Art galleries and design shops. Hip restaurants and townhomes. There’s a new live-work-play area, and it’s right in West Palm Beach.
The once-sleepy part of West Palm Beach along south Dixie Highway, bordered by Okeechobee Boulevard to the north and Belvedere Road to the south, is being transformed into what one observer dubbed the next Greenwich Village. Investors are hungry for properties where they can open or build restaurants, design studios, professional offices and homes. Some examples of deals in the works or completed:
- Reward Lighting, at 1901 South Dixie Highway, is being sold to the investor group behind the popular Buccan restaurant on Palm Beach. A closing is set for next week. Real estate and restaurant sources say plans are to create an Italian-style eatery, featuring pizzas, plus a full-service bar. Plans are being drawn for what has been described as a contemporary, open space.
- The Carefree Theatre, at 2000 S. Dixie Highway, is expected to be sold by year-end. It was under contract to real estate investor Alex Griswold but the deal did not close. However, Griswold and the Carefree’s Marshall Berkson said they’re still talking and a deal could be struck soon. Berkson said Griswold has expressed interest in preserving some of the building, which was badly damaged during hurricanes. But word is historic preservationists want more of the building restored. Berkson noted that roof work has been done on the property, as well as other fixes, but real estate sources say a lot of work still would need to be done to make it usable. The iconic property once was owned and operated by the late concert promoter Jon Stoll. Berkson, a Miami real estate executive, is the father of Stoll’s widow, Lori.
- EmKo, a restaurant/showroom/art gallery at 2119 South Dixie Highway, is expected to open soon. The 1925 property, formerly a showroom for The Museum at Ragtops Motorcars, is a project of Leo Koel, aka Leonardo Martinez, a Colombian-born artist. Emko, also dubbed Artist Independent Republic, features an outdoor sculpture garden with cube-like designs. Teaser signs (“Almost Here”) and artsy creations, including tulips made of pink plastic buckets, decorate the streetscape. A job listing for a “Chef de Cuisine” recently was posted on an online site. The 24,000-square building has three stories, with the first floor for a restaurant, gallery showroom and conference room, the second for the Abellon Law Office and the third said to be for galleries and artists.
- Attorney Brian Guralnick, who owns his office building at 2419 South Dixie Highway, plans to build on a property he owns at 2100 South Dixie Highway, the former Runway Motors. Guralnick said he plans to build a 15,000-square-foot building, with garage parking on the first floor and offices on the second and third floor. He said he’ll move his law office into the new space and then sell or lease his existing, 2,000-square foot office.
- Architect Stephen Roy bought Guralnick’s property at 2417 South Dixie Highway for $543,000 in 2013. The building, formerly home to the Painted Horse Cafe, now is Roy’s architecture firm, Roy and Posey.
- An interior designer paid $524,600 in May for 1902 South Dixie Highway. Real estate sources say plans to build an interior design studio on the vacant lot.
Of course, the latest major news for the corridor was the sale of the the former CityPlace Mazda dealership at 2001 S. Dixie Highway. It was sold to billionaire Palm Beach investor Jeff Greene in July. Preliminary plans are to build townhomes, possibly rising three or four stores, and perhaps a renovation of the building on the corner of Dixie Highway and Flamingo Drive. Greene paid $1.9 million for the 1.8 acre site.
Greene’s deal follows announcements of major expansions by Palm Beach Atlantic University and the Norton Museum, both in the same corridor. The $17 million Norton Museum expansion includes reorienting the main entrance to face South Dixie Highway, on the museum’s west side. A sculpture lawn, grand hall and an education center with auditorium also are part of the expansion. This first part of the expansion is set for completion in 2016.
Greene’s purchase is expected to further galvanize interest in the corridor.
“It’s where the smart money is right now,” said William Reis, of the Cororan Group on Palm Beach. “In two years, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised by the whole transformation of that corridor.”
Indeed, Reis represents attorney Guralnick on a property he owns at 2403 S. Dixie Highway, site of the former Hoffmans Chocolates and now leased to Palm Beach Pet Market. Interest in the 4,782-square-foot building is strong, Reis said, and ranges from people interested in buying the building for a restaurant, antique store, high-end coffee shop or architecture firm.
Years ago, some investors envisioned this stretch of Dixie Highway as a natural site for redevelopment.
Guralnick was one of them. In 2000, he started buying properties, convinced that residential investment in the nearby homes would boost the commercial corridor. He liked that the area was close to downtown, but without the traffic and parking challenges.
The momentum kept building until 2007, when the real estate recession halted development.
“But now that the economy is getting strong again, it’s picking up where it would have been had it not been for the crash,” Guralnick added.
Even in the recession’s depths, some savvy investors saw opportunity. Among them: Eddie Schmidt and Ozzie Medeiros, owners of Table 26, the 2 1/2-year-old restaurant at 1700 South Dixie Highway that has won rave reviews from diners.
Schmidt said people thought he and his partner “were crazy” to open a restaurant there. Instead, Schmidt said they were urged to lease restaurant space on Clematis Street, to the north.
But Schmidt said they wanted to own their own real estate and bought the property, formerly home to an Enterprise Rent A Car location. They also, correctly, anticipated that the well-heeled surrounding neighborhoods consisted of residents who would patronize their local restaurant.
They were right. With each year, business has become steadier year-round. Schmidt said this summer was stronger than last summer, indicating a customer base that is not seasonal. “And before a show at the Kravis, we’re packed,” Schmidt said.
Of course, the success of Table 26, and another nearby restaurant, Joy Noodles, at 2200 South Dixie Highway, attracted the attention of people who live on Palm Beach.
Palm Beachers now are regulars at Table 26 and Joy Noodles, and observers said it’s likely that trend has not gone unnoticed by Buccan’s investors.
“CityPlace got the old-time Palm Beach resident to go, and then Table 26 opened, and all the antique people were comfortable with Dixie Highway, so why shouldn’t they be comfortable with more dining options? This validates the fact that there are diners who are OK venturing into areas that haven’t been heavily restauranted in the past,” said Jonathan Satter, a longtime real estate professional, now managing director of Avison Young’s West Palm Beach office.
Jack Shea, who owns Reward Lighting with wife, Annette, said he never before tried to sell the building, which they bought 17 years ago. But once they put it up for sale, the property went under contract within two months.
Jack Shea did not disclose a price, but he said it was more than $1 million and less than Greene’s $1.9 million. Buccan officials could not be reached for comment.
Shea said there was a lot of interest, including from art galleries. But years ago, Shea said he realized the space would be perfect for another use: “I’m always amazed somebody didn’t try to buy it for a restaurant.”
Reward Lighting is having a giant moving sale, and at presstime, the store was down to 20 chandeliers, from 260.
As soon as the Nov. 3 closing with the Buccan investor group takes place, Shea said he’ll start up on Nov. 4 at a new retail location down the street, on Southern Boulevard, just east of Dixie Highway.
Shea, for one, is excited to see the changes to taking place on south Dixie Highway, even as he is about to leave it.
Shea especially gives credit to Koel for his painstaking work creating the visually intriguing EmKo space just to the south: “He has really brightened up the road.” Koel could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, interior designers and other creative types have taken root in this Dixie Highway corridor.
One year ago, Sara MCann opened Hive, Home Gift and Garden, on 424 Palm Street, just off of Dixie Highway on the west.
McCann said she was looking for space for an office and retail shop to accompany her McCann Design Group. Leased space on Palm Beach lacked easy parking, and she wanted a place she could call her own.
She ended up buying the former warehouse of Palm Beach party planner Bruce Sutka, whose property had slipped into foreclosure. After doing a major renovation of the 12,000-square-foot space, McCann said business is good, employment has grown to 14 from 3, and Palm Beach customers have discovered it’s easy to cross the middle bridge and head down Dixie Highway to her store, which has its own free parking spaces.
“With the antique and furniture and design stores, people feel good coming here,” McCann said.
Indeed, along Dixie Highway, in the retail spaces of the Magnolia Court townhouse development, most of the space is taken up by interior design studios or purveyors of home furnishings. Antique shops also dot parts of this corridor, although most of the antiques action is farther south on Dixie Highway.
Residents of the historic nearby neighborhoods, including El Cid, along with business owners and merchants along Dixie Highway, are happy to see the once run-down commercial stretch of Dixie Highway spring to life, but they want to see it developed with some cohesiveness.
They’d also like to enhance Dixie Highway’s appearance through landscaping and the burying of power lines. More speed limit signs also are sought.
Leading that effort is Paula Ryan, president of the El Cid Historic Neighborhood Association and a former West Palm Beach mayoral candidate.
‘We have all made significant investments in our home, and we want to help develop a business corridor that supports the neighborhood and is compatible with the neighborhood,” Ryan said.
Rick Gonzalez, owner of REG Architects in West Palm Beach, is part of the effort to spruce up the corridor.
In addition to drawing up townhouse plans for Greene’s newest property, the former Mazda dealership, Gonzalez is working on a plan to create a historically accurate fence and columns for the city Woodlawn Cemetery, at 1751 South Dixie Highway.
Gonzalez, an expert in historic preservation, is the one who has dubbed this corridor the next Greenwich Village.
Gonzalez said the growth of the area’s cultural destinations, restaurants and galleries is transforming the corridor into a chic neighborhood.
“I think 2015 will be a big year on South Dixie,” Gonzalez said.
Alexandra Clough writes about the economy, real estate and the law.