sparked investment in the area. The neighborhood came to mirror the hotel. As fine wines replaced winos, “developers began looking at properties they never would have looked at before,” says William Cary. South Beach’s movie industry/beautiful people era spilled down into SoFi, bringing more young people, including many upper-middle-class Hispanics, who now make up more than half of the population. Says Cary: “Literally, it’s changed from drug-crazed bad guys (Cary once had to run from them while filming a historic-designation report) to one of the most alert, active residential neighborhoods in Miami.”

Today, SoFi epitomizes the riddle that successful redevelopment seems to produce. The area is safer and economically healthier for businesses, and the high rises have pumped in tens of millions of dollars in tax-increment financing to pay for public works like an improvement project under way at the South Pointe Park.

» “When I go to the area now,” says William Cary, “I have to work very hard to remember what it was like.”

Meanwhile, however, permanent residents battle resort owners over noise ordinances and limits on outdoor partying. The film industry has migrated to the more reasonably priced Design District in Miami. And the hotel staff who once called SoFi home while working farther north on the beach now can’t afford to live here. At a high-rise project called South of Fifth, condos sell for upward of $5 million despite the economic downturn.

Indeed, the big question is whether SoFi can remain a sustainable, residential neighborhood given the price pressures created by Maserati-driving sports figures and Europeans who buy homes here for occasional use.

“It is a real question as to the sustainability, especially of families with children,” says Frank Del Vecchio, a retired attorney who lives in SoFi and has led successful battles for noise ordinances and other neighborhood issues. “On the other hand,’’ he adds, “people are making the decision that this is a great place to be. Families are trending toward urban living,” he says, as he watches parents and their kids across the street at the beachfront Marjorie Stoneman Douglas playground. Closed in the 1990s, the park these days is filled with children.

Beth Jacob Synagogue
The Beth Jacob Synagogue complex today is home to the Jewish Museum of Florida.

Tags: Housing/Construction

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