Developer snaps up seven acres; banks on city planner's spirit

Jan. 12--How do you buy seven acres near Coral Gables' densely developed Miracle Mile?

"You do it very quietly," says builder Ralph Sanchez.

For nine months Sanchez went door to door asking homeowners if they would sell. After shelling out roughly $75 million, 17 homeowners agreed to part with their homes and move away. One person held out.

All told, Sanchez assembled 20 parcels -- the others were commercial properties, including a 13-story office building -- on three blocks bounded by Ponce de Leon Boulevard, Galiano Street and Malaga and Sevilla avenues. The Coral Gables-based developer now plans to build pricey condominiums, townhomes and possibly offices around Ponce Circle in a bid to do what Coral Gables' founder and famed builder George Merrick failed to complete some 80 years ago.

Called Old Spanish Village, the project is to resemble one of the "thematic villages" Merrick planned for the city before the 1920s' real estate boom turned bust, quashing the developer's ambitious plans and ultimately putting Merrick into lifelong debt.


Sanchez intends to build mid-rise buildings with a Mediterranean design with plazas, grand entrances and cobblestone streets. He is betting there is a market for large, high-end condos and townhomes -- some units will be 6,000 square feet, Sanchez said -- near downtown Coral Gables despite the broad housing market slump.

Indeed, there is a large inventory of unsold homes with more condos nearing completion -- and likely coming back onto the market for resale -- this year. Many home builders are struggling in the stagnant market, raising the question whether now is a bad time to launch a new residential project.

"We are still digesting all of the new construction," said Mike Pappas, president and CEO of The Keyes Co., a South Florida brokerage. "There is no question there is more inventory than demand. Whoever is building in today's environment has got to be very cautious."

Yet others contend Sanchez is targeting an attractive niche market. Luxury real estate broker Helen Jeanne Nicastri said empty-nesters want luxury condos the size of single-family houses in Coral Gables, but there are not many for sale.

"Real estate is location, location, location," said Sanchez, whose previous projects include the Miami Grand Prix and building the Homestead Miami Speedway. "Condo units this size don't exist in Coral Gables right now, especially near downtown."

Sanchez also hopes buyers will be drawn to something with a connection to Coral Gables' founding father.

Merrick master-planned and built large swaths of Coral Gables during Miami's first great land boom. In November 1921 he started selling property in Coral Gables, launching the affluent Miami suburb. The boom reached its height in 1924.

The developer's projects included the Biltmore Hotel and thematic villages fashioned after architecture from around the world. Merrick built an Italian village, a Chinese village, a Dutch South African village, among others, said Miami historian Paul George.

"He completed seven," said George, professor of history at Miami Dade College. "More were left on the drawing boards."

The real estate boom started to collapse in 1926 and then, ensuring the market would not return soon, hurricane winds whipped South Florida that same year. Merrick's fortunes ultimately crumbled, turning one of Florida's wealthiest individuals into a penniless businessman.

Yet Merrick, who died in 1942, is now considered a visionary for creating one of Miami's most admired suburbs. The developer's unbuilt thematic villages included a Spanish Town and Spanish Bazaar village.


No specific plans remain for each, but Sanchez hired Miami historian Arva Parks, author of a book on Merrick, and plans were devised for Old Spanish Village in the spirit of Merrick's never built Spanish-themed villages. Parks said the project is part of completing what Merrick called his "unfinished symphony."

"He said in 1925 he needed 10 more years to finish everything and then he was going to go back to writing," said Parks, noting that Merrick published a book of poetry. "But he had two more years, and it was over."

Sanchez, who has already won approvals from city officials to build the project, said he intends to start sales this month. Prices range from $400,000 to $6 million. He plans to demolish the office building 2801 Ponce de Leon Blvd. in March. Construction is to start in June with the first townhomes and condos delivered in 2008, he said.

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