July 25th, 2005
The Miami Herald
by Matthew Haggman
Craig Robins expands his vision for Miami's Design District as new construction changes the face of the neighborhood.
Developer Craig Robins, who pioneered the redevelopment of South Beach from seedy beach community into international 'playground, is forsaking trendy Lincoln Road and moving the headquarters of his company, Dacra, to Miami's Design District.
The move will put him in the middle of ambitious new construction projects that are expected to transform the artsy neighborhood and could one day give it the cachet of South Beach.
Over the past decade he has been buying up and renovating properties in the Design District. Now he is ready to embark on the district's first significant new construction in years. He envisions erecting more than 15 new buildings, including condos, apartment rentals, art galleries, design showrooms, office space, restaurants and cafes.
"Years of hard work have laid the foundation," said Robins, 42. "So much has happened already and the neighborhood appears to be on the verge of a very profound and important transformation."
Over the next three years, Robins plans to add nearly 1.5 million square feet of new construction to his roughly 500,000 square feet of current holdings in the Design District.
The aim: enliven the district's streets with more residents and visitors who in turn will promote commercial activity and inspire new restaurants and cafes, while hewing to the Design District's identity as a center for art, architecture and design.
"The goal is to make this neighborhood Miami's unique creative laboratory," Robins said. Robins is moving Dacra's headquarters at the end of the year from South Beach to the fourth floor of the refurbished Buick Building on Northeast 2nd Avenue.
"I still live in Miami Beach and have property there, but [South Beach] is becoming more of a commercial kind of place," said Robins. "A company like ours likes, to be on the edge and in new and vital places. Mainly, it will be a lot of fun to be in the Design District."
But Robins faces many challenges in a neighborhood that spiraled downward in the 1980s as crime surged and a competitor, the Design Center of the Americas, opened in Dania Beach.
The Design District has no natural features like a beach or a waterfront to lure residents. And some past condo projects planned by other developers that were unveiled with much fanfare have yet to get off the ground in the district. Work has not started on either the Aria or Cube condo projects. And street life in the area remains lackluster, with limited options for dining or entertainment.
"Is something happening there? Yes," said real estate analyst Michael Cannon. "The neighborhood looks a lot better than it did. But does it have a long way to go? Yes. The neighborhood has not reached critical mass."
But Robins has a considerable track record. He founded Dacra in 1987 and became a leader in South Beach's revival, playing a part in the renovation of landmarks such as the Netherland and Marlin hotels and redevelopment of Lincoln Road and Espanola Way.
Since he started buying property in the Design District in 1994, he has refurbished structures such as the Moore Furniture Co. building and attracted more than 50 designers and professionals ranging from architects Alison Spear and Chad Oppenheim to singer Juanes to the neighborhood.
"I think Craig is one of the most talented developers in Miami," said Jorge Perez, chairman and chief executive of The Related Group of Florida, which is among the nation's biggest condo developers.
Attorney Neisen Kasdin, who was mayor of Miami Beach during much of South Beach's resurgence, said the Design District shares similar characteristics: a defined neighborhood; quality architecture and streetscape; and a unique, identifiable character.
And he thinks the massive Midtown Miami development - located just south of the Design District - and its plans for eight condo towers and several big-box retailers - will complement the district's revival and draw new people into the neighborhood. The re-emerging Buena Vista single-family home neighborhood to the north and new condo construction along Biscayne Boulevard should also help, Kasdin said.
"The prospects are good," said Kasdin, a partner at Guns-ter Yoakley in Miami. "The only question is the time frame."
PHASE ONE UNDERWAY
Robins, who is currently completing a residential development called Aqua in Miami Beach, plans to roll out the new construction in the Design District in two phases.
Phase one is already underway. It includes:
# Oak Plaza, a project on Northeast 40th Street, that will include two two-story buildings for retail and design showrooms. A new street called Plumer Alley will knife between the two structures connecting to Northeast 39th Street, leading to a restaurant space and courtyard. Completion is expected by year's end.
# Two modern single-family homes on Northeast 42nd Street that are set to receive the final nod for occupancy within the next two weeks.
# Two buildings along Northeast First Court between Northeast 38th and Northeast 39th streets that are slated to go up in 2006. Each will have a ground floor retail component and the upper floors in the Palm Court Building will include rental apartments while the Collection Building will have art gallery space and hold Robins' private art collection.
# Two parcels on either side of Tuttle Street between Biscayne Boulevard and North Federal Highway that Robins hopes will serve as the Design District's gateway. On one side of the street, two two-story retail and design showrooms are planned. On the other, two more two-story retail structures topped by several floors of condominiums are on the drawing board.
Robins said a condo developer will be chosen shortly who will build the condo component. Construction is set to begin next year.
PHASE TWO PLANS
Robins plans to launch a second phase within the next three years that will include office space, more condos, art galleries, retail and design space and possibly a hotel. Those developments would go on several parcels of land Robins already owns at the intersection of North Miami Avenue and Northeast 39th Street, among other locations.
Added to this mix, developer Jeremy Green of Nexus Development Group has purchased two Design District parcels where he plans to build town homes and lofts. And last year Robins sold the famed Living Room building, noted for its oversized pink outdoor couch, to Diego and Ernesto Rimoch of Mexico City for $3 million. They plan to turn it into an independent film theater.
Expecting an influx of people in the district, Robins' Dacra is also slated to build a city-owned parking garage in the neighborhood.
"I think the Design District holds similar potential as Lincoln Road [did]," said Green. "What better evidence than one of the biggest catalysts of Lincoln Road, Craig Robins, is the biggest landowner in the Design District."