In Miam's urban core a hyperconcentrated luxury retail destination rises promising to change the way we shop and the way this global city functions for residents and visitors.
FORTY BLOCKS NORTH of downtown, on a sundrenched afternoon in Miami's Design District, the storefronts glitter like jewels while, all around, bulldozers mingle with Bentleys, jetset tourists share the sidewalk with work crews, and jackhammers ring in the future ofluxury retail. The likes of Cartier, Hermes and Prada are already here. Within a couple of years, they'll be joined by more than 100 other toptier brands. The result will be one of the world's most exclusive shopping destinations and, some say, a lift to the back-to-the-city-centre movement in the United States.
Lyle Chariff, a real estate broker in the district, remembers it unfolding with a touch of mystery. "It was three years ago," he says, sitting at a white marble conference table in his glass-lined office, not far from the construction buzz. "Craig Robins walked in here, shut all the shades, pulled out a map, and said 'I want this, I want this, I want this,"' pointing to properties in the neighbourhood. Chariff asked him why. Robins, CEO and president of the real estate development firm Dacra, told him he had a plan, but that was all.
Robins' plan, it turned out, involved partnering with L Real Estate, a global real estate development fund focused on luxury retaildriven mixed-use projects-in which luxury goods conglomerate LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, whose family of more than 60 brands includes Givenchy, Dom Perignon and Tag Heuer, is a minority investor-to create a roughly 20-acre (8-hectare), mixed-use residential and commercial development in the heart of Miami. "Craig doesn't buy buildings; he buys neighbourhoods," says Chariff, who previously worked for Robins at Dacra.
Robins was first drawn to the Design District in the mid-l990s, a decade or so after the home furnishing stores and interior decorators that had given the neighbourhood its cachet-and inspired its name-had succumbed to the pushpull of rising crime rates and the opening of the Design Center of the Americas, a mall-style competitor in neighbouring Broward County.
Undeterred, Robins, who had a successful track record as a developer who helped revitalize South Beach, began acquiring properties, luring high-end interior design showrooms back to the neighbourhood. (Most of the design showrooms currently in the district plan to remain.) He also launched Design Miami, a modern furniture and lighting showcase that has grown so prestigious it now shares space on the cultural calendar with both the Switzerland and the Miami Beach editions of the internationally renowned Art Basel fair.
Along the way, the Design District attracted see-and-be-seen destinations like chef Michael Schwartz's Michael's Genuine Food and Drink, which opened in 2007 to rave reviews.
Still, very few saw anything like the current makeover coming. "This is an example of the city growing up and refining," says Christina Miller, an architectural urban designer and project manager with the Miami-based planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, responsible for the Design District's master plan.
Indeed, adds Miller, while shoppers will marvel at the selection of stores, locals will note how much care is being taken to preserve the fabric and moderate scale of the district, which in the 1920s evolved from a pineapple plantation into a commercial hub for the adjacent Buena Vista neighbourhood, a tightly knit assortment of Mediterranean Revival homes and Art Deco-style residences.
As evidence, she points to the centrepiece of the project: Paseo Ponti, a four-block-long, 30-foot-wide (9-metre) promenade traversing the district on a north-south axis. Running between the north and south plazas, it will be the location for many of the district's signature shops and boutiques. But the promenade will also function as an inviting public space, with "the plazas at the northern and southern ends treated as parks," says Miller. The green vibe will extend to the rooftops of the stores, where mature trees will be planted to provide shade, while conveniently doing nothing to obstruct shoppers' views of store windows.
For Duany Plater-Zyberk, a firm dedicated to New Urbanism principles, the district represents an exciting model "for integrating a special kind of retail into an existing urban setting," says Miller. "The landscapes, the art, the lighting-all have been designed to create the kind of retail experience you would find in an historic locale." This attention to wellconsidered integration led the district to receive LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification for Neighborhood Development, one of only about three dozen such projects in the U.S .
In addition to showcasing the principles of New Urbanism, the district will offer a distinctly Miami experience, one that embodies a forward-leaning, artistic aesthetic. In late 2012, celebrated graffiti artist Retna interpreted the Louis Vuitton brand in an original work adorning the fa9ade of the store, the first such commission for the company in the U.S . There's more to come. Robins, a respected art collector, has commissioned buildings from such cuttingedge architects as Japan's Sou Fujimoto, and he plans to install Buckminster Fuller's 24-foothigh (7.3-metre) Fly's Eye Dome (which Robins acquired in 2010) as the entryway to a new underground parking garage.
Even at this early stage, excitement over the area's transformation is palpable. "As a New Yorker," says Cartier boutique director Cynthia Fiske, "I compare the Design District now to what happened in SoHo in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when fashion became integrated with the galleries."
That's no small boast in a city like Miami, where luxury brand boutiques have long been part of the landscape, and where upscale suburban shopping venues like the Bal Harbour Shops, the Village of Merrick Park and Aventura Mall draw millions of shoppers every year, including untold numbers of international visitors who come to the area primarily to shop.
The area, says Chariff, is an advantage. "You can be in an indoor mall anywhere in the world. That's what makes this model different; people want to be outside here." More to the point, they increasingly want to be where the action is, and the Design District -close to the Midtown Miami entertainment district and the Wynwood Arts District, andjust across the Julia Tuttle Causeway from Miami Beach-fits the bill.
"This is really about bringing the concentration of people back" to the city's centre, says Miller, who hopes the district's planned residential component, 560 apartments, "spurs bakeries, dry cleaners and other businesses" that cater to year-round residents, and perhaps even revives talk of a trolley system.
Will the Design District eventually succeed as a luxury retail destination and a functioning residential neighbourhood? Only time will tell. Already, however, the noted urban theorist Richard Florida, writing on the Atlantic Cities website, has observed that the transformation of the Design District is "an unmistakable sign that the economic and commercial center of gravity [in American cities] is shifting away from the suburbs and back to the urban core." Chariff puts it succinctly: "Right now, with construction dust still in the air,you see more Lamborghinis here than almost anywhere else in Miami."
It's a development that makes the luxury retail pioneers of the Design District's
resurgence, temporarily housed in existing storefronts until their new homes are complete, optimistic . .. and impatient. Fiske, for one, confesses to occasionally sneaking a peek at Cartier's future address. "To see this new 'temple' going up," she says, referring to the two-storey structure, "is incredible." And it's only the beginning.