August 1st, 2004
Miami's Center City
by Tony Goldman
AN ENLIGHTENED DEVELOPER TAKES A LOOK AT THE FUTURE OF MIAMI'S MOST PROMISING NEIGHBORHOODS, BEGINNING WITH THE DESIGN DISTRICT
In the coming decade Miami will reveal itself as the next great pedestrian city of the United States. Downtown Miami will be built out with dozens of towering new skyscrapers and scores of mid-rise buildings scattered among creatively adapted historic structures. This new environment will add tens thousands of new residents, hundreds of new retail businesses, and countless new corporate offices. Downtown will no longer be a desolate pedestrian desert after 6:00 p.m. nor the homeless haven that it is today. The city's now disconnected neighborhoods and surrounding mini-municipalities will have a dense core, a nucleus, a central pumping heart.
Over the past twenty years, Miami's center has slipped into physical decay and economic depression. The customers who supported downtown businesses until the Eighties were lost when shortsighted landlords rented out lobbies for retail, killing the opportunity for investment in the upper floors. Life above the street is critical to the health of any neighborhood, supplying a loyal customer base that lives and works nearby. Only now, after a long slumber, is upstairs activity waking up downtown.
Despite the turmoil of the druggie Eighties and the doldrums of a depressed real estate market in the late Eighties and early Nineties, Miami perseveres. Give the city credit for its resilience, its unflagging energy and color. Now emerging from late adolescence, Miami is a suburban city with an urban opportunity. Yet in this writer's judgment no city can truly be intellectually and artistically great without a solid core of residents who bring life to a pedestrian-friendly downtown.
As a tangible measure of Miami's unique character, the historic buildings that still stand must be preserved. The texture, timelessness, and scale of historic architecture define a city's personality and sense of place, setting the scene for a vital pedestrian life. By encouraging people to mix on the street, the architectural fabric can help depolarize Miami society and offer us a way to celebrate our population's differences as strengths. Without this sense of the past, the city has no soulful core.
The South Beach phenomenon of the past fifteen years proves that urban revitalization principals can be applied to community life with unbelievable success. Even in the midst of a "suburban heaven" like greater Miami, historic preservation and design review can create a live/ work environment that improves quality of life for everyone. Good urban design adds depth and texture to the environment, inspiring character, curiosity, and creativity among residents while heightening taste and sophistication across the community.
The world's great pedestrian cities grew out of a central plan, a specific urban vision developed hundreds of years ago, well before the automobile age. Cities were laid out on an organized grid; a thoughtful system of streets, alleyways, and boulevards divided the urban space into neighborhoods dotted with parks and squares. Cities evolved like the patchwork of a growing quilt. Each neighborhood was stitched into the city's continuous fabric while the eclectic character of each patch defined the city as a whole. But the design of Twentieth Century cities like Miami and Los Angeles was driven by cars, not pedestrians. The car redefined our communities, fraying the city's patchwork and breaking apart neighborhoods.
We became disconnected and polarized.
This is about to change as Miami reconnects its neighborhoods in a new way. Our Central City must be defined as Downtown and Midtown, divided by the highways and waterways human beings have erected as barriers. Each district has its own epicenter: Downtown, it's the river; to the South, it's Brickell Avenue; to the North, it's 395. Midtown begins and ends just above 195, beyond the Design District. The western boundary is I-95 and to the east it's Biscayne Bay. This geography, along with the Miami's youthful population and its obsession with the freedom of the road, will shape a center city unlike any other in the country. Neither fully suburban nor fully urban, Miami's center will be an urban hybrid.
In the next ten to twenty years, pedestrian dominant zones will develop alongside vehicle dominant zones. These neighborhoods will fuse together as they fill out and bump into each other. Will the convergence be seamless or abrupt? That will depend on enlightened urban planning and a strong commitment to revitalizing our community. We must take frequent helicopter rides to keep an eye on the big picture and form a clear vision of our reinvented city.
This is the first in a series of articles in which I will examine the transformation of Miami's Center City, neighborhood by neighborhood, in the next ten or twenty years. I begin with a look at the Design District, a neighborhood that promises to have a strong impact on the surrounding areas. How did the Design District start? Where does the neighborhood stand now? Where is it going?
Understanding any neighborhood requires digging into the history of place. There's no one better to get historical with in Miami than one of my favorite people, historian Arva Moore Parks. Here's what Arva said when I asked her about the Design District: "As early as 1893, the area around today's Design District was known as Buena Vista. It was an agricultural community made up of a series of homesteads. In the early Twentieth Century, Theodore Vivian Moore came to the area from North Carolina and created a large pineapple plantation. In 1915, Carl Fisher brought Dixie Highway (now NE 2nd Avenue) through Buena Vista and three years later, a trolley connected the area to downtown Miami.
"During the 1920s T.V. Moore, the 'pineapple king,' transformed one of his pineapple plantations (the other was in today's Miami Shores) into what became downtown Buena Vista (NE 40th Street). His imposing Moore's Furniture Company opened in 1921. Buena Vista also had a large movie theatre called the Biltmore. Moore also built a large home and subdivided much of the area now called the Buena Vista East Historic District. In 1924 Buena Vista was incorporated as a town but was then annexed by the City of Miami in September 1925."
By the late Thirties much had changed: Moore focused less on growing pineapples and more on growing the neighborhood. He had help from Richard Plummer, an interior decorator who served the rich and famous new residents of Miami. The powerful influence of Moore and Plummer over the next several decades transformed Buena Vista into the Design District, a center for home furnishings. The Moore Building defined the District's center.
When hard times hit Miami in the Eighties, another set of developers lured businesses away from the Design District to a brand new "mall like" environment in Broward County called Design Center of the Americas (DCOTA). Featuring the ultimate in designer home products, DCOTA served developers in Broward while still easily accessible to the established customer base in Dade. The Design District declined.
As the District decayed, developers turned their attention to South Beach, the long neglected neighborhood across Biscayne Bay. Following the social chaos brought by the Mariel Boatlift from Cuba in the Eighties, the island's magnificent Art Deco District as rediscovered. Born again, South Beach became the first Twentieth Century National Register Historic Architectural district in the United States and the first urban pedestrian live/work community to attract international visitors in Greater Miami. The ripple effect from the Beach's phenomenal success not only touched Greater Miami but washed across the whole state of Florida.
A review of this transformation is important for understanding what is now underway across the bay. The South Beach phenomenon began as early as 1985 as a result of the efforts of a core group of less than a dozen people. Preservationists, enlightened developers, entrepreneurs, and community activists made up the odd bedfellows of the Miami Beach Development Corporation (MBDC), a non-profit community development corporation charged with improving the guality of life in South Beach. The non-profit preservation efforts were supported by a group of real estate developers, (including this writer), who together controlled enough property to make the changes necessary for transformation. Committed to guality development, the coalition helped craft a series of ordinances that would ensure the district's historical preservation.
Within a few years other players joined the movement. Among the early and energetic associates was Craig Robins. Several years out of law school, Robins was bright, artistic, and hungry to learn. He quickly realized that he could accomplish extraordinary success by buying a critical mass of undervalued property then implementing a clear vision of what that property could become.
His role in reinventing South Beach made Robins keenly aware of the potential of the Design District, which he discovered when he helped a friend purchase property in the neighborhood in 1991. Three years later, Robins began to purchase buildings in the District for himself. In 1994 he bought four buildings for a total of 50,000 square feet. In 1995 he bought The Moore Building, bringing his total square footage to 100,000. The following year he added five more buildings, amounting to a total 250,000 square feet.
Over the next five or six years he collected another building or two every year so that his collection of eighteen small and mid-size buildings plus vacant land now adds up to nearly 500,000 square feet.
Craig saw the District as a self-contained neighborhood like South Beach. This time around, rather than a sandy playground, he says, his goal was "to create Miami's creative neighborhood." He planned to restore the Design District to its earlier function as a center for design and home furnishings. Because, he says, he wanted to "bring design to the street and out of the mall" he rejected the idea of making the center open "to the trade only." Instead he concentrated on making the district more accessible and inviting to the general public.
Craig identifies several milestones in the District's redevelopment: the arrival of Knoll Furniture in 1998, of Holly Hunt in 1999, plans for the South Florida version of Art Basel in 2001, and the move by the Latin Academy of the Recording Arts and Sciences (the organization that hosts the Latin Grammys) to the neighborhood in 2003.
The success of the District so far owes as much to Craig's artistic sensibilities as to his real estate acumen; he collects art much as he collects property. Promoting himself and the District over the years, Craig has delivered on his promises: The Design District once again serves as Miami-Dade County's center for home furnishings and design. He has balanced the quality commercial design displayed in the District's storefronts with a needed fine art influence. He draws visitors with his clever use of graphics and the display of pieces from his own art collection.
To add new architectural elements to the still suburban streetscape, Craig plans to build Oak Plaza, an interior corridor of two-story retail buildings resembling Espanola Way in South Beach. Scheduled for completion in 2005 or 2006, Oak Plaza could generate a bustling street life - especially if the structure adds to the limited restaurants currently open in the District. Also on the table for 2006 is a new "out of the ground" mid-rise office building at the entrance to the neighborhood off of Biscayne Boulevard.
While these developments are promising, they are still not enough. Where are the people? Where are the customers to support restaurants and interesting shops around the clock? Perhaps the development of 3000 units on the former FEC site across NE 36 Street to the south and thousands more units slated for construction around Biscayne Boulevard will feed the street. The ultimate success of the Design District depends on having a large community of people living and working right there in the 'hood.
Visioning is a complex business. It takes patience and reflection. Without a plan, development rolls on without taste, momentum, or direction. Yet the process grows more complex as the plan moves from paper to pavement. Trees grow, sidewalks shift, tenants move in and out, government intervention often blocks the best-laid plans. Like a great guarterback, the great visionary is always ready to call the "audible." As he adjusts the plan to fit the conditions on the field, the great visionary seizes opportunity from adversity.
The Design District has a great future. But to realize its full potential, developers must handle the adversity that always waits around the next corner. I do believe that if Robins sticks it out, making the necessary adjustments, improvements, and tasteful embellishments he will figure out the path to the District's ultimate success. Time will tell.