Stephen Owens looks back on shaping Brickell’s skyline

Stephen Owens
Stephen Owens

When Stephen Owens arrived in Miami, there were “a lot less” elevators, a tall building was 14 stories, and Brickell Avenue looked more like a residential street in Coconut Grove.

That was 1979.

“Miami was really a relatively quiet town,” Owens said during a keynote talk at a Brickell real estate panel discussion hosted by Bisnow on Thursday.

Yet, Swire Properties was out to change Miami’s landscape. Owens, the soon-to-retire president of Swire, said the Hong Kong developer paid only $17 million, or $13 a foot, for what was then Claughton Island.

The plan was to convert the island, which was mostly vacant, into a vibrant community with condos, a hotel and offices. Swire’s high-priced land planners from the Northeast said Brickell Key should be a gated community instead of the public island it is today.

A 2010 photo of Brickell Key from its northwestern side (Credit: Marc Averette)

A 2010 photo of Brickell Key from its northwestern side (Credit: Marc Averette)

“We always thought that was a little flawed,” Owens said. “Ultimately, we went against their advice.”

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Even then, Brickell attracted swaths of Latin Americans. Owens said Brickell Key One “sold out over a long weekend,” with virtually all of the condo buyers coming from Latin America. Those were also the times when Miami earned its reputation as a playground for the wealthy.

Buyers for Brickell Key One came with “Winn-Dixie paper bags” filled with cash, he said. At one point, the project’s single-wide trailer/sales center had $2.5 million in bills sitting in filing cabinets. And that was when condos were selling for $85 per square foot.

Brickell City Center

Brickell City Centre

Fast forward to 2016. Swire is turning 200 and is on the eve of opening its largest project in Miami to date: Brickell City Centre. It’s a massive $1.05 billion development with residences, condos, a hotel and offices, all centered around 500,000 square-feet of open-air retail. The project’s two 390-unit condo towers have seen steady sales. Reach, the first to open, is so far nearing sellout at more than 90 percent sold. Rise, set to open this summer, is 45 percent sold, the developer said.

The retail portion, which is capped by a massive “climate ribbon” and boasts tenants like Apple and Saks Fifth Avenue, is set to open this November. Whitman Family Development and Simon Property Group are co-developing the retail component.

When moderator and Bilzin Sumberg attorney Suzanne Amaducci-Adams asked Owens about the challenges of developing such a large project, he said, “If you approach it as individual pieces, you’re never going to get it quite right.”

He also mentioned that during his seven real estate cycles spent in Miami, no less than 15 major projects have been announced in Miami, and “so few have actually been completed.”

As for advice he gives to other large-scale developers looking to replicate Brickell City Centre’s success, he said, “Take a real deep breath and jump off a cliff.”