December 4th, 2013
The New York Times
Four Square Blocks: Miami
by Julie Lasky
Two weeks before Art Basel Miami Beach, the annual art fair and beachside bacchanalia that opens Thursday, the Miami Design District was a mess. Loose bricks littered the sidewalks, or what was left of them. Construction fences surrounded dusty, chewed-up lots. The fences were wrapped in plastic stamped with slogans: “Where Art Happens,” “Where Design Happens,” “Where Food Happens,” “Where Luxury Happens.”
Construction workers swarmed around, lifting, grunting, driving heavy machinery. But these slogans are no joke.
Craig Robins, a 50-year-old developer, is overseeing the latest phase of his plan to transform a 21-acre patch north of downtown Miami into a Shangri-La of culture and commerce. In the mid-1990s, he began buying, restoring and adding buildings in the neighborhood, a moribund wholesale furniture district that had lost business to a suburban design center. He persuaded high-end design companies like Waterworks and Holly Hunt to move in, commissioned public artworks, repaired sidewalks and planted trees. In 2005, he sealed the identity of what he called the Design District with DesignMiami, an annual fair that ran concurrently with Art Basel Miami Beach. (DesignMiami later moved to Miami Beach, to be close to the main event.)
Now with his company, Dacra, in a 50-50 partnership with L Real Estate, a venture fund in which LVMH is a minority investor, Mr. Robins is ramping up his efforts. He wants to make the Design District a hive of progressive art and architecture, exquisite fashion, ambrosial meals and rooftop gardens — all in conformity with LEED gold standards. He wants design to remain in the picture, he is quick to add, although the area’s furniture showrooms and materials suppliers will be increasingly sharing the stage with fashion brands like Christian Louboutin and Louis Vuitton.
“I always saw it as a creative laboratory, and first wanted to bring back the furniture design,” Mr. Robins said of his earliest ideas for the district. But “as it became incredibly successful as probably the premier place in Miami to buy furniture,” he added, “I realized that that alone was not going to attract people.”
The neighborhood comprises some 20 blocks, and Mr. Robins’s ambitions reach out to all of them. But a close look at the four blocks between Northeast 39th Street and 41st Street to the north, and between Northeast Fourth Court and First Avenue to the west, tells the story.
The centerpiece of these blocks — the seed of the entire district, in fact — is the Moore Furniture Building, a handsome structure of reinforced concrete faced with brick at 40th Street and Northeast Second Avenue. Built in the 1920s by Theodore Vivian Moore, a pineapple plantation owner who diversified into real estate development and furniture manufacturing, it was bought by Mr. Robins in 1994 for $2 million, or $22 a square foot. Eleven years later, he installed a giant Zaha Hadid sculpture in the four-story atrium that looks like chewing gum, or maybe ligaments.
Today, Dacra and L Real Estate own 60 to 70 percent of the district, by Mr. Robins’s account. And the retail space on the Moore Building’s ground floor houses Jonathan Adler, the Rug Company and Ornare, a Brazilian producer of kitchens and closets.
When I visited, all three were preparing displays for the week of the art fair. But more activity was happening across 40th Street. There, a midblock pedestrian thoroughfare called Plumer Alley was being extended into a 30-foot-wide promenade that will extend north to 42nd Street, breaking through the buildings currently housing Pucci and Cartier, and terminating on each end in a three-story retail building. (If any one thing suggests the district’s fortified cosmopolitanism, it is that the little street is being renamed Paseo Ponti, after the Italian architect and designer Giò Ponti.) At the south end of this promenade will be Palm Court, a gateway marked by R. Buckminster Fuller’s 24-foot-tall Fly’s Eye Dome replica, which was displayed at DesignMiami in 2011.
Pucci and Cartier, along with several of their 40th Street neighbors, will be moving to new homes. In all, 15 buildings are under construction in the district, with planned completion by December 2014, in time for the next Art Basel Miami Beach. Among the architects who have been commissioned to design them are Aranda/Lasch, Sou Fujimoto, Leong Leong, Carlos Ferrater, K/R Architect and Iwamoto Scott.
And that’s not the end of the construction boom. By 2015, more than a dozen additional buildings will open. Ultimately, the area is expected to have 120 stores (including a number lured from Bal Harbour, long considered the Miami area’s premium shopping center), more than a dozen restaurants, a 14-story building with condominiums and a boutique hotel, and five parking garages, including one with a John Baldessari mural.
Like any adolescent experiencing a growth spurt, the Design District is awkward as well as hungry. Businesses are hopping in, out and around. And though Mr. Robins said he has offered all of his design tenants 10-year leases at affordable prices, he is not the only landlord there. Nor does that gesture ensure a confident future.
Rosemary Pringle, a fashion instructor at the Design and Architecture Senior High, a magnet school on Second Avenue that has been in the district since 1990, said: “It’ll be great for us to see students intern in showrooms here. We just won’t be able to afford lunch as government employees.”
Or as Rick Lieberman, of Casa Cielo Tile & Mosaic on 40th Street, said, “It’s been a nice year when we can say we’re between Cartier and Hermès — and we’re cheaper.”
He added: “All I can say is, it’s safe now. Ten years ago, you had to be out by 5.”
(Security guards, on which Dacra said it spends “a significant amount” each year, are much in evidence, with apparent reason. In March, the Miami New Times website reported that several crimes had taken place in the district in a recent six-month period, including one aggravated assault and four robberies.)
But Oliver Sanchez, an artist and fabricator who directs an art gallery called Swampspace on 42nd Street, is mentally packing his bags.
“I have a date with the wrecking ball,” he said, explaining that his low stucco building with its stepped roofline is slated for demolition.
Mr. Sanchez, who grew up 10 blocks from the Design District and has been working there for a decade, was elegiac about the artists who used to occupy 38th and 39th Streets — a dozen or more, he said — who have moved on. Still, he showed no bitterness toward the man everyone in the neighborhood seems to refer to as Craig.
“I’ve had a good ride,” he said.