Can free markets fix coconut grove?

By February 2, 2012 Community 7 Comments

I had a long discussion with a dear longtime friend and longtime Coconut Grove resident the other night, asking whether or not the grove could be fixed. This friend has been living in the area since the 1970s, so he’s seen every cycle possible in the neighborhood. I raised the question, “what can be done to save the grove?” His immediate response: “nothing, theoretically a free market will fix it.”

Free Market Theory
Adam Smith, father of modern economic theory, posited that the market will dictate supply and demand, and that we as individuals have little say in controlling it. In any free market, there is a natural order to supply and demand that moves the economy either forward or backward, but causes organic change over time one way or the other. In its current state, the neighborhood of Coconut Grove, once a thriving entertainment area, has seen better days. There are a number of easy to identify factors for this current ebb: more competition from other areas (South Miami, Brickell, Design District, Midtown come to mind), lack of compelling fare (the food is better in other areas), outdated infrastructure, etc etc.

Compelling Fare?
So lets look at the one factor that can be fixed easily by free markets: compelling fare. There are dozens of empty retail and restaurant locations sprinkled throughout the grove. Why is that? Well many were never smartly designed, or were designed for a different era (1990s). But the reality is that many of the landlords are saddled with cost-prohibitive mortgages on the properties they purchased during the height of the boom. This over-priced mortgage is then passed through to the tenants who are charged rents that are unrealistic considering today’s softer real estate market. Realistically very few businesses have the margins required to support the prices being asked of by the landlords in the neighborhood. Coupled with the decreased traffic (pedestrian, not vehicle traffic- as is cited on the CocoWalk owner’s site), its not surprising that these businesses are failing. If the rents were low enough to support small businesses, then these businesses would come to the area.

Bringing people in
One of the areas in which the grove does have an ability to fix its situation is in the branding, marketing, and promotion of the neighborhood. This is an area tasked to the BID, Chamber, and Village Councils. These groups need to take action before all their members (the businesses and the individuals) leave town and they are left holding the bag so to speak. As is, there is no cohesive image that the village is trying to portray, no unified marketing, nothing. Even the billboards that encircle the neighborhood point to businesses in neighboring cities such as Coral Gables.

and then keeping them.
I am stopped at least three times per week while walking my dog around the neighborhood by lost tourists looking for something. I happily give them directions, but realistically there should be better signage, maps, and other simple quick wins to keep and move people around the village. A visitor to CocoWalk would never know how to find Lokal, and its delicious burgers even though they are merely a block away. A visitor to Greenstreet cafe wouldn’t be able to find the movie theater despite it being a couple blocks away as well. Some basic urban planning needs to be done to manage the pedestrian flow.

Finding the champions
Ultimately the first step is to find who will be the champions for the grove. I’ve done my part in getting at least a dozen people to move to the neighborhood, but I don’t have any skin in the game. The champions need to be the property owners, those who stand to lose the most if/when the neighborhood crumbles. Clearly the groups running things now don’t seem to understand the cause/effect relationship of inaction. So who will we task to whip the players into shape? Who will coach the grove into relevance in the 21st century?

  • http://twitter.com/Andr3wPerez Andrew perez

    Awesome post Brian, the Grove is lucky to have community leaders like you spearheading the movement.
     
    One of the points you mentioned was convincing property owners to accept lower rents. I think it would be easier if at first they can commit for extremely short periods of time, like one weekend. I’m referring to pop-up stores…
     
    I live in Fort Lauderdale so I’m not so familiar with the Grove but I’m sure there are plenty of creative locals who would love a location to sell their goods for a short time.  If we can convince some property owners to lease their property for a week, then they can see firsthand the tremendous traffic and energy that these types of businesses can generate.  Once the property owners see the results over a week/weekend they’ll be way more inclined to lower rent to keep these tenants long term.  
     
    One awesome example of this theory is http://www.popuphood.com in Oakland, if you haven’t heard of it please check it out, it’s very inspiring.
     
     I really believe in what you’re doing and I’d love to know how I can contribute more to this cause. I’m strongly considering moving to the Grove once my lease is up. Best of luck.  

  • http://twitter.com/Giovanny Giovanny Gutierrez

    I couldn’t agree more with some of these comments. Specially in the marketing/advertising aspect. The Gables does great work and you can see their ads and its a brand. I don’t even know what the Grove logo looks like. 

    PopUpHood is a great idea. Thanks for sharing Andrew. PS. I love Lokal. Much needed in that area… need more of that… even if temporary… pop-up restaurants or bars… something cool that’ll attract more of the affluent locals that spent $. 

  • http://twitter.com/Giovanny Giovanny Gutierrez

    Interesting read: http://coconutgrovegrapevine.blogspot.com/2012/02/disappointed-and-embarrassed.html

  • http://www.gablesmavens.com/ Adrian Salgado

    “There are dozens of empty retail and restaurant locations sprinkled throughout the grove. Why is that? Well many were never smartly designed, or were designed for a different era (1990s)”. 

    Bingo! CocoWalk was the (long-term) kiss of death for the Grove. I have a picture book of the Grove in the ’60s that I peruse every here and then in an attempt to capture that feeling.

    I hope to see the Grove relive those glory days (albeit, in a much different way…no way it’s going back to the Grove of the ’60s). I just think it’s going to take a long, long time. 

    Great post, Brian.

  • http://www.infinimedia.com Brian Breslin

    Adrian, I’d argue Cocowalk was not the kiss of death, but contributed to a fair amount of traffic in the 90s to the grove. The theater for sure brought in lots of people. However theaters bring in kids, which turns away lots of the older people with money. Merrick park was going to do a theater and then last minute nixed the idea to keep kids out of the mall. So now rich old ladies go there to spend mucho dinero. 

  • http://www.infinimedia.com Brian Breslin

    Yeah, who does the marketing for the gables?

  • http://www.infinimedia.com Brian Breslin

    LOVE the popuphood idea. would be interesting to see. To get these popup shops, we would need existing merchants who would have inventory, experience, and possibly staff they can bring in for a week. would be an amazing experiment to say the least.
    permitting issues might hinder it all, since they move glacially in city of miami.