Visual Arts

Alastair Gordon: Lincoln Road Mall on Miami Beach has always been a work in progress

Proposed design for the 400 block of Lincoln Road.
Proposed design for the 400 block of Lincoln Road. James Corner Field Operations

The master plan for a refurbished Lincoln Road was leaked to a Miami web site this month. The ensuing reaction verged on hysteria that spread through the blogosphere, igniting people’s worst fears: Their favorite pedestrian mall was about to be irreparably ruined. While this turns out to be far from the truth, the response underscores a general, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it sentiment.” People feel a sense of ownership and pride of place about Lincoln Road, and with it comes territoriality and a fear of change, fear that something might get lost in the process.

The master plan is being developed by James Corner, principle of Field Operations, a New York-based landscape and urban design firm that comes to the task with stellar credentials. Corner is not only co-author of the High Line, the 1.45-mile-long linear park that has transformed Manhattan’s West Side, but other major urban projects such as the Freshkills Park on Staten Island, Seattle’s Central Waterfront and the sprawling Presidio Park in San Francisco. In Miami, he’s responsible for the Knight Plaza that lies adjacent to the Peréz Art Museum, and he was recently chosen to design the 10-mile-long Underline Park that will run beneath Miami’s Metrorail.

“I understand that Lincoln Road is a great shopping and dining street,” said Corner, speaking by phone from Prague, making it clear that his firm’s proposal is still a work in progress. “People don’t like change in the public realm,” Corner said. “They don’t trust it. But these are the early days of the design process. It still requires a lot of listening and responding to public concerns.”

Center of it all

Lincoln Road is the heart and soul of Miami Beach. Some have called it the Fifth Avenue of the South. Others have compared it to the Champs Elysées, but it’s closer in spirit to a Spanish-style paseo — La Rambla of Barcelona, the Copacabana walkway of Rio de Janeiro — than a conventional American street. People saunter down the promenade. They talk and stare into shop windows, oblivious to all the design moves that went into making such a satisfying environment, a place to see and be seen.

Indeed, it’s an eight-block procession of eye candy all the way from Washington Avenue to Alton Road. The Lapidus follies weren’t just meant to be ornamental. They serve as an essential armature, animating the spaces as one proceeds down the mall, expanding it in one place while contracting it in another. Along the way there are inviting little bowers and alcoves, sloping mounds, zigzagging planters, shady places to explore and seek shelter from the sun. Architecture, landscape and streetscape become sweetly entangled, further punctuated by prickly ground coverings and zebra-striped pavements.

Carl Fisher, co-creator of Miami Beach, built Lincoln Road as part of his master plan to turn a mangrove swamp into America’s favorite playground. During the pre-crash boom of the 1920s, Fisher’s own real estate office was located on Lincoln Road. Many prominent high-end stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Bonwit Teller, Jay Thorpe, I. Miller — came south from New York to open branches. Life magazine featured Lincoln Road in its Feb. 24, 1941 issue, hailing it as Miami’s “Luxury Lane,” with photographs of elegant shoppers strolling down the lane, dressed in silk culottes and high heels.

By the 1950s, however, South Beach was in decline. Big new hotels like the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc (both Morris Lapidus confections) were built well north of Lincoln Road, and many of Lincoln’s biggest retail names decided to head north to Bal Harbour Shops.

In 1958, Morris Lapidus stood on the ballroom stage of the Seville Hotel and presented plans to turn Lincoln Road from a conventional shopping street into a pedestrian promenade shut off to vehicular traffic. “I envisioned a park-like mall with pools and fountains and exotic concrete shelters. A car never bought anything,” said Lapidus, assuring the merchants and city officials who were gathered in the Seville’s ballroom that a new, pedestrian-friendly Lincoln Road would attract more tourists and bring shoppers back to the neighborhood.

When it opened in 1960, the promenade had the promised pavilions, exotic plantings, reflecting pools, flags and little trolley cars with striped awnings to match the new “piano-key” pavements. In many ways, it was Lapidus’s most original work, giving form to an extended outdoor space, seven blocks long, linear but densely layered and rich with shapes and festive color, a truly civic gesture for the people of Miami Beach. But the economic damage had already been done and most of the high-end stores continued to move northwards, leaving Lincoln Road a shabby shadow of its former self.

Booming success

The promenade was renovated in the 1990s as part of South Beach’s overall comeback, and the area began to enjoy success with more shops and restaurants moving back. For the past decade or more, it has grown exponentially in a burst of fast-forward gentrification, exploding into the most popular paseo in North America: a pedestrian boulevard beloved by both tourists — who feel instantly at home — as well as year-round residents, who cherish the communal joys of walking, shopping and people-watching.

The irony is that Lincoln Road is now threatened by its own success. Rents have skyrocketed above $300 a square foot, which has forced out independent stores and restaurants like the Van Dyke Café, only to be replaced by slick international chains like Apple, Nike, Zara, H&M and Forever 21. Many proposed new stores on or near the mall — Nike, Marshall’s, Tod’s and other mega-brands — will be in big and glassy structures, out of scale and temperament with the rest of the neighborhood. (Zoning laws restrict a building’s height in this area to 50 feet.)

This kind of economic pressure seems far more threatening to the human scale of Lincoln Road than anything in Corner’s landscape upgrade.

“Our plan is more like acupuncture or triage,” he said. “We’re trying to repair some of the problems while preparing it for the 21st century.”

None of the changes in his master plan seem particularly invasive or disrespectful to the original Lapidus plan. In fact, much of it would bring a welcome expansion of green space. “The question is how to retain the promenade’s eclectic character,” he said. “The middle strip is very hemmed in, and we have plans to free up more social space, more space for sitting.”

Peopled spaces

The oval hump at Euclid — once covered with grass (now Astroturf) — is a popular hangout, a tumbling mat for kids and general meeting spot, but it’s one of the only places to sit on Lincoln Road without having to buy something. The triangular reflecting pool on the 800 block, now overgrown, will be cleared up and made into a more protected seating area with built-in benches and a canopy of shade trees, as will the long rectangular pool on the 900 block. There will be clearly delineated “café zones” in 15-foot-wide strips to help reduce the clutter of restaurant furniture and outdoor service stations that can otherwise obstruct pedestrian flow.

“Sometimes it’s so congested, and you have to bustle your way through the crowds,” said Corner. Café canopies will be uniform, which seems a bit excessive. There’s a thin line between tidying up, making a place orderly and squeezing the life out of it. The so-called clutter may be an integral part of Lincoln Road’s charm.

Corner’s vision is to expand the mall into a broader district, treating alleys and side streets that branch off the main artery as part of a single entity, including eventually extending the pedestrian experience all the way to the beach and bay. A green, park-like linkage will connect Lincoln via Drexel Avenue to New World Symphony Hall and Soundscape Park to the north. The Lapidus features, including architectural follies, pergolas, fountains and reflecting pools, will be carefully preserved and restored. “There are historic restraints from making any drastic changes,” explained Corner, who sees his primary mission as a reorganization of public space.

Critical juncture

The eastern end of the promenade, where Lincoln Road meets Washington Avenue, is more problematic. The Lapidus pavilions that once stood there were torn down 20 years ago to be replaced by a fountain and wing-like canopy designed by Carlos Zapata & Ben Wood. Popularly known as “the Roach,” it’s a structure so out of synch with the rest of the streetscape, so disruptive of the natural flow, that one can only celebrate its removal.

This critical juncture, where pedestrian realm ends and traffic grid resumes, calls for a significant feature, one that mitigates the traffic on Washington Avenue while offering a welcoming gateway. Corner proposes an interactive water feature, a kind of shallow wading pool, shaded by a perforated canopy, but it may be too ephemeral for such a dense urban block and might soon appear just as outdated as the Zapata folly does.

Are the basic bones of this public passageway strong enough to endure a few improvements and changes to its basic infrastructure? The completion of the seven-story parking structure at 1111 Lincoln Road (by Herzog & De Meuron) in 2010, and a pedestrian plaza by Raymond Jungles, did not diminish the Lapidus narrative but further enhanced it.

The official submission of Corner’s master plan is set for August or early September, a long way to judgment day. Corner and his design team will, hopefully, welcome suggestions and make changes as the plan develops.

Lincoln Road is, after all, a work in progress, as it has been for almost 100 years.