Allapattah: Miami’s next Wynwood?

La Flaca Cafetería is a literal hole in the wall. Its counter, steam tables and register take up the back quarter of a produce warehouse in Allapattah. Workers pack fruit into cardboard boxes while patrons quietly sip their cortaditos.

Ena Moncada, 28, has been working the counter of La Flaca for three years. From her post at the espresso machine, she can see straight across the street into the Allapattah Produce Market, Miami’s largest open air food distribution center.

It’s a 10-acre kicked-over anthill of idling semi-trucks, packed loading docks, and buzzing forklifts. Ena loves making food deliveries there – “it’s my favorite part of the job,” she says. But this market’s bustle is on borrowed time.

Last December, millionaire Miami Beach developer Robert Wennett purchased the Allapattah Produce Market for $16 million. Wennet is best known for creating 1111 Lincoln Road, a fancy parking garage that revitalized the western end of the shopping district. Plans for the market’s development aren’t public yet, but a drastic change is certain.

The sale of the produce market is the latest in a string of high-profile commercial real estate deals that have everybody buzzing about gritty and diverse Allapattah, which has about 40,000 residents and stretches west from Wynwood’s border at N.W. 7th Avenue to N.W. 27th Avenue, and runs north-south from the 112 Expressway to the Miami River. The UM Health District sits on the eastern edge, but until recently it was one of the only distinguishable subunits of the neighborhood.

“It’s the last undeveloped urban core neighborhood of Miami proper,” explains city historian Paul S. George.

Like a sancocho, a traditional Dominican Stew, it’s a neighborhood that has a little bit of everything. It’s got the most light industry anywhere in Miami outside of Doral. You can find ratchet bachata clubs in Little Santo Domingo, old-school flower wholesalers like Berkley Florists in the area’s warehouse district, and quite possibly Miami’s best pork sandwich, or pan con lechón, at a weirdly named hole in the wall called Papo Llega y Pon.

But as Wynwood rents reach nosebleed levels and $7 lattes become the norm in Little Haiti, sections of Allapattah are beginning to gentrify, and quickly. According to Zillow, residential home values in the area appreciated 17 percent in 2016. Carlos Fausto Miranda, with Fausto Commercial, is the commercial real estate broker with the highest dollar amount of listed property in the area, and he notes that, depending on the block, commercial real estate can go for as little as $12 a square foot or as much as $300.

Pedro Ramos, who runs La Flaca and has been an Allapattah resident for 37 years, laughs off the stark reality of the price increase around his little restaurant.

“I’m the owner (of the place) until the day I can’t pay the rent.”

Flight from Wynwood

The area receiving most attention from developers is the part closest to Wynwood. Cesar Morales, owner of the Wood Group (the guys who run Wood Tavern and BND Burger) has opened up two businesses there in the past year.

“It’s the closest thing to Wynwood in terms of look and feel,” he says, referring to the area’s industrial aesthetic. His first venture, called Allapattah Market, is an open air flea-market style space where local vendors can hawk their wares.

Though that space had to close temporarily within weeks of opening because of permitting issues, his second, a tavern called Tabernas Las Rosas, is open for business at 2898 N.W. 7th Ave., and sports one of the city’s finest tequila collections.

“I can’t continue to do what I do in Wynwood,” he complains.

Morales tells of having to reconfigure his fast-casual burger joint, BND Burger, into a bar after realizing that he would never make a profit just selling food, no matter how much he sold.

“I was selling more per square foot than Chipotle was, and I couldn’t pay the Wynwood rent,” he said.

He suspects it’s that kind of pressure that has motivated a hair salon, a tattoo shop, and a record store to open up around his tavern in the past six months.

It’s not just the small business owners who are fleeing Wynwood for the economy of Allapattah. The Rubell Family collection, one of the city’s largest and most respected private art galleries, decided to move west late last year after almost 23 years at their Wynwood location.

Scheduled to open in December 2018, the new 2.5 acre, 100,000-square-foot museum campus promises more exhibition space and more artwork for the public. Chi Lam, the Museum’s graphic designer and photographer, is excited about the move.

“(Allapattah) is more or less like Wynwood was 10 years ago, there’s not much choice for lunch.”

Still a blank slate

But Carlos Fausto Miranda squarely rejects comparisons of the area to Wynwood.

“Look, it’s an interesting neighborhood, but all the different narratives (of the different sectors) haven’t coalesced into a single message.”

Mr. Miranda notes that although some areas around 20th Street have a “west of Wynwood feel” (whatever that means), plenty of other parts of the neighborhood have their own, often contradictory flavors. Little Santo Domingo feels very much like an immigrant enclave. Jackson seems like its own hermetically sealed healthcare sector. Unlike Wynwood, which has N.W. 2nd Avenue as its heart, Allapattah has no core.

“Part of what makes the place so interesting is that it’s hard to say where it’s going,” he says.

He’s most excited by the type of buyer that is purchasing in Allapattah – companies like McKenzie Construction, which purchased a warehouse there three years ago and transformed it into an attractive corporate headquarters, putting it on the map for many other companies that have since followed.  Tours of the area for prospective buyers are now a regular occurrence.

“If you look at the names of who’s buying, people like the Rubells, like Moishe Mana, like Robert Wennett, you notice that these are visionary developers, people who are really gonna stick around.”

Little Santo Domingo

They might stick around, but many current residents might soon be on their way out.

Dr. Amada Vargas is the director of Latinos Unidos, a nonprofit after school center on 33rd Street and 17th Avenue. She’s been in the area for 17 years, and is astonished by its recent transformation.

“When I first got here, things weren’t going very well. It’s why I started this center,” she says. She remembers dangerous streets, with drug dealers posted up on many corners. Now property prices are “untouchable” for locals.

She tells of a house close to the center that speculators bought in a foreclosure auction for $90,000 and sold two years later for $360,000.

Many of her student’s families have had to leave the area because of rising rents. Dr. Vargas has a good idea of who is going to replace some of the working class families that have already fled, “35 Argentinean families left North Beach and moved in this year. Imagine that Argentinians!” she says, expressing surprise that Argentians, considered by most other Latin Americans to be uppity, would deign to live in Allapattah.

Down the street from Latinos Unidos is the heart of Miami’s Dominican community. Bachata blares from the corner of N.W. 17th Avenue and N.W. 35th Street, where Amaryllis Restaurant advertises food with “real criollo flavor.”

Inside the establishment’s patio, patrons sit and sip Presidente beer while playing dominoes. A bored waitress mans the counter, lazily fanning flies away from a giant yellow Johnnycake.

The scene seems like it could take place in any colmado, or corner store, in the Dominican Republic. But just down the street rise the Buenavista Apartments, a new condo building that caters to residents 55 and older. A little further off, and across the street from Juan Pablo Duarte Park, rise the towers of the district’s new YMCA, a $60 million project that includes over 200 units of affordable housing, seemingly an effort to intervene early on.

According to Vargas, you can still find efficiency apartments in the area for $700, and according to Rentjungle.com, the average four-bedroom house in the area rents for $1,700 a month. It’s still a tough, sometimes gritty neighborhood.

Ena Moncada, the waitress at La Flaca Cafeteria, often feels unsafe in the area. “I don’t like walking around (the produce market) at night. It’s dangerous,” she says.

But every day more and more investors find value in Allapattah’s easy freeway access and proximity to downtown and Wynwood. Change is assured.  An art walk is being discussed.  Vargas has what she considers to be sage advice for those just now waking up to the neighborhood’s potential: “You should buy in Allapattah now, because in two years the prices here are going to be untouchable.”

By Mario Ariza
Mario Alejandro Ariza is a Dominican immigrant who grew up in Miami. A Michener Fellow in poetry at the University of Miami’s Master in Fine Arts program, he is currently working on a nonfiction book about South Florida and Sea Level Rise. On a day with a good swell and northeasterly breezes, you’ll find him surfing on South Beach (yes, there’s actually surfing Miami.)