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MIAMI (Reuters) - Sitting at a restaurant table looking out over a courtyard of street art murals, real estate developer Jessica Goldman Srebnick muses about her vision of a creative, cultural image for Miami, a city long vilified for vice and frivolity.
"We like to think of ourselves as romantic developers," said Goldman Srebnick, 44, describing the role of her transplanted New York family in the transformation of Wynwood, a once-derelict area of warehouses north of Miami’s downtown, into one of the hippest urban revivals in the United States.
As thousands of wealthy contemporary art enthusiasts descend on Miami Beach for the annual Art Basel fair this week, on the other side of the Biscayne Bay, the streets of Wynwood - above all its graffiti-art walls - will likely garner as much attention from visitors.
Much as South Beach rose from the ashes two decades ago to become a popular tourist destination, Miami's new "Uptown" neighborhoods, covering about 100 square blocks, are being rapidly gentrified by a mix of luxury retailers and apartment buildings, as well as tech innovators, breweries, bakeries, and restaurants.
The Miami makeover began after artists began painting Wynwood's walls a decade ago, with the encouragement of local developers, led by Goldman Srebnick's late father, New Yorker Tony Goldman, a pioneer in the revival of New York's SoHo district.
Several major contemporary art collectors set up shop there, adding to Wynwood's hipster appeal.
"The concentration of public art in Wynwood and rippling out from there is unprecedented," said renowned California-based street artist Shepard Fairey.
Most of the developers are New York firms hoping to repeat the success of urban renewal in SoHo, the Meatpacking district and Brooklyn.
Not so long ago, city officials dared not set foot in the gang-infested area, said former Miami mayor Manny Diaz. “My cops looked at me, like pale, and said ‘Mr. Mayor, we're not sure we should take you over there,’” he said, recalling the time after his 2001 election.
Today Wynwood is billed as the largest open-air art museum in the world. In September, it was named by Vogue magazine as one of 15 of "the globe's hippest neighborhoods."
“It starts with creative people, fresh ideas, positive energy and smart fun - so that's where people want to be,” said Sonny Bazbaz of New York-based Bazbaz Development, which has a $110 million retail and residential project in Wynwood.
Though it currently has barely 1,000 residents, that is set to change. "We're reinventing a city," said Albert Garcia, 37, a Wynwood business leader who runs a fashion footwear firm. "We're becoming residential. People want to live here, play here, eat here."
Property prices have soared. A single-family home in Wynwood bought in 2011 for $35,999 was purchased in early 2014 for $700,000 by a developer, according to property records. New apartments in neighboring Midtown and Edgewater sell for anywhere between $350,000 and $1 million.
Miami's real estate market has been dominated by Europeans and Latin Americans looking for a place to park their money, said Jonathon Yormak, whose company, East End Capital, plans to build a mixed-use project in Wynwood with one- and two-bedroom rental apartments in the $1,300 to $2,500 a month range.
"Now they are coming here to work," he said.
Next door in the Design District, a metamorphosis is taking place as 12 square blocks of old furniture warehouses have been torn down to make way for luxury brand stores, from Cartier and Louis Vuitton to Hermès and Valentino.
Chicago real estate investment firm General Growth Properties and New York-based Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp paid $280 million in October for a 20 percent stake in the Design District Associates, a partnership between local developer Dacra and L Real Estate, a fund sponsored by French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, which is also a minority investor.
"Everyone said you could never bring South Beach to Miami. Then the idea of Art Basel came up," said Craig Robins, founder of Dacra and one of the early pioneers of South Beach.
Starting in December, 50 new high-end luxury stores will open in the Design District, with still more in the works.
"It's going to put it up there with Madison Avenue and Rodeo Drive," said Robins.
(Story corrects paragraph 17 to reflect that L Real Estate is not a subsidiary of LVMH, but rather LVMH is one of its sponsors and a minority investor)
Reporting by David Adams and Zachary Fagenson, editing by Jill Serjeant and Matthew Lewis