A little-known local developer has submitted big plans for the site of the Mahi Shrine building on the Miami River that call for replacing the bunker-like auditorium and its parking lot with a stacked big-box retail building, about 440 residential units in two towers and a lushly planted public river walk with waterfront restaurants.
The nearly nine-acre, $150 million River Landing project would be the third mega-development in central Miami after Brickell CityCenter and the Miami Design District redevelopment, both multi-block projects now under construction. These mega-projects are known as Special Area Plans under the city’s Miami 21 zoning code, which is designed to foster mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly urban development.
River Landing, in a still-gritty location next to Miami-Dade County’s criminal justice center and the Jackson Memorial Hospital health district, does not aim to compete with the high-end retail and chic environs of the Design District and CityCentre projects.
Attorney-turned-developer Andrew Hellinger says River Landing would fill an underserved market niche by providing housing, a supermarket and affordable chain retail to the tens of thousands of workers in the justice complex and the health district, while also drawing residents from surrounding working-class and gentrifying neighborhoods who now have few places to shop.
The Jackson complex alone sees 55,000 daily workers and visitors, but retail and restaurant offerings are largely limited to a busy nearby Winn-Dixie and some new restaurants on the ground floor of the University of Miami’s Life Science & Technology Park.
“There’s just nothing there right now,” said Hellinger, chief executive of Hellinger-Penabad Companies. “What makes our site the most viable for retail is its proximity to the I-95 and 836 corridor and the visibility from the expressway.’’
Because of its size and location, the Mahi Shrine site has long been seen as a key piece in the redevelopment of the portion of the Miami River running through downtown Miami and the Brickell and health districts. The city has sought to transform the waterway, once largely industrial and commercial, into a mixed-use corridor of residential, office and retail development linked by a continuous river walk or greenway.
River Landing would be the largest project to date for developer Hellinger-Penabad. As the former head of Leviev Boymelgreen’s Florida operations, Hellinger developed the Marquis Miami luxury condo on Biscyane Boulevard. River Landing, which is under review by city planners, is not the first massive project to be proposed for the underused site, which is wedged between the soaring State Road 836 river overpass and the approach to the 17th Avenue bridge. It’s owned by the Mahi Shriners fraternal organization, an affiliate of Shriners International, whose fez-wearing members are well known for their support of a network of childrens’ hospitals.
A Mahi Shrine representative said he could not comment under the terms of the agreement with Hellinger.
Seven years ago, the city approved a major condo project on the site, but it fell victim to economic recession and a ruling from the Federal Aviation Administration that its three towers intruded into protected air lanes for nearby Miami International Airport.
Hellinger said his project’s towers — 12 stories atop a 12-story parking and retail deck — would be well below the 310-foot maximum height for the site set by the FAA. The project consists of two separate structures, one a retail and parking-garage block that would rise on the east end of the site, roughly bounded by the 836 overpass. The retail portion would include a multi-level design similar to the one used at Dadeland Station or Fifth & Alton in Miami Beach. But this one would be even taller with six floors of retail.
The second building is a parking pedestal with two residential towers on top and also containing significant retail space. The pedestal would be lined with terraced residential units on the riverfront and on its main street, Northwest North River Drive.
The buildings would be separated by a long breezeway connecting North River Drive to the planned river walk. The breezeway would be lined on both sides with retail. The plans show a lushly landscaped, boardwalk-style river walk that Hellinger said would be modeled after New York’s famed High Line, an elevated park on a former rail line, to encourage visitors to stroll and lounge by the river. The developer is also talking to Miami-Dade County about taking control of a smaller, publicly owned abutting parcel to the east, now part vacant land and part parking lot, that could be used to extend the project’s river walk and green space. The proposal’s extensive retail component, which Hellinger put at 475,000 square feet, makes it “a real improvement’’ over the previously approved residential-only project, said James Murley, a member of the Miami River Commission, an advisory group that reviews new development along the waterway to ensure it complies with the greenway plan and is compatible with surrounding areas. The comment came during a public meeting Friday between the developers and members of two commission subcommittees.
Hellinger told commission members he is making “considerable’’ revisions to his initial plans, submitted to the city planning department in January, in response to comments from reviewers and river commission members. Those include moving loading and auto drop-off areas away from the river walk and into interior areas.
City planners have also objected to the retail building’s largely windowless design, which shows its riverfront facade covered by textured cast-concrete panels, and the project’s overall blockiness. Reviewers also concluded the passageway between the two buildings is too narrow.
While praising the river walk design as “beautiful,’’ assistant city planning director Carmen Sanchez said in an interview that she has asked Hellinger and his architects, ADD Inc. of Coral Gables, for “refinements’’ to the building designs. “They were very receptive,’’ Sanchez said.
In an interview, Hellinger’s retail consultant, Roger LeBlanc, said the plan calls for the first floor of the retail building to be anchored by a grocery store on one side. The riverfront side would feature four or five restaurants with outdoor seating. The next three levels would feature four or five big-box retailers. LeBlanc said he already has several signed letters of intent, but declined to provide any names.
The type of tenants the project is going after is believed to include the likes of Marshall’s, TJ Maxx, Homegoods, Bed Bath & Beyond, Sports Authority, Michael’s and Ross Dress for Less. The fifth floor’s main tenant would be a health club, and the sixth floor would feature one or two furniture stores.
But the challenge is convincing retailers to deviate from their typical format. While retailers are starting to do more vertical retail in urban markets like Miami-Dade, this project would be taller than anything else that has been built.
Hellinger does not believe that’s going to be an obstacle. “If you want to be in the urban core, you have to start thinking vertically,” he said. “We have more interest in our project than available space.”
Hellinger said he is currently funding the project himself with individual private investors, most of whom are international. When construction is ready to begin he expects to secure traditional bank financing.
The plan must undergo a series of public hearings at the river commission, the city’s design-review and planning boards, as well as the city commission. Hellinger said he hopes that final vote will take place by May.