South Florida’s Best Block is ... Española Way in Miami Beach

 

Miami Beach’s elegant, historic Spanish Village on Española Way wins The Miami Herald’s best urban block in South Florida competition, as West Palm Beach’s resurgent Clematis Street also makes a strong showing.

aviglucci@MiamiHerald.com

Española Way, the cozy Miami Beach lane built as an artists’ colony in the 1920s and designed to evoke a picturesque Mediterranean village, has captured The Miami Herald’s best block in South Florida competition. Hands down.

With little debate, four expert jurors unanimously selected the street’s “Spanish Village’’ block between Washington and Drexel avenues as winner of the Goldman Prize — named after the late urbanist and developer Tony Goldman — from among the scores of urban blocks in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties nominated by readers.

“It jumps out at you right away,’’ said juror Victor Dover, a Coral Gables-based town planner and urban designer. “There were places centered around nightlife and shopping, or art or music. There were places that had great architecture and walkability. But there were few that had all of those, and that made Española Way stand out. It’s got it all.’’

The popular South Beach street also snagged two other prizes Saturday evening during the award announcements at the Goldman family’s Wynwood Walls patio: the $600 top video prize for Jared Robins , a 17-year-old Country Day School student whose father owns the small Española Way Villas hotel, and the previously unveiled $400 third prize in photo for a serene view of the block at dusk by Barry Miller. He’s a Miami landscape architect whose firm designed the 2002 Plaza de España at the intersection of Drexel and Española Way.

“I put my heart into it,’’ a surprised Robins said after getting bear-hugged by his friends, noting his homespun video didn’t have the slick production quality of some other entries.

Española Way will be rewarded with a block party this fall.

It was also a big night for another iconic South Florida street: downtown West Palm Beach’s resurgent Clematis Street, which grabbed a bunch of prizes, including a sweep of the people’s choice awards for photo and video, a just-for-fun online poll in which readers could “like’’ their favorites.

The people’s-choice-winning video of the 200 block of Clematis, by West Palm residents and boosters Jesse Bailey and Aaron Wormus, also took the $400 juried third prize in that category. And Bailey also won the $400 second prize in the photo category for a neon-soaked view of the 300 block of Clematis taken from a rooftop bar. The people’s choice photo of Clematis Street was submitted by the city’s Downtown Development Authority. All four runner-up awards were announced earlier this week.

Also taking a first prize Saturday was a photo of shoppers strolling by the multi-hued figure of a flamingo on Coral Gables’ Miracle Mile, submitted by Shop Coral Gables, a promotional arm of the city business-improvement district. It won the $600 top award in that category.

Filling out the list of runners-up: a rollicking video by Mitch Koch, set to a Latin hip-hop tune, of a two-block section of Calle Ocho in Miami’s East Little Havana anchored at 15th Avenue by Domino Park and the Tower Theater, whose renovation by the city helped turn the once-desolate area into an increasingly popular entertainment and cultural district. It took the $500 second prize in the video category.

“To see how it’s come back is a real pleasant surprise,’’ juror Rick Gonzalez, a West Palm Beach architect and preservationist who grew up nearby.

The panel was rounded out by Miami historian and author Arva Moore Parks and Gregory Stuart, executive director of Broward’s Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The jurors also elected to give a special honorable mention to Emerge Miami, a grassroots group whose videos, some shot as members pedaled their bikes, documented five emerging blocks and streets in the city’s urban core.

The jurors were charmed by the group’s spirited depictions of inner-city neighborhood streets ranging from Wynwood, Little Haiti and Allapattah to the new mixed-use and pedstrian-friendly Midtown Miami development, as well as the ongoing makeover of the Design District.

They were especially taken by the group’s video of the 5500 block of Northeast Second Avenue in Little Haiti, which is shared by colorful immigrant shop fronts, the punk-music pub Churchill’s, and the indie Sweat Records store with its eye-catching, multi-ethnic street mural of popular music icons.

In recognizing Emerge Miami, the jurors said they wanted to spotlight the budding, if still-incomplete, revitalization of once-neglected South Florida neighborhoods by residents, artists and activists, as well as developers like Goldman. He was a pioneer in the preservation of New York’s SoHo, South Beach, and the principal force behind the emergence of the Wynwood warehouse zone as a hip, street-mural-bedecked arts district.

“There’s this whole other thing going on where people are taking blocks that are not fancy, like those warehouses, and trying to get something started,’’ Dover said.

Like other jurors, Dover noted that urban revitalization emerged as the theme of the competition: Every winning block had experienced a period of considerable decline before undergoing a transformation.

To drive the point home, the awards were handed out at a public event attended by more than 70 people in the middle of a collection of dazzling outdoor murals that Goldman commissioned world-class graffiti artists to paint. Goldman, who died last month, had agreed to help judge the best block contest before falling ill.

“My dad spent his life making some of our country’s best blocks,’’said his daughter and successor, Jessica Goldman Srebnick, who hosted the event. “I know somewhere he’s smiling because this award was named after him.’’

The jurors expressed one disappointment: that Broward was shut out. Although Broward has numerous meritorious blocks and streets, including Hollywood Boulevard and Fort Lauderdale’s Las Olas Boulevard, they said photo and video entries from the county did not match the level of the winning submissions.

The Herald and El Nuevo Herald sponsored the competition in partnership with WLRN/Herald News, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Townhouse Center, a nonprofit that promotes redevelopment of urban neighborhoods through construction of human-scaled, multi-use buildings.

Citing public interest and participation, Herald managing editor Rick Hirsch and Townhouse Center director Andrew Frey said the best block competition will likely return next year, with the hope of surpassing this year’s 170 entries and highlighting streets not represented in the submissions.

The aim was to showcase the best urban streets in the region, and identify what makes them work, as South Floridians flock to the region’s reviving downtowns, city neighborhoods and suburban town centers for fun, work and commerce. Submissions were judged on several criteria, including a block’s friendliness to pedestrians, the architecture of its buildings and the mix of activities it hosts, and, in the photo and video categories, for quality of presentation as well.

Gonzalez, the West Palm architect, emphasized that the streets on which all winning blocks are situated share elements common to traditional urban neighborhoods: a relatively dense, compact mix of places to live, work, shop and eat, and places for culture and entertainment, all easy to traverse on foot.

“I hope this will help people to focus on what’s good in our megalopolis. I hope this will help people who are designing new projects to get a clue,’’ he said.

Above all, jurors said, winning blocks make capacious, attractive accommodations for pedestrians, and — with the possible exception of Calle Ocho — put them first, taking measures to slow down or limit motorized traffic.

Nowhere is that more true than in the Española Way Spanish Village, where motor scooters share the narrow street with pedestrians but no car parking is allowed after dark, effectively keeping out auto traffic.

Jurors said that sense of safety, in combination with the warm, traditional architecture, cafe-lined sidewalks, intimate sense of scale, the warren of passageways and interior patios that connect the buildings, and shady awnings and street trees, make Espanola Way an irresistible draw for tourists and locals.

However, like all the winning blocks — all, by South Florida standards, old places — Española Way experienced years of decline, especially as South Floridians decamped for the suburbs.

“They were very vibrant blocks that went down and came back,’’ Parks said. “It’s the story of a comeback.’’

In the early 1980s, Clematis, the historic spine of downtown West Palm, was a desolate, rundown place. City codes prohibited sidewalk cafes, recalled Gonzalez, whose architecture firm has been on the street for years. Planners, meanwhile, focused on moving cars through as quickly as possible, giving people few reasons to linger.

Transforming streets like Clematis requires vision and changes in both zoning codes and attitudes, Gonzalez and other jurors said.

“What I learned from this exercise is that design really matters,’’ Dover said. “The streets that rose to the top have the basic things right. If you want to allow for prosperity and not pave over the Everglades, we need to make more streets that have these characteristics. When we get people close together, we get all sorts of good things.’’

Read more South Florida's Best Block stories from the Miami Herald

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