Developer unveils project to transform Miami’s Design District into upscale pedestrian promenade

Developer Craig Robins’ plan to turn Miami’s Design District into a super-high-end retail destination entails cutting a four-block pedestrian promenade anchored by two department stores through the heart of the compact neighborhood, which would also get an extensive green makeover — including rooftops covered in sod, gardens and mature shade trees.

The ambitious scheme, which gets its first public airing before the city’s planning and zoning board on Wednesday, would create a smaller-scale version of Lincoln Road Mall, though one lined with ultra-luxury fashion shops, and dotted with cafes and tree-shaded public plazas to encourage lingering.

Not coincidentally, the layout and scale of the pedestrian passageway also bear a striking similarity to those of Bal Harbour Shops, which is losing many of its luxury tenants to the Design District. But the plan weaves that enclosed-mall template into an intensely urban setting.

“We’ve picked up on the success of those two areas that we know have really worked,” Robins said during a presentation to reporters Monday at the art-filled Design District offices of the development group he leads, DACRA. “It’s about redefining retail and creating a mixed-use urban community at the heart of the city of Miami.”

The detailed blueprint, which DACRA submitted to the city last week as a “Special Area Plan’’ under the Miami 21 zoning code, also makes room for adding a hotel and around 100 units of housing in a mid-rise tower to what has been a commercial-only district. Both would be on the west side of Northeast First Avenue at 39th Street.

Although the hotel and residential piece would require a slight up-zoning, most of the plan — which covers 51 properties that DACRA controls, or roughly 65 percent of the entire area — fits within existing zoning and would preserve the district’s low-scale character, Robins said. But existing buildings would be supplemented by signature architectural designs, Robins said.

Robins, a key early figure in the redevelopment of South Beach and founder of the Design Miami fair, said DACRA’s plan builds on the architectural bones of the district, and its focus on designer furnishings and the arts, to create “a neighborhood authentically grounded in fostering creativity and not just merchandising.’’

“The neighborhood is wonderful already,’’ Robins said. “The transformation is going to be exponential.’’

The blueprint was drafted by the Miami firm of Duany Plater-Zyberk, also authors of the Miami 21 code. It’s the second, mold-breaking collaboration between the firm, which advocates traditional, walkable urban designs, and Robins, who extols contemporary architecture and design.

The Design District plan must be approved by the city commission. Robins hopes that will happen before the August break, noting it has the support of residents’ groups in adjacent neighborhoods.

Approval would clear the way for a $312 million project that comprises extensive renovations, 540,000 square feet of new construction and some demolitions, including those necessary to clear the way for the blueprint’s centerpiece: the 30-foot-wide pedestrian mall that would run north and south from 38th to 42nd streets. Some of that work, allowed by existing rules, has already begun.

The passageway would be anchored at both ends by new public plazas and two boutique department stores like Bloomingdale’s SOHO concept.

The passageway would likely remain open 24 hours and function like a public street but without cars, Robins said.

Already Robins’ project has been hailed as a watershed in the revival of once-blighted neighborhoods in U.S. cities.

Richard Florida, author of the influential Rise of the Creative Class and a leading scholar of urban revitalization, wrote Tuesday in The Atlantic Cities urban-planning website that DACRA’s plan is “an unmistakable sign that the economic and commercial center of gravity is shifting away from the suburbs.’’

“What’s happening in the Design District signals the return of high-end retail to the downtown core, but in a new way, capitalizing on the excitement and energy of what’s been happening in the art and design corridor which runs from Wynwood to the Design District,’’ Florida, a part-time Miami Beach resident, said in an email.

DACRA is developing the project in partnership with L Real Estate, a Paris-based investment fund backed by French luxury giant Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy.

“Miami needed more retail infrastructure for luxury brands,” said Mathieu Le Bozec, managing partner of L Real Estate.

LVMH is bringing its namesake Louis Vuitton to the Design District, as well as another 11 of the company’s brands including Christian Dior, Fendi, Bulgari, Pucci, De Beers, Celine and Marc by Marc Jacobs. Cartier is one of 10 Richemont brands committed to opening in the district, along with a growing list of luxury tenants that includes Hermes, Zegna, Tom Ford and Burberry. Some will be opening in temporary spaces this year.

Though the district is separated from impoverished Little Haiti only by the gentrifying Buena Vista East neighborhood, its fortunes have been boosted by the success of the adjoining Midtown Miami development and the transformation of adjacent Wynwood into an arts and entertainment district. It also benefits from the ongoing revival of Biscayne Boulevard.

Robins says luxury brands “love’’ the exposure and edginess of street retail, especially when it’s as centrally located and well connected to expressways as the Design District is.

The plan also calls for four new parking garages, two of them underground below the department stores to preserve the human scale at sidewalk level. The above-ground garages, which would be developed in conjunction with the city parking authority, would be fully concealed behind retail space, Robins said. On-street parking would remain.

Robins expects to finish work on the southern portion of the pedestrian promenade, to be called the Palm Court, in 2014, with the northern portion a year after that.