On a recent day at Sunset Place in South Miami, a passionate singer named Anne Marsan cathartically sang Avril Lavigne’s “I’m With You” to a packed room of about 60 listeners. She swayed across the stage and engaged viewers with eye contact.
After her final lyrical notes and a whisper of “I’m with you,” the audience applauded with delight and jubilantly awaited the next act.
Welcome to open mic night at Tea & Poets, a multipurpose space where local artists showcase their talents. Visitors shop for new-age trinkets and more from local vendors, enjoy artisanal brews, and relax.
“It brings a sense of community regardless of generation and is an attractive force that draws together creatives of every stripe,” says Brian Sippin, a local comic book artist who performs poetry and sells merchandise at Tea & Poets.
These days Sunset Place may not be haunted, but many visitors feel it’s a ghost town. Though AMC Theaters, LA Fitness, and GameTime are still open, most of the storefronts that were once the mall’s main attraction are now empty and deserted.
But Tea and Poets’ concept of drawing the community together may be the key to bringing back popularity. Despite the mall’s decline, city commissioners are still seeking for a new renovation plan that would restore the mall’s former glory while preserving Tea and Poets.
“The place looks dead nowadays with no visible shops and a lot of empty space,” says Justin Barrios, 21, a South Miami local. “At night, it looks like a purgatory or ghost town if you compare it to what it was back then.”
In 1986, the mall first opened as the Bakery Centre, known for filling its halls with an alluring aroma and featuring elaborate seasonal displays that attracted visitors from all over the count. However, as South Miami developed and population density increased, the demand for an expanded, multipurpose mall led to change. After a lengthy closure, the transformed mall reopened in 1999 as Sunset Place, with revitalized entertainment and shopping options.
It was successful for years, but in 2015, the owners of Sunset Place, Bakery Associates, sold the property for $111,500,000 to the firm Federal Realty Investment, betting heavily on the mall’s future. Nevertheless, the rise of monolithic online retailers like Amazon and eBay, and competition from thriving neighboring malls such as Dadeland and the Shops at Merrick Park, meant less foot traffic.
Sunset Place’s excessively enclosed and obscure design didn’t help either.
Due to its decline, several plans were proposed to renovate the mall but were met with resistance.
Josh Liebman, one of the South Miami commissioners who initially rejected the plan, explains the initial project included an agreement that would have given the city $100,000 in subsidies to create more affordable housing.
“I voted against the concession and petitioned for a much better and thoughtful project that would give the city millions for architectural improvements such as pedestrian bridges and street improvements,” said Liebman.
After some negotiation, on April 23, 2019 the South Miami City Commission unanimously approved a redevelopment plan that required zoning changes. It strived to reduce retail, expand office space, demolish half the mall to build two apartment buildings and a hotel, and add a two-story parking lot expansion with valet spaces. Retail spaces would be remodeled to face outward – rather than inward – to allow harmony between the shops on the surrounding sidewalks and the mall.
Before work could even get started, the 2020 pandemic crisis negatively impacted the economy and social atmosphere of public spaces. This put the Sunset Place project on hold.
Liebman describes the uncertainty investors felt.
“It was so traumatic because we weren’t sure whether there needed to be more office, retail, and unit space anymore, which would have potentially raised dividends for shareholders,” he said.
Investors pulled back, and in 2020, Federal Realty sold the property to the realty firm Midtown Opportunities at a loss of $65.5 million.
Today, Sunset Place looks vacant; its current owners reported occupancy of just below 60 percent in 2021, the chief owner of Midtown Opportunities, Alex Vadia, told the South Florida Business Journal.
“We look forward to reimagining the possibilities of Sunset Place alongside our community partners,” he said.
But the topic of increasing population density and building highrises is becoming an increasingly controversial topic in Miami. A South Miami local and regular at Tea & Poets, John Arroyo, shared his thoughts when asked about the planned construction in Sunset Place,
“They do need to renovate the mall and make it more visibly accessible, like the wall that faces Red Road which separates the mall from the rest of the world,” he said. “I don’t think there’s enough room for the number of high rises that they wanted to implement, where I can see one high rise but anything more just wouldn’t fit.“
Arroyo also adds that the South Miami community has been fighting the city’s development plans.
When asked about the larger vision for the mall, South Miami commissioner Steve Calle said, “What’s important for the mall’s survival is to make sure it considers neighboring cities, like Coral Gables, and does something special whether it’s incorporating designs, streetscape, or signage.” He continues, “The big picture is that it’s not just the development but a citywide event where multiple cities are involved in the project.”