Hialeah’s Renaissance

September 2, 2019
Written by: Susan Cumins, CREW Miami member since 1998
Presented at CREW Miami’s Luncheon Meeting, August 20, 2019
 
Moderator:  
 
Alejandro Arias, Associate Attorney, Holland & Knight
 
Panelists:     Luis Gonzalez, Former Council President, City of Hialeah
Carolina Herrera, Vice President, Land Acquisition, SE Florida Division, Lennar Homes
Avra Jain, Founder, The Vagabond Group

Hialeah, the second-most-populous city in Miami-Dade, has evolved from a center of aviation and cattle raising into a safe, stable community of year-round residents of predominantly Hispanic backgrounds and cultural traditions. Incorporated in 1925, Hialeah’s planned street grid was then–and remains today–at the hub of Miami’s highway and transit systems. Its accessibility to airports, ports, and expressways makes Hialeah ideal for logistics operations, industrial, and light manufacturing businesses that have been concentrated there for decades.

Panelists discussed the opportunities, and dispelled some myths, about the tradition-oriented, working class municipality that’s drawing interest from real estate developers of residential, commercial, and adaptive reuse entertainment ventures.

Opportunities

Hialeah’s accessibility and low property taxes are significant draws. Particularly for those with jobs in the health district and airports, the location offers relatively short commutes. Young couples starting families are returning to live where they grew up, and like having relatives nearby. “Kids are even enlarging and improving their forebears’ homes,” said Luis Gonzales, a Hialeah City Council member for 12 years who was term-limited and now eligible for reelection.

He refuted the notion that the city is overdeveloped, stating that Hialeah’s housing stock is mainly one-story single-family homes, and has no high rises. Another myth dispelled was that obtaining city approvals is difficult for developers. Avra Jain, whose Vagabond Group specializes in the re-use of existing buildings, described city officials and residents as “welcoming and willing to listen to your plans as long as they are appropriate and well-conceived for the area. With the right intention, you will get city support,” she said.

Gonzalez said multifamily rentals have succeeded despite initial skepticism. “If developers build the right thing, the rental return is there. The city offers no subsidies, but allows tax deferrals for blocks of time while a project gets going.” He conceded that improved public transportation is needed to alleviate congestion, but said the city is working with the county on solutions.

“People in Hialeah care about their community and are open to developers who will work with the neighbors,” said Carolina Herrera of Lennar Homes. “You realize that the process is friendly and positive,” she said, citing VillaBella, Lennar’s master-planned community in Hialeah Heights. In 2014, Lennar acquired land west of I-75 for the development. “We saw that it was a good area for younger couples who found themselves priced out of other locations and also wanted to be near family members.” She said Lennar’s range of products in the area, some with three and four bedrooms, are selling well because “if you can create a sense of place, people will come.”

Challenges

Jain believes the fundamentals are strong for adding entertainment elements that will energize Hialeah’s lifestyle mix. She envisions festivals and markets, restaurants, distilleries, and rooftop bars. “We are introducing Hialeah to these entrepreneurs, and we play well with other developers to share policies and plans. Development doesn’t occur in a vacuum; it requires collaboration and somebody has to make the first move.”

Adding lifestyle elements lines up with Gonzalez’s vision for Hialeah, which has long been to attract and retain more young professionals. Jain is onboard, and noted that “it’s the redevelopers like us who have to believe in that vision, because funding new uses of existing buildings is costly and complex. Acquisition is only a small part of re-use.”

Developers acknowledge the tension that exists between them and existing owners who are waiting to determine whether industrial, residential, or entertainment represents the highest and best use of their properties. “Industrial land is very valuable and that market is strong, so owners are keeping those entitlements,” Jain said.

Owners of the historic Hialeah Park Racing and Casino property may redevelop it eventually, said Gonzalez, who expects that the 28-acre former greyhound track near Opa Locka Airport is also ripe for reuse. “But many owners are holding out for their price,” he said. “They are not ready to sell.”

Founded nearly a century ago, Hialeah seems poised for a revitalization that will blend contemporary urban amenities with an authentic sense of home.