MIAMI — Early last year, Vlad Yunatanov, owner of the high-end Manhattan jeweler Alexander Sparks, started looking in the Miami area for a suitable location to open a second branch of his business. He decided on a part of downtown Miami dotted with empty storefronts and rundown buildings.
The draw, Mr. Yunatanov said, was Time Century Jewelry Center, a building with 225,000 square feet of retail space and offices, spread over nine levels, for diamond dealers and gold buyers, and for services like diamond-setting and polishing. About half of the space is scheduled to open next month and the rest, over the following 12 months.
The structure, built in the 1920s, now has a sleek exterior of black steel and glass, part of an extensive three-year renovation that its owners said cost more than $40 million.
“I was like, ‘OK, maybe they can make it work,’” Mr. Yunatanov said. “Maybe it’s actually going to be something game-changing here. Maybe they’re going to make that area look nice to attract new customers. Maybe tourists are going to come in there.”
“It is a risk to open in that specific area,” he said, “but I just want to have faith.” So he has signed a five-year rental contract, the average term length at Time Century, and intends to open in April.
The area may not have the allure of Miami’s Design District, the trendy retail and dining area about three miles north. But developers of the Time Century project are aiming for it to be the first step in turning the district and its longtime jewelry focus into a luxury destination for Greater Miami’s six million residents and its visitors, more than 24 million of whom visited in 2021.
For several decades, the area, part of what’s known as the Flagler district, has been home to a cluster of fine jewelry and high-end watch specialists. Much like New York City’s jewelry district, store windows display rings with large diamond solitaires and resale offerings, like Cartier gold necklaces and watches from Rolex and Richard Mille. Other businesses in the neighborhood specialize in manufacturing items, like beads to string into necklaces, and clasps and closures to keep them secure.
“For average people that want to buy jewelry, this is the area,” said Yair Levy, a New York City developer who is the adviser at his family-owned business, Time Century Holdings, the company that purchased the $14.5 million property in 2018. He was interviewed in December in the building’s temporary conference room, with the loud sound of construction machinery in the background.
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(Mr. Levy is well-known in real estate circles. In 2011, he was found to have been involved in what the New York State attorney general’s office described at the time as “illegal and fraudulent business practices” related to a property in Lower Manhattan. He was permanently banned from selling apartments in the state.)
Over the years, the Time Century building has had several incarnations, including housing two department stores and a center for jewelry businesses called Metro Mall, which closed several years ago.
“We only left the foundation,” Mr. Levy said of the building’s overhaul. “We threw everything away. It’s all brand-new.”
The décor of the public areas appears designed to match the building’s aspirations, with an airy three-story atrium, massive crystal chandelier and tile flooring imported from Spain. And that has attracted tenants.
“It seems like the state-of-the-art thing down there,” said David Primak, chief operating officer of Sasha Primak, a diamond specialist in New York City’s jewelry district, which plans to sign a lease with Time Century and to open there later this year. “It just feels like a natural fit for us.”
More than 60 leases have been signed, a building spokeswoman said, with tenants coming from Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina and Canada, among others, as well as other parts of the United States. Annual rents range from $150 per square foot for prime retail space to $40 per square foot for office space on upper floors; the average annual rental rate for the Flagler area, according to the real estate services company JLL Research, is $40.83 per square foot.
The current anchor of the neighborhood is the Seybold building, a 200,000-square-foot building in operation since the 1920s that once housed a range of businesses but now is almost exclusively populated by retail jewelers, watch sellers and associated businesses like polishers, repairers and casters.
Seybold feels more vintage than contemporary, but it also is being renovated. About 1,000 windows have been replaced over the last few years, for example, according to Lynn Fusco, manager of Flagler Street Associates, which has been the building’s landlord for about 50 years. She added that extensive additional work is planned, including building new ceilings in the street-level spaces and remodeling hallways.
She said the company is not concerned about the upstart opening down the street.
“I don’t really see it as a competitor,” Ms. Fusco said. “We’ve been there long enough that there’s been periods of time when there’s a new building just down the street on Flagler, or just down the street on Northeast First, where we’ll get a small group of tenants that will say ‘We’re leaving,’ either low-key or with great drama, and they move on, and then they return years later.”
(Some Seybold tenants have signed leases at Time Century, but they did not want to be identified because they have not moved out yet.)
Other improvements in the district also are underway. An approximately $32 million municipal project has targeted part of Flagler Street, expanding sidewalks and improving lighting. Mana Properties, based in Florida, has purchased about 75 buildings and empty lots in the neighborhood and has said it is working on development plans. There are numerous apartment and condo buildings under construction nearby, including the 100-story Waldorf Astoria Hotel & Residences, and many other high-rises have gone up over the last couple of decades.
“There’s an incredible irony there,” said Paul S. George, the resident historian at HistoryMiami Museum, a short walk west of Time Century. “Never have more people lived downtown than now, because all of the condos of the last 20, 25 years, but never has retail, with the exception of jewelry, been so dormant today as it is downtown.”
Despite all the changes and construction, the Flagler district still feels rundown — and Time Century’s developers appear to feel security will be a concern. The building’s website touts “impact-resistant exterior storefronts,” curbside valet parking for customers and “state-of-the-art 24-hour security inside and outside the building, including roaming security guards.”
Still, the environment doesn’t seem to have deterred new arrivals.
“It’s not ideal, but I think it’s getting better,” Mr. Primak said of the neighborhood.
As for Time Century itself, he said, “I know there’s a lot of security in the building, so I’m not too worried about that.”