Developers Clamor to Build Along South Florida’s Passenger Rail Lines

‘We’re still seeing a lot of demand to be close to a Brightline station.’

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South Florida’s intercity passenger train service was barely two years old when the COVID-19 pandemic suspended operations for 20 months. That pause in Brightline service hasn’t derailed developers determined to build projects near train stations.

“We’ve sold several sites that are within a block or two of the Brightline station in Fort Lauderdale that are going to become multifamily developments,” said Jaime Sturgis, founder and CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based real estate brokerage Native Realty. “We’re still seeing a lot of demand to be close to a Brightline station. Fort Lauderdale is a great example of that.”

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The Brightline passenger train service started in 2018 with three downtown stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. After suspending its service from March 2020 to November 2021 due to the pandemic, Brightline opened two more South Florida stations in Aventura and Boca Raton in 2022 and extended its service to Orlando in September.

At the same time, ridership levels have increased coming out of the pandemic. For instance, 1.6 million tickets between West Palm Beach and Miami were sold during 2023’s first 11 months, up from 1 million during the same period the year before.

Coral Gables-based FECI has developed apartments and offices in and around MiamiCentral, the Brightline station in Downtown Miami. It also developed ParkLine Miami, a two-tower, 816-unit rental apartment complex built as a residential component of MiamiCentral. Also part of the same development, FECI built Two MiamiCentral, a 10-story office building located on top of the train station, and Three MiamiCentral, a 12-story office building one block west of the station.

In West Palm Beach, FECI developed ParkLine Palm Beaches, a 24-story, 290-unit apartment building that opened five years ago next to the downtown Brightline station.

Of course, FECI is not the only developer building along the rail line. Near ParkLine Palm Beaches, West Palm Beach-based Navarro Lowrey Properties is developing an 88-unit apartment building a short distance from the train station. In 2023, the city government contributed a strip of land to the development site, and Navarro Lowrey agreed to set aside 13 of the 88 apartments at below-market rents for eligible tenants.

“In Fort Lauderdale, we don’t have any major office towers right next to the station, in comparison to Miami, where when you step out, you’re there,” Sturgis said. “That will accentuate the importance of Brightline because they will have an office component. They’ll get talent [commuting] from Miami and Palm Beach, so I think the proximity of that station will be huge.”

Several other projects near the Fort Lauderdale train station are in the planning phase. For example, Fort Lauderdale property development firm Ocean Land Investments Inc. plans to build a mixed-use project with 392 residential units on a site directly adjacent to the station. In early 2023, Ocean Land paid FECI $13.2 million for the vacant, nearly 1-acre site.

“We are begging them for anything they want to sell,” said Jean Francois Roy, founder and chief executive officer of Ocean Land. “We are committed big time to anything around the Brightline station in Miami or Orlando.”

Miami Beach’s Bachow Ventures LLC and New York-based Infinity Real Estate are partners in a 37-story multifamily development on land just east of a Brightline station in Fort Lauderdale, which they’ve held for about two and a half years while watching interest rates and construction costs escalate.

The developers are entitled to develop a mixed-use building with 316 residential units on the site, but they plan to seek city approval of denser development with about 400 residential units, said Noah Bachow, who runs Bachow Ventures. “We’re moving forward on everything, despite the climate,” he said.

During Brightline’s COVID-induced suspension, a company controlled by Bachow paid $8 million for the more than half-acre site occupied by a Goodyear Auto Service shop at 11 North Andrews Avenue, a block and a half east of the Brightline station, according to Broward County records of the June 2021 transaction.

Construction of the 37-story multifamily tower is expected to start by 2026. “The tenant will occupy the space in the short term, so it’s going to be roughly 18 to 24 months before we can actually get started,” Bachow said.

Developers are interested in sites not only near existing train stations but also near possible station locations.

Brightline trains run on the Florida East Coast railroad, which lies east of (and roughly parallel to) Interstate 95 in South Florida. In Central Florida, a new extension of the railroad bends west of I-95 toward Orlando. The service eventually may expand to Tampa on Florida’s west coast.

Potential locations of new Brightline stations in Central Florida are a subject of speculation in real estate circles. FECI has acquired land near the tracks in Cocoa Beach, about 60 miles east of Orlando, but hasn’t yet committed to putting a train station there.

“Those locations between Cocoa Beach and Orlando and Tampa aren’t set in stone yet,” said Louie Granteed, a senior vice president at Hollywood-based Tobin Real Estate, a family-owned property developer and manager. “So, it’s been hard to pin down properties around where the stations are going to be.”

It’s also possible that more train stations will pop up in South Florida. Brightline eventually may add stations along the Florida East Coast railroad in Miami-Dade, Broward or Palm Beach counties. “I’ve heard different stuff over the years,” Sturgis said. “I’ve heard Hollywood. I’ve heard Wilton Manors. I’ve heard Oakland Park.”

Separately, the Broward County government is working with the Florida Department of Transportation to bring commuter train service to south Broward on the Florida East Coast railroad between Aventura in northeast Miami-Dade County to Fort Lauderdale. Conceivably, Brightline or another passenger rail service, called Tri-Rail, would serve these stations. The Broward County commuter rail project doesn’t specify the operator.

In particular, the county has decided to support development of commuter train stations in three recommended locations: in Hollywood, at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, and on Fort Lauderdale’s south side near Port Everglades. Broward would spend an estimated $317 million to support what it dubs the Commuter Rail South project, which the county expects to complete by 2027.

Unlike privately owned Brightline, publicly owned Tri-Rail is managed by the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA). Started in 1989, Tri-Rail handles passenger traffic at 18 stations from Mangonia Park, just north of West Palm Beach, down to Miami International Airport and runs its trains on a railroad that lies west of Interstate 95.

But Tri-Rail also has been working with FECI on possible ways to share the same tracks and train stations on the Florida East Coast railroad east of I-95. Indeed, SFRTA said in a Dec. 4 press release that Tri-Rail was modifying its schedule to start operating at MiamiCentral along with Brightline. The agency said without elaboration that Tri-Rail service to the Downtown Miami train station was “coming soon.”

“There has been a lot of lobbying and jockeying among municipalities to get the proper transit authority to agree to place a [train] stop in their municipality,” said Keith Poliakoff, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who has worked on such lobbying efforts.

FECI and SFRTA are hearing pleas from real estate developers, too. “Developers are incentivizing them to stop at their location,” Poliakoff said. “I have been to FECI several times with clients, lobbying for locations.”

For example, University Place is a mixed-use development in Hollywood designed to accommodate construction of a train station across the street along the Florida East Coast railroad.

Expected to open in 2025, the eight-story project will have 216 apartments designated as affordable and workforce housing units, with below-market monthly rents ranging from $374 to $1,634. University Station also will have more than 2,000 square feet of commercial and retail space and 12,210 square feet to serve as the new home of Barry University’s College of Nursing and Health Services. The Miami-based developer, Housing Trust Group, held down the project’s cost by leasing the 2.5-acre development site from the city government for 75 years.

Tobin Real Estate’s Granteed said passenger train service in South Florida may create a new class of cross-county commuters who use the trains to hold down their own housing costs.

“The Tri-Rail and the Brightline would allow people who currently live down in Miami to come a little farther north and have more housing options, at more reasonable pricing,” he said. “If your rent is $3,500 or $4,000 on Brickell, and you can come to Hollywood and rent the same thing for $2,500 or $2,800 and then buy yourself passes on the train, you can save yourself a lot of money.”