July 25th, 2005
The Miami Herald
In the District
by Jo Werne
It's a beautiful morning in the year 2010. A young artist leaves his loft apartment in the Miami Design District and strolls to Northeast 40th Street to enjoy a cup of coffee at a sidewalk cafe.
Later, he visits several art galleries to see if his paintings, placed on consignment, have sold. Pausing to chat with friends in a plaza shaded by oak trees, the artist checks out the daily specials in the windows of several cafes before returning to his loft in a live/work high-rise to start another painting.
This is a scenario envisioned by architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk five years from now when the Design District is transformed from an under-utilized area of designer showrooms and art galleries to a bustling neighborhood of condos, rentals and new mixed-use buildings. Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Miami, Plater-Zyberk sees more restaurants, as well as convenience stores and pleasant streetscapes that will make the neighborhood a desirable place to live.
"I see the district full of merchants and shoppers," says Plater-Zyberk who created a master plan for the area. "DASH [Design and Architecture Senior High] will be thriving. I see more green, a better entry and several buildings with walkthroughs."
"What we are doing is embarking on a really intense program to bring architecture into the neighborhood," says Craig Robins, head of Dacra Properties who is planning to build several live/work structures as well as a building to house his extensive art collection, which will be open to the public. "We are taking a vibrant neighborhood and making it more so. We're going to create live/work spaces for creative people and subsidize where young people need help."
Dozens of artists, architects and designers, he says, are already involved in the district.
The area "has that excitement of a new and developing neighborhood," says architect John Keenen of Keenen/Riley Architects, New York. "Every time I go to Miami, I can feel the changes in the district. It's palpable. It reminds me of changes in Manhattan, the evolution of SoHo and other neighborhoods."
Keenen and his business partner Terence Riley, curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, are involved in several projects in the Design District, including four two-story retail buildings that will be on Tuttle Street. The newly named street curves from Bis-cayne Boulevard and will become a major entrance to the district.
The architects also have designed two courtyard homes on Northeast 43rd Street, one of which Riley plans to live in when he's in Miami.
Craig Konyk of Brooklyn-based Konyk Architecture is one of several architects commissioned by Dacra to design the new buildings on Tuttle Street. "Our building [Tuttle Street 2 on the map on page 29] is an open plan that could support other uses besides showrooms," he says. "We will make a roof-top activity space. This is exciting for us. New buildings show the district is growing."
New York architect Walter Chatham has been involved in the Design District for 10 years; he did the renovation of the Moore Building and other buildings on commission from Dacra. "Residential has been a missing ingredient in the district," he says. "The area had to be viable before residential could happen. It should accelerate rapidly."
Plater-Zyberk, whose firm DPZ Architects designed the town of Seaside in the Florida Panhandle, believes the Design District is ripe for residential development because "it has good bones and an urban structure."
Design District merchants would like to see people living in the neighborhood because "when they look at residential, they see bucks," says Susane Ronai, owner of Susane R Lifestyle Boutique.
"Because people are going to be living here, the district must be more friendly, more urban, more welcoming," she says. "And it must become more convenient. I had to send a client needing batteries for her camera over to [Biscayne] Boulevard and several blocks down to find batteries. Two years from now, no one will have to go outside the district for a battery. We need more boutiques, cafes, restaurants, a newsstand. We need a little movie house, and I would love to see a bookstore here."
"The district is perfect for residential," adds Rajni Agar-wal, owner of Advanced Trading, an Oriental rug showroom at the same Northeast 40th Street location for 25 years. "It's so convenient to downtown, the expressway, the airport."
Wayne Taylor, owner of NOW, a retail showroom of contemporary furniture, also welcomes residential development. "It makes it an urban area," he says. "We're in transition, on the way. Enough people are interested in putting their feet in the water to make it work."
Many of the conveniences the Design District will need as it morphs into a residential area will be available just blocks away at Midtown Miami, which is under construction at the old Buena Vista Railroad Yard south of Northeast 36th Street. Besides eight residential towers, the development will have "big box" stores, supermarkets and specialty stores.
"Midtown Miami is very positive for us," says Robins. "The district can be more artistic, designer-oriented. I think the two areas will be compatible."
Design District merchants also view Midtown Miami's residential towers as a potential source for their products. Everything from bathroom fixtures to tile, floor coverings, furniture, antiques and art are already available in district showrooms. Most now welcome retail customers as well as offer discounts to designers and architects.
"What we should have here is many more designers so this could become a one-stop shopping area for all sorts of home furnishings," Ronai says.
Although the Design District has a "good street grid," Plater-Zyberk says the blocks are too long to make it pedestrian-friendly.
Dacra is already addressing this issue by cutting a lane through from Northeast 40th Street to Northeast 39th and building two narrow buildings that will be shaded by oak trees. Called Oak Plaza, it will include a restaurant and patio that will invite pedestrians to pause and relax in the shade.
"It will be the first public space for the district," says architect Carrie Penabad, whose firm Cure & Penabad Architects is responsible for the plaza, the new street and two new buildings along with Khoury & Vogt Architects, both Miami firms. "I think it's great to have residences in the district. You need housing to make it lively both by day and night."
Anyone who has walked the long blocks of the Design District during hot weather knows the area also needs shade. Beginning this summer, the City of Miami plans to plant 80 trees along Northeast 40th Street and improve lighting and sidewalks. Concerned about the entire street being torn up at once, merchants met with the city, which has agreed to do the work in four increments. The city is also building a parking garage south of Northeast 39th Street.
Finally, Plater-Zyberk points out, the "new" Design District must be convenient and easy to get around: "There is a need for kiosks to direct people around the district. We need to make it friendly."