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A rendering of Brickell City Centre in downtown Miami, which will offer retail, residential, hotel, office, and entertainment space. (Swire Properties Inc.)

On a sprawling nine-acre (3.6 ha) site in the heart of Miami, construction crews are working on the first above-ground levels of Brickell City Centre, a $1.05 billion project that proponents say will redefine the city’s downtown when the first phase is completed in 2015. Developed by Hong Kong–based Swire Properties, Brickell City Centre will bring 2.9 million square feet (270,000 sq m) of retail, residential, hotel, office, and entertainment space to an area that, not long ago, was known as a disconnected jumble of funky strip malls, isolated towers, and empty lots. Five towers will be added to the skyline when the initial construction is completed, with another office tower scheduled for completion in 2018.

Swire’s ambition is to create a destination retail and entertainment center in Brickell, the first of its kind in downtown Miami. The project is directly linked to the Metromover, a free, elevated electric tram run by Miami Dade Transit that operates on a 4.4-mile (7 km) loop, raising hopes that the project may spur growth of the slowly evolving mass transit system in one of the most car-obsessed cities in the country.

The project under construction includes two residential towers, a “wellness center” focused on health and medical services, and a hotel tower with 263 guest rooms and 89 serviced apartments, which will be operated by Swire’s East brand. In 2013, Swire purchased an adjacent lot, for which the firm has announced plans for an 80-story tower, which would be the tallest building in the southeastern United States, according to data tracked by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

“This is creating what amounts to Miami’s version of Rockefeller Center,” says Neisen Kasdin, vice chair of the Miami Downtown Development Authority and office managing partner for Akerman, the law firm that served as land use counsel for Swire.

Brickell City Centre’s designers are also challenging Miami’s sometimes-brutal climate. The project’s most distinctive feature is a $20 million “climate ribbon,” a 150,000-square-foot (14,000 sq m) strip of steel, fabric, and glass covering the retail space that is designed to harness Miami’s Caribbean breezes while deflecting the sun to create a comfortable open-air shopping environment.

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By assembling a nine-acre (2.2 ha) site, the developer was able to qualify the development as a special planning area, allowing more latitude to master-plan the area as a mixed-use development. (Swire Properties Inc.)

 

Rapid Growth

Brickell is defined as the waterfront district south of the Miami River, centered on the row of residential and office towers lining Brickell Avenue, the main north–south corridor. Brickell’s population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, from 13,584 to 27,776, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 63 buildings with 18,674 residential units were built in Brickell and the central business district during that decade, according to a report prepared for the Downtown Development Authority.

But, when the Miami condo market deflated in 2007, Brickell was one of the hardest-hit areas, with prices dropping as much as 50 percent in some buildings and a high level of foreclosures.

The redevelopment boom was only starting to reach the inland areas of Brickell, between Brickell Avenue and Interstate 95, when the market crashed. A few towers had been built during the boom years, but many of the low-rise buildings dated to the 1960s and 1970s. The city’s oldest local bar—the 102-year-old Tobacco Road—is a neighbor to the Swire site.

“It was a good place to go, safe to walk, but it had an old, funky Miami-town feel to it,” says Stephen Nostrand, chief executive officer of Coral Gables, Florida–based Colliers International, a real estate consultancy.

Swire began cobbling the land together in 2008, when a 5.6-acre (2.3 ha) parcel hit the market. A well-known builder of mixed-use projects in Asia, Swire had just one large-scale development in the United States: Brickell Key, a cluster of hotel and residential projects on a manmade island at the mouth of the Miami River. Swire acquired the site and the Brickell City Centre name in 1979 for $41.3 million in cash from lender iStar Financial.

“It was a unique opportunity,” says Chris Gandolfo, senior vice president of development for Swire Properties, the company’s U.S. subsidiary. “Did we have a vision for the property? To be perfectly honest, no.”

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Three residential towers punctuate the mixed-use development. (Swire Properties Inc.)

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Above the retail corridor, an undulating trellis creates a climate ribbon that is designed to scoop cooling breezes from the southeast and collect rainwater. The ribbon also connects the project’s towers. (Swire Properties Inc.)

Special Zoning

But the developer spotted an opportunity. The Miami21 Plan—a reworking of the zoning laws and regulations that went into effect in 2010—permitted developers to create a special planning area for any project of at least nine acres (3.6 ha). The firm quickly acquired two more parcels adjacent to the original 5.65-acre (2.2 ha) site—the home of a tennis center and the headquarters for a bank—to cross the nine-acre threshold.

The special-area designation allowed Swire to master-plan the site with a “clean slate,” Gandolfo says. The acreage was also necessary to reach a critical mass for the retail center. The company wanted to use a mixed-use strategy it had successfully developed for three projects in Asia—Pacific Place in Hong Kong, TaiKoo Hui in Guangzhou, and the Dazhongli Center on Nanjing West Road in Shanghai, which is scheduled to be completed in 2016. Each was based on a large retail podium and included a direct link to mass transit.

For a billion-dollar project set to transform the heart of downtown, Brickell City Centre attracted remarkably little controversy. Swire agreed to relocate 40 historic oak, gumbo limbo, and strangler fig trees. “There was hardly any public dialogue,” says Craig Chester, former editor of Transit Miami, who lived in Brickell during the planning process. Chester was part of a group hoping to create more parks downtown. “Getting any kind of public space reserved or preserved has been an enormous challenge,” Chester said. With real estate values soaring, “it’s really difficult to stand in the way and say we need a park.”

The project was originally presented to the city in 2011, and ground-breaking ceremonies for Brickell City Centre were held in June 2012.

“Everyone was very excited that a group like Swire had decided to invest to that level in Miami, especially at a time when there was not much development activity,” says Alice Bravo, deputy city manager and chief of infrastructure for the city of Miami.

The project addressed several key concerns for the city. “They’re building it in the right place,” Bravo says. “This is the urban core where you are supposed to have high-density development.”

The final design came in under allowed density levels and included a two-level underground parking garage spanning four city blocks—the first attempt by a major developer to build underground parking despite Miami’s problematic groundwater table. To build the garage, teams used a newly developed deep-soil mixing technique to place a concrete plug and perimeter sheet piling, creating a dry hole for construction.

The underground parking, with 1,600 spaces, gave designers a simple way to engineer traffic flow and connect all the buildings underground. Traffic coming off I-95 heading east on the one-way Eighth Avenue, which links Brickell to Little Havana, will be able to quickly duck into the garage network. These vehicles will exit the garage into the flow of traffic on Sixth and Seventh avenues heading west to I-95, keeping traffic away from the current congestion on Brickell Avenue.

Building Connections

Brickell City Centre also addressed Miami’s goal of creating a large central development to connect the different blocks, including the much-lauded Mary Brickell Village, a low-scale, tree-lined district with small shops, restaurants, and a supermarket located one block from the Swire site. A master plan created for the area in 2010 by the Miami Downtown Development Authority emphasized the importance of a pedestrian focus in the area and the need to create street-level environments.

“When there is a conflict, the pedestrian rules,” says Javier Betancourt, deputy director of the Downtown Development Authority. “By and large, we want pedestrians on the street—and that is a much different concept for Florida.”

Brickell City Centre’s design by Miami-based Arquitectonica, an architecture firm, includes passageways that slice through the project, and sidewalks with cutbacks at the corners to allow for outdoor restaurants. The buildings are also connected above ground by bridges on different levels—a technique typically discouraged by Miami planners because of concern that bridges would take pedestrian traffic away from the streets.

“When dealing with a large project with retail, it is important to have horizontal connectivity on many levels,” Gandolfo says.

Arquitectonica has worked with Swire since the 1990s, including on the TaiKoo Hui center in Guangzhou, one of the models for Brickell City Centre. The firm’s design brings a modern element to Brickell’s skyline, with a series of notched and angled glass towers. Corners are sliced back, letting sunlight in and allowing for the creation of different open areas. The complex is dotted with rooftop green zones.

“It doesn’t want to be standoffish; it wants to blend,” says Arquitectonica vice president Anne Cotter.

Buildings are oriented to the north and south, exposing only the smaller sides to direct sunlight. In the residential building, balconies will stretch eight feet (2.4 m) deep, creating outdoor living areas and shade for the units below.

The aforementioned climate ribbon evolved from Swire’s insistence on making the retail center open-air, despite south Florida’s bouts of oppressive heat and drenching rainstorms. The undulating trellis is designed to control the center’s environment and connect the project’s towers. The structure is engineered to scoop wind from the southeast, catching the Caribbean breeze and redirecting it into the site at about seven to ten miles per hour (11 to 16 kmph), creating a cooling effect in the center, which will not be air conditioned. “It’s like a river that encourages the flow of the wind,” Cotter says.

The individual, semitranslucent blades of the steel, fabric, and glass ribbon are each designed to deflect the sun at peak periods, while still allowing natural light into the retail space. The ribbon is also designed to collect 5 million gallons (19 million liters) of rain­water a year for redistribution on the site.

But taming the effects of the weather will not be Brickell City Centre’s only challenge. Six years after the most devastating real estate collapse in modern history, Miami once again is awash in projects competing for customers. More than 159 towers are in development in the Miami-Dade area, including 26,000 residential units, according to CraneSpotters, an agency tracking the market. Outlying areas such as Wynwood, a downtrodden warehouse district turning into the SoHo of Miami; the nearby Midtown and Edgewater neighborhoods; and the fast-growing Design District are all trying to lure homebuyers and Miami shoppers.

Swire’s attempt to create a high-end retail and entertainment destination, including movie theaters and a bowling alley, is a game changer for downtown, local analysts say. The project is already affecting prices for commercial space in the area. “Everything is rising with the tide,” says John Ellis, an associate at Robert K. Futterman & Associates, a retail broker.

To manage the 500,000 square feet (47,000 sq m) of retail space, Swire has partnered with the Miami Beach–based Whitman Family Development, the company behind the luxury retail center in Bal Harbour, which is anchored by a Neiman Marcus department store and includes shops such as Alexander McQueen and Versace.

To succeed, Brickell City Centre’s retailers will need to attract a customer not accustomed to shopping downtown, Ellis notes. “It has to appeal to Joe Sixpack as well as the Asian tourist,” he says.

The inclusion of 820 residential units is a new twist for Swire; that element is missing from its similar projects in Asia. The residential market in Miami has rebounded, with prices up more than 20 percent in many areas over the past 18 months, and preconstruction sales have been booming, due in large part to buyers from Latin America. But Swire is marketing high-end luxury apartments several blocks from the waterfront in a neighborhood not known for its residential offerings.

“Everybody is gambling on Brickell City Centre taking the area to nirvana,” says Peter Zalewski, who tracks real estate for CondoVultures, a brokerage. “I’m not sure that’s the case.”

But Brickell City Centre could “recalibrate” residential prices in the neighborhood, Zalewski says. Preconstruction units offered for sale earlier this year were priced at a minimum of $650 per square foot ($7,000 per sq m)—well above the greater downtown area’s median minimum presale price average of $450 per square foot ($4,800 per sq m), he says.

Mass transportation could play a key role in any success scenario. The Metromover, which was launched 28 years ago, links a variety of downtown destinations, including the new waterfront Pérez Art Museum, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, which opened in 2013. The Eighth Street station, which will be absorbed by Brickell City Centre, currently handles an average of only 678 “boarders” on a Saturday (compared with 1,130 a day during the week), according to Miami-Dade Transit.

But several projects may boost downtown’s mass transportation system, including a private rail link between Orlando and Miami known as “All Aboard Florida,” developed by a private company, Florida East Coast Industries, and scheduled to start service within two years.

Planners have also revived a long-discussed light-rail link to Miami Beach. The plan never gained traction in the past, but now the concept has a new, broader level of support with the changing political winds.

“Now we are beginning to connect projects that have never been connected before,” Nostrand says.

Kevin Brass, a Miami-based journalist, regularly writes about global development and design issues for the International New York Times.