The LeBron effect


By Alexander Britell

I moved to Miami — Coral Gables, to be exact — in the summer of 2008. I was the second tenant to move in to my condominium near the University of Miami (the other had, in an ill-timed move, just purchased her unit).

I would remain the only other tenant for some time.

Downtown Miami was full of brand-new buildings with no lights on at night. Brickell, the Business District, was a sea of empty retail space, and areas like midtown farther north were largely vacant. It was the time before Sugarcane, midtown’s now-famous eatery.

Driving through downtown at night was like touring a ghost town; there might as well have been tumbleweeds.

A few months later, the financial crisis struck, and it looked even bleaker for the thousands of condo units that made up Miami’s skyline. A year later, it was the same. That I even considered renting a 54th-floor penthouse at the Plaza in Brickell in 2009 — one that would go at least five times its rental price in Manhattan, if not more — was a sign of these absurd times.

There was, of course, the talk of foreclosures (soon, of short sales) and of how Miami would never recover from this serious surfeit of inventory.

As a native New Yorker, I was disappointed with LeBron James’s decision in the summer of 2010 to come to the Heat, spurning the Knicks. But when I think about a turning point, or a fitting mile marker, for Miami’s real estate market, that might have been it.

For James, it was a basketball decision. He wanted to win a championship — and in Miami, he did. But it was also a life decision. He was choosing a place for his family to live. And that he chose Miami, after seven years with the Cleveland Cavaliers, was a dramatic statement for the city.

Miami was no longer just the part-time vacation spot and pensioner haven it had long been.

And it was James’s arrival, along with that of fellow NBA players Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who would soon buy their own luxury mansions in Miami Beach — James bought one in Coconut Grove — that correlated with the huge rush of money and real estate attention from beyond Miami’s borders.

It wasn’t from Miami’s historical source market of the Northeast, but from abroad.

The Latin Americans who had traditionally visited Miami’s beaches on their vacations were now putting down cash and buying first or second homes.

Meanwhile, young professionals from Florida, elsewhere in the U.S. and South America were beginning to look to Miami and rent the kinds of 54th-floor apartments I had considered — sometimes renting from those second-home buyers.

More people rented, and then more people bought units and rented them, and soon, the tumbleweeds on Biscayne Bay became people, and Biscayne Bay was full of pedestrians even when the Heat wasn’t playing.

Two years later, Miami is a magnet — for Latin America’s wealth, New York’s free time (and its restaurants) and the growing interest of those of global influence.

Would Zaha Hadid have designed a parking garage in Miami in 2007? Would Cipriani have planned a debut in downtown Miami in 2008?

I’m inclined to say no.

Of course, now we encounter a potential second Miami skyline. At this writing, more than 70 condominium towers are in some stage of planning or development.

Miami still has a long way to go, but Miami is a very young city. And it’s not often we truly get to see the development of a city before our very eyes.

It makes for fascinating real estate news, and it makes it a joy to continue to chronicle the daily development of what I believe will be one of the great global cities of the 21st century.

And I want to thank all of you for joining us on this journey, and continuing to support us with your readership and your time.

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