Ralph Sanchez is finishing Merrick’s dream

South Florida Real Deal Magazine – by Becky Bergman

An early suburb of Miami started by a visionary developer, George Merrick, is finally shaping up as a new dreamer remakes a large swath of land in downtown Coral Gables. Commercial developer Ralph Sanchez broke ground in November on Old Spanish Village, an ambitious 900,000-square-foot, mixed-use project around Ponce Circle, a few blocks south of Miracle Mile.

Sanchez is the managing partner for Ponce Circle Developers and the man behind the Miami Grand Prix and the $100 million Homestead Motorsports Complex. He promises the $500 million project will reflect George Merrick’s vision of “Castles in Spain” for the city he founded in the 1920s.

Over the past decade, Sanchez assembled the 7.2 acres of land, as well as demolished several mid-rise buildings and 10 one- and two-story homes, all to make room for three Spanish-style structures. At the heart of the development is the $1.7 million renovated, three-story Art Center building at 2901 Ponce de Leon Boulevard. Built in 1926, it serves as a crossroads between the past and future: The gallery highlights Merrick’s era, while the sales office emphasizes the future.

“People know and trust Ralph Sanchez,” said Coral Gables Mayor Don Slesnick. “He’s a man of his word and when he says he can accomplish something, people believe him.”

Sanchez has developed a few noteworthy projects in downtown Coral Gables, including 232 Andalusia, a mixed-use condo-office project, and Douglas Grand, a 350,000-square-foot project. “Coral Gables is a healthy city with a lot of building going on right now,” said Slesnick. “But I have to tell you that we’re cautious about big projects like Old Spanish Village. I think if it had been anyone else but Ralph Sanchez, it might not have had the same kind of approval.”

Sanchez is pumping $128 million into Phase I of Old Spanish Village, which includes Casa Palermo’s 38 three-story villas with rooftop terraces, private elevator access and two-car garages, priced from $450,000 to $1.1 million. Las Porres includes 50 luxury units in two residential towers with private elevator access, ranging from $1.2 million to $4 million. Other projects in the pipeline include Ponce Circle Developers’ sale of a 42,730-square-foot, mixed-use tower at 2801 Ponce de Leon Boulevard to the Allen Morris Co. for $24 million.

The new owners will demolish the 13-story building to make room for a 15-story mixed-use office tower that will include 215,000 square feet and resemble a 15th century cathedral in Barcelona, Spain. It will have imported marble, granite, brass, woodwork, stained glass, fountains and artwork from around the world. Sanchez said the development will be completed by 2010 and include at least 40,000 square feet of ground-floor retail.

Sanchez expects the entire downtown mixed-use development, designed by University of Miami architecture professor Jorge Hernandez, to draw residents ranging from up-and-coming graduates to retiring baby boomers.
“The city was looking for smart growth projects that showed signs of economic success when Ralph brought the idea to us,” said Slesnick. “His project complements how we’re trying to develop our downtown core.”

When Sanchez was ready to draw up plans for the property around Ponce Circle in 2005, the developer started digging through old newspaper archives, photos and public documents to learn more. He also hired noted historian and local author, Arva Moore Parks, to help sort through the past. Awestruck by Merrick’s achievements, Sanchez encouraged Parks to publish a book on the developer’s life.

In the early 1920s, Merrick began converting nearly 10,000 acres of his family’s grapefruit plantation into mixed-use villages that represented architectural features from various regions around the world. The real estate developer and Miami-Dade commissioner, whose building career soared during the Roaring ’20s, dreamed of constructing an old-world Spanish-style village before the Great Depression wiped him out.

Between 1921 and 1925, Merrick sold more than $150 million in local real estate, including his themed developments — the Chinese, French City, French Country, French Normandy, Dutch South African, Florida Pioneer and Southern Colonial villages. “George believed that beauty was for everyone,” said Parks. “He was a visionary man who believed you didn’t have to be rich to live in a beautiful setting. He set out to bring that level of beauty to the middle class.”

“He wanted to create a place where people felt special when they were there,” said Parks.

Although Merrick made high-density development an art form, he never fulfilled his dream to build the Spanish-style enclave. He often referred to it as his unfinished symphony. At the peak of his career, he was worth an estimated $40 million. When he died as Miami’s postmaster nearly 20 years later in 1942, he was worth a meager $300.

“He was an incredible visionary and did things that had never been done before,” said Sanchez. “He is a hero in this town and this project continues his vision.”

Parks, who describes Sanchez as a tall and handsome man who is passionate about his family, believes he is a visionary like Merrick. “Ralph is like George. He’s focused and intense and thinks things through,” said Parks. “You don’t meet developers like Ralph who really care about their projects and want to know the stories behind them.”

Sanchez was born in Cuba and fled Fidel Castro’s rule for a Miami Catholic orphanage when he was 13 years old, the same age Merrick was when his family uprooted from the cold New England winters. Sanchez, who had no family in the U.S., spent five years in that orphanage where he said he felt like an outsider among people from his own country.

After Sanchez earned a degree in business administration from Florida Atlantic University in 1969, he decided to pursue a real estate career with the Keyes Company. Two years into his job, he began to borrow money to develop small housing projects. In 1983, Sanchez took the gamble of a lifetime when he set out to bring Grand Prix Auto Racing to Miami.

City officials and community leaders thought he was crazy, but the drivers committed, Sanchez recalled. Unfortunately, bad weather killed the event — the race ran only 50 miles of the scheduled 310 — costing Sanchez nearly $1.3 million.

Undeterred by the setback, Sanchez embarked on an ambitious plan to build a $100 million racetrack in South Florida three years later. Again, everyone told him it would be impossible to pull off. “I’ve been called crazy many times for the things I’ve done,” he said. “But I had it in my mind that I wanted to do this and I just hung in there. It took nine years from the time I started talking about it until it was done.”

All 63,000 seats at the first NASCAR race at Homestead Motorsports Complex sold out days in advance. For Sanchez, the racetrack cemented his reputation as a solid player in the South Florida market. Now Sanchez is making headlines again for parlaying his drive and passion into building Old Spanish Village along the three city blocks Merrick designated as the Crafts Section.

And beyond the cobblestone walkways, lush gardens and private courtyards in Old Spanish Village is a dream neither visionary could have planned. When it is finished, Merrick’s symphony will finally be complete.