Call of the Mild
I’d imagined zookeeping to be a jaunty, tea-with-the-chimps affair— then they handed me the shovel
If anyone in South Florida currently has the right to boast, it’s Craig Robins. More than two decades ago, the 55-year-old Miami real estate developer began firmly insisting that the Design District, an 18-block neighborhood just over the bridge from Miami Beach, was poised for a dramatic transformation. What was then a half-deserted no-man’s-land, Robins declared, would soon become filled with world-class art and architecture, high-end boutiques and equally impressive restaurants. It was hardly an overnight success, and there were many naysayers along the way, but the last few years have seen Robins’ vision come to life.
Paradise Plaza with Urs Fischer's Bus Stop
Today, the District’s low-slung buildings—some dating to the 1920s—are filled with a dizzying who’s who of luxury retailers, from a three-story, 13,000-square-foot Hermès store (one of only three flagships in the entire country) to tony outposts from Bulgari, Dior, Gucci, Tiffany & Co. and dozens of other upscale retailers. Add in a growing number of top-rated bistros, not one but two contemporary art museums, and a cluster of galleries and alternative art spaces, and Robins has every right to feel vindicated. One might even say it’s history repeating.
Robins first came to prominence at the dawn of the ’90s as one of the prime architects of the revival of South Beach, helping to transform what had become a crime-ridden slum into an internationally celebrated mecca—one where carefully restored art deco buildings became home to a thriving slice of the fashion industry, chic nightlife and a vibrant art scene. Yet in 1995, when Robins announced that he was essentially done with developing South Beach and instead focusing his efforts almost entirely on mainland Miami and the Design District, he was met with blank stares—and more than a few snickers. “It was obvious to me that the ‘next’ area was going to be across the bridge in the city of Miami,” he recalls. He pauses and then adds dryly, “Most people thought I’d lost my mind.” That’s putting it lightly.
Developer Craig Robins
The landlocked District was then sandwiched between a semi-abandoned rail yard and a blighted residential neighborhood, with few obvious inherent attractions beyond the lack of competition to own a chunk of it. Once a local center for furniture showrooms and interior decorators, by 1995 it had long lost any sense of its original luster. By nightfall it was virtually a ghost town.
“All the first-in-the-world brands are here.”
No one’s scoffing anymore. Especially in light of the fact that Robins and his partners aren’t simply major investors in the District—they own 70 percent of it, snapped up back in the ’90s when property there could be bought for $5 a square foot. And today? Based on the sale of a minority share to a publicly held real estate investment company, Wall Street values that 70 percent—one-million square feet of District holdings—at more than $2 billion. Still, the key to that jaw-dropping rise wasn’t simply patience or perseverance—though Robins obviously had both. Instead, as he freely explains, it was all about maintaining control.
“The Design District was the right size,” he says. “While we were, by far, the largest property owner in the historical district of South Beach, that was still maybe 50 buildings out of 500—only ten percent. The Design District was a real historical neighborhood where we could end up having a very substantial stake, but it was small enough that I thought over the long term we could influence the direction and not suffer the things I didn’t like about South Beach—the way it got over-commercialized.” Translation: Don’t hold your breath waiting for a Gap or Banana Republic to move into one of Robins’ District buildings, regardless of how much rent they’re willing to pay. Their presence would ultimately corrode what Robins calls “a special sense of place.”
Bulgari boutique and Buckminster Fuller's Fly's Eye Dome
Indeed, he has been as meticulous about “curating” the District’s tenants as he has its public art—which includes a 24-foot-high geodesic dome by Buckminster Fuller, sprawling murals by John Baldessari, a giant sculpture of the legendary architect Le Corbusier, and a tweaked version of a bus stop by Swiss prankster Urs Fischer. Yes, that is a skeleton that Fischer has placed atop his bus stop’s bench, with a trickle of water dripping onto its ghoulish head and pooling below. If that jarring sight seems decidedly un-mall-like, you’re beginning to understand Robins’ thinking and his desire to carve out a unique identity—one that makes little distinction between shopping, museum-going and fine dining, seeing them all as simply experience-gathering.
“This is what a cultural scene is supposed to be—a lot of options.”
That attitude—and Robins’ maintenance of almost absolute control over the District—left him perfectly primed in 2010 for a partnership with the luxury conglomerate LVMH, whose inking of District leases for their stores attracted still more luxe brands. Just as enticing for these retailers: Beyond height restrictions there was little in the way of zoning and none of the historic preservation laws that impact construction on South Beach. “You can imagine the breadth and depth of what we can offer,” Hermès president and CEO Robert Chavez told The New York Times, citing not only the sheer size and Versailles-like interiors of his District store but also features including a roof garden. “That’s not something that’s possible in a shopping mall.”
Foot traffic in the District may still be sparse, especially during the humid summer months, but the area nonetheless seems to be reshaping retail attitudes far beyond South Florida. “It’s helping Miami to be taken more seriously,” says Jenny Lopez, a fashion model who has been based in Miami since her teenage years. “I go back and forth to New York for work, and when I used to tell people I have a place in Miami, they would say, ‘Why Miami? Miami is so cheesy!’” Those kinds of eye rolls have ended, Lopez says. Thanks to the nexus of fashion brands that have coalesced in the District, “Miami is now seen as a cool destination again.” She also cites a ripple effect that bodes well for fans of more cutting-edge emporiums: “Because all the first-in-the-world brands have come here, the up-and-coming brands want to be seen next to them.”
Konstantin Grcic's Netscape installation
An early part of crafting the District “experience” included the opening of restaurants like Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, the first outpost for New American cuisine from James Beard Award winner Michael Schwartz—later joined a few blocks away by Schwartz’s Harry’s Pizzeria with its artisanal take on Italian comfort food—and Mandolin Aegean Bistro. The latter, a Greek/Turkish eatery, became easy to find at night. One only had to look for the valets jumping in and out of sports cars and SUVs on an otherwise darkened street. Both restaurants were essential in introducing Robins’ target audience to the District. The opening of buzz-laden chef Brad Kilgore’s Kaido has added a fresh wave of excitement for foodies (another Kilgore restaurant, Ember, will open soon). And also pulling in a crowd is St. Roch Market—don’t you dare call it a food court in Robins’ presence—an offshoot of a historic New Orleans property featuring a dozen vendors offering everything from Vietnamese to Israeli cuisine.
Another new entrant on the restaurateur front is Emilio Estefan—though he notes that he was on board with Robins’ plans for the District from the beginning. “I bought there before him!” Estefan says with a laugh, pointing out that he purchased an entire District block in 1994. The Grammy Award-winning producer may be known nationally for his musical efforts onstage and in the studio. But in Miami he’s also lauded as a serial entrepreneur with a winning résumé.
“Between all our restaurants, we are the biggest consumers of rum in South Florida,” he explains, pointing to his string of upscale Cuban restaurants that now includes Estefan Kitchen in the District. “If people are coming to Miami, they want traditional Cuban food, but they also want something a bit different. So the food and the service is a little more sophisticated,” he says. In keeping with the District’s au courant vibe, “we even have a vegan option”—a dining alternative that’s hardly on the menu in most traditional Cuban spots. Estefan has also been hosting a Friday night free concert series on the plaza directly outside his restaurant, featuring performances ranging from the Miami Symphony Orchestra to the reggae grooves of the Wailers—yet another way to draw crowds to the District.
Fashion model Jenny Lopez with Xavier Vaihan's Le Corbusier
However, it’s art that remains the strongest component of the District’s appeal, which is why Robins donated land there for the Institute of Contemporary Art, a three-floor, 37,500-square-foot exhibition space. That museum and its avant-garde offerings sits next door to the de la Cruz Collection, a similarly sized (with similarly free admission) building filled with paintings and sculptures owned by the marquee local collectors Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz. Too much of a good thing? “No one says there are too many art museums in New York,” laughs Ellen Salpeter, the former director of the ICA Miami. On the contrary, she says, a critical mass of local art museums helps fire up overall interest in the art world.
Citing one particularly jammed evening, Salpeter recalls that the ICA was hosting a lecture by the painter Hernan Bas, Robins’ own office was presenting an event with the filmmaker Harmony Korine just a block away, and the de la Cruz Collection had its own lecture set for the same time. “Everybody said to me, ‘What do I do? How do I choose?’ Well, this is what a cultural scene is supposed to be—a lot of options.” Just as important, Salpeter adds, was that none of these three events seemed to cannibalize audience members from another: “Everyone was at capacity! There’s an appetite for what’s going on here.”
“Miami is seen as a cool destination again.”
To further entice visitors to make the District a destination—not just a quick stop—Robins constructed an 800-car parking garage directly across the street from the ICA Miami. That block-long structure, overseen by architect Terence Riley, the former director of what is now the Pérez Art Museum Miami, more than lives up to its name: Museum Garage. Riley invited five different artists and architects to install surreal additions on its facade: If you see a garage entrance framed by a sea of druidic runes and flanked by 45 full-size cars bolted onto a wall, you’ve arrived.
“Andy Warhol once said he liked ‘boring’ things. But he was not talking about parking garages—they’re just awful,” says Riley. “And most of them are only two stories. Ours is seven. Yet it allows the Design District to be relatively pedestrian: Everyone can just pull their car in and then walk.” Riley’s solution was to abandon any pretense of trying to camouflage his building with foliage: “Forty-thousand square feet of green is still 40,000 square feet,” he says. He took the opposite tack, creating a building that is visually striking—and like nothing else around. “A parking garage doesn’t need to be a neighborhood killer,” he adds. “It can be something exciting and interesting. The number of people who stop and take photos of each part of the facade convinces me that we got the right scale.”
Flotsam & Jetsam installation by SHoP Architects.
In the eyes of Lorie Mertes, whose tenure as a curator at the Pérez’s precursor briefly overlapped with Riley’s, “interesting” doesn’t even begin to describe the evolution of the District. “I’m still shell-shocked,” she says with a laugh. Now the executive director of Locust Projects, yet another of the arts organizations lured to the District by Robins, Mertes wasn’t unfamiliar with the area: “I went to a lot of artists’ studios here as a curator,” she recalls. But having left Miami for a museum in Washington, D.C., when the District “was still an in-between zone,” she was completely unprepared for its current status when she returned to town in 2017. Still, she’s come to relish the contrast between Locust Projects’ emphasis on scrappy, emerging artists and her more genteel neighbors.
“We’re in the business of making new art happen, and sometimes new art doesn’t doesn’t always look like art,” she says. “We let artists realize their craziest dreams—create a pool in the gallery for synchronized swimming? Jackhammer the floor? Sure! So it’s interesting to butt up against the pristine, lovely new ICA and the de la Cruz Collection, as well as these beautiful houses of fashion. But a lot of what we’re doing eventually finds its way into those other worlds.”
That isn’t mere conjecture on Mertes’ part. One of Locust’s featured installation artists, Daniel Arsham, spent an early part of his career working out of a Robins-owned District studio space. Now based in New York, he’s become a frequent collaborator with the musician Pharrell Williams—who is a partner in Swan and Bar Bevy, a swank restaurant and lounge that recently opened in the District. And those are precisely the kinds of connections that Robins first set out to forge. “I love that this is a neighborhood, that it isn’t a mall,” he says, pronouncing that last word like a four–letter epithet. “It’s part of the urban fabric of our city.”