Already, Chavez said that Hermès’ sales volume in the Design District is on par with what it had in Bal Harbour, even though its new store isn’t currently open nights or Sundays.
Emilio Pucci has also opened a boutique, featuring a varied assortment that includes its classic designs, as well as more unique runway pieces, said Emilio Pucci President and Chief Executive Alessandra Carra.
“From the brand’s perspective, we closed Bal Harbour and decided to have two [shops] in Miami: one in a classical destination shopping mall [Aventura], for people looking for the classical shopping experience,” Carra said by telephone from Milan. “And we decided, when the Design District is ready, [we would have] a second store that would not compete with Aventura, but be something different.”
Other luxury brands also plan to open flagship stores that will feature their full product range.
As designers develop their collections, “it’s about the brand being able to showcase the lifestyle of the brand, rather than a selected version of pieces of the brand,” said retail analyst Cohen of the NPD Group.
Hot brand Tom Ford plans to open its flagship store next fall, which will be its first in Florida, featuring its full line of mens’ and ladies’ ready-to-wear and accessories, cosmetics, perfume and eyewear.
“We really believe it is a great project,” said Domenico De Sole, chairman of Tom Ford, who was formerly chairman and chief executive of the Gucci Group. “We were eager to open in the Miami area, and we were eager to open a flagship store.”
But not everyone is yet convinced that the district will succeed.
Pam Danziger, president and founder of Stevens, Penn.-based Unity Marketing and author of Putting the Luxe Back in Luxury, notes that luxury shoppers, hard hit during the recession, came back in 2010, amid pent-up demand. But they have since leveled off to a “new normal,” below their previous height.
“Just to say it will be successful, a slam dunk, would not be prudent,” Danziger said of Miami’s revitalizing district. “They have to attract the right customer and sell to them.”
Those customers, Robins believes, will be sophisticated shoppers not just from Miami, but also visitors from all around the world.
Security is also a concern, as many of the luxury retailers admit, though they say they have confidence that Robins is addressing the issue.
No doubt Miami has its share of crime. The area just north of the Design District saw a spike in incidents like purse and watch snatchings in 2008. But a police department spokeswoman said the district does not stand out as a crime area.
Still, Robins wants shoppers and retailers to feel comfortable. “Just the nature of being in a real neighborhood, in a city, as opposed to being in a mall presents challenges,” he said. He has hired the same national security firm that works for high-end watch and jewelry companies, Security Industry Specialists, known as SIS, and installed surveillance cameras on the street.
Amid the roar of construction, the Design District is still a work in progress. Luxury storefronts on and near 40th Street are juxtaposed against massive construction sites on 39th Street. In all, 15 buildings are currently under construction, including one above-ground and one underground garage that will augment 500 existing spaces.
The district’s master plan, drafted by the Miami firm of Duany Plater-Zyberk, has won approval as a “Special Area Plan” under the Miami 21 zoning code, allowing certain zoning benefits. In July, Miami’s Planning, Zoning & Appeals Board accepted an increase in the number of commercial properties, residential units and parking spaces, passing it on to the city commission for approval, though a request to raise the height of a condo tower was withdrawn.
As it transforms the district, Dacra has brought in cutting edge architects from Tokyo, New York, Chicago and Barcelona, including Sou Fujimoto, Keenen Riley, Johnson & Lee, Aranda\Lasch, OAB Ferrater & Partners, as well as Miami Beach-based landscape architects Island Planning Corp.
Before it is all done, 300 native trees, including Florida Mahogany and Gumbo Limbo, will be planted to enhance the neighborhood, whose centerpiece will be a 30-foot-wide pedestrian mall running north and south from 38th to 42nd Streets.
Public art pieces will also be on display, including Buckminster Fuller’s 24-foot Fly’s Eye Dome, which Robins bought in 2010. It will be installed at the district’s Palm Court, at the southern end of Paseo Ponti.
“We’re integrating incredible art, design, architecture and urban design to make a spectacular environment.” Robins said.
What’s more, the district last year became the only project in Miami-Dade County to be given LEED — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — Gold Neighborhood Development certification.
The distinction for a neighborhood development is based on such factors as integrating “smart growth,” in an urban core, incorporating LEED certified buildings and following the principles of “New Urbanism,” — with a live-work-play design mentality,” said Rob Hink, principal of the Weston-based Spinnaker Group, a sustainable design consulting firm which serves as the Design District’s sustainable design consultants.
In addition, to preserve furniture design in the district, nearly all the design showrooms that were Dacra’s tenants are either remaining in their current locations or have been relocated within the district, according to Robins and several tenants. Dacra tenants whose leases came due were offered new sites at special rates — relatively similar rents to what they had previously been paying, he said. On the art side, the private museum de la Cruz Collection is staying in place, while Locust Projects moved last year within the district, doubling its space.
“We couldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Dacra’s generosity,” said Amanda Sanfilippo, development associate for Locust Projects.
Others are more cautious about praise.
After 39 years in the district, the Carpet Boutique moved closer to Midtown, which turned out to be beneficial for business, said owner Clara Gonzalez. But as far as the future of the district, she said “the jury is still out.”
When completed, the urban streetscape will include 900,000 square feet of space in nearly 50 buildings. Dacra and L Real Estate own 70 percent of the district property, with ownership of the rest scattered among many entities, including those held by investors James Goldsmith, Lyle Chariff, Rusty Atlas, Sam Herzberg, and the Safra and Simkins families. Some of the property owners are also leasing space to retailers, like Longchamp and Rolex.
Chariff, who worked for Dacra for 10 years before starting his own commercial real estate brokerage firm, owns five buildings in the district through partnerships, and also handles acquisition work for Dacra and management, leasing and development for other property owners. In 1994, Dacra bought the Moore building for $2 million or $23 a square foot, Chariff said. This spring, amid a bidding war, a property Chariff listed on 40th Street sold for $2,100 per square foot to a New York investor, he said.
“Buildings Craig didn’t even want to buy he bought to accommodate [design] tenants, because he recognized these were good tenants, they have a track record and they pay their rents, and rather than lose them there was a way to accommodate them,” Chariff said.
Local shoppers have taken notice of the changes.
“I’ve been shopping in the Design District for 15 years,” said Susan Lewin, of Belle Isle in Miami Beach, as she walked out of Marni, where she said she is a regular customer. “First I bought sofas, now I buy my clothes.”
Ten to 12 restaurants are also expected to add to the mix, in addition to those currently open, like MC Kitchen, Michael’s Genuine, The Cypress Room and Oak Tavern. But it is too early to name the new entrants, Robins said.
Pucci’s Carra said the vision for the Design District reminds her of older European cities like Milan, where shoppers tend to stroll the streets, shop and window shop, grab a bite to eat with friends, and check out a gallery or furniture store.
“You have to have some vision because it’s still a lot under construction,” said Carra, who visited a few weeks ago. “I think when all will be finished it will be a totally new way of shopping for that part of America.”
Area residents are watching the transformation take place in the shadow of their homes, with somewhat mixed feelings.
Frantz Eloi, president of the Buena Vista Heights Neighborhood Association, lives on 39th Street, just west of North Miami Avenue, on the outer fringes of the Design District.
“The neighborhood is not against progress. We are very happy that an organization wants to come in and do these beautiful buildings and wonderful things in the neighborhood, but we feel somewhat left out,” said Eloi, who wants the beautification, heightened security and improved lighting to spread out across to his neighborhood, where he expects some shoppers will park their expensive cars.
“I am pleased with what Craig is doing,” said Eloi, who has lived in his home 45 years, buying the house he was raised in from his mother. “I just wish he would include us a little more. Don’t leave us out.”
One aspect of the transformation has drawn neighborhood ire. Plans submitted to the city earlier this year included a condo tower as high as 48 stories on Biscayne Boulevard. Facing local protests, the city’s planning board limited the height to 20 stories and Dacra withdrew its request.
As the project ramps up, Robins said he is working closely with his L Real Estate partners, in what the calls “an extremely dynamic relationship.” The partners speak several times a week and meet monthly in Miami, Paris or Basel. “This is a relationship where one plus one equals five.’’
For Robins, 50, the Design District is his latest in a string of forward-thinking projects that began in South Beach. A native of Miami Beach, he also spearheaded the residential community Aqua, an eight-acre island with 43 houses and 105 condo units, built on the site of the former St Francis Hospital in mid-Miami Beach, where he was born.
Seated in his contemporary art-filled offices in the Design District, wearing Maison Martin Margiela pants, white shirt and shoes, Robins is perched at the intersection of art, design, fashion and real estate development.
He began his career in real estate after earning a law degree from the University of Miami, and a bachelor’s degree in general studies from the University of Michigan, which included studying art history in Barcelona. After law school, he considered becoming an art dealer or going into his father’s field, real estate. And he found just the right combination, he said, with his father’s backing, becoming one of the early South Beach redevelopers.
Robins, who founded Dacra when he was 24, has partnered over the years with the late, famed developer Tony Goldman and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell — who he considers his mentors — along with family members and others, on everything from commercial buildings to hotels, including the Marlin, Victor, Tides, Leslie and Cavalier.
Then, in the mid-90s, he started acquiring property in the Design District.
“We had already developed hotels, offices, condos, art lofts and retail in South Beach, including on Lincoln Road, and I felt we needed to come over the bridge,” he said, adding that at the time people thought he was crazy.
“One of the things about the Design District is that it is a smaller area and we had more resources, so we could control more of it,” Robins said.
“Miami needed a place that could be the city’s creative laboratory,” he added. “I thought the Design District could be the place where something great could happen.”
Now, with L Real Estate as his partner, the project is on fast forward. Unlike building a luxury mall from scratch, like L’Avenue in Shanghai — another project that L Real Estate partnered on, and which opened several weeks ago — the challenge here is creating a new vision while the neighborhood continues to function, Burke said.
“It’s a game of dominos and much more complicated than having a million square feet to lease all at once,” he said. “It’s a different dynamic.”
Convincing tenants to visualize the changes is also harder, he said.
Those who believe in it say that like New York’s Soho or Melrose Drive in Los Angeles, the Design District’s new retail stores and restaurants promise to bring new life to an urban neighborhood, and seal its name on the affluent market’s map.
“It’s like the field of dreams,” said retail analyst Cohen. “If you build it, they will come. If you put the right products in, they will come.”