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Miami’s Vagabond Motel, shuttered MiMo gem, to get another shot at revival

The signature piece of Biscayne Boulevard’s ballyhooed MiMo historic district sits gutted and forlorn behind a chain-link fence, its long-ago heyday seemingly nothing but a dim memory.

But for the first time in years, things are suddenly looking up for the Vagabond Motel and its droll architectural calling-card: a corner-piece fountain with three naked nymphs on a clamshell and two frolicking dolphin companions.

A developer with a solid track record has signed a contract to buy the1953 motor-hotel and submitted plans to the city’s historic preservation office for what could be the top-to-bottom renovation that advocates of Miami Modern design have yearned for.

Unlike a previous, and underfunded, renovation effort that attempted to revive the jazzy motel with an Italian clothing boutique and a farmer’s market before ending in foreclosure, developer Avra Jain’s idea is straightforward:

Restore the Vagabond to its festive period glory and make it a hip, boutique-y draw for adventuresome tourists and locals.

“It’s really very simple,’’ said Jain’s renovation architect, Dean Lewis. “It’s the renaissance of the Vagabond. It’s bringing it back to its epic period. That’s what it deserves.’’

Jain and her partners at Regalia Holdings recognize they’re taking on a challenging project — the Vagabond needs new electrical and plumbing systems and structural reinforcement — in a transitional neighborhood where no one has yet attempted a motel renovation on a similar scale, Lewis said. But Jain, who with her partners is building the luxury Regalia condo tower in Sunny Isles Beach, has access to sufficient financing and, Lewis says, has become passionate about saving the Vagabond.

The city historic preservation board will consider the plan at a Friday hearing. If it’s approved, Regalia Holdings must still clear a peculiar hurdle: For unclear reasons, the zoning for the back half of the property at 7301 Biscayne Blvd. does not allow motel use. The preservation board has authority to waive those restrictions, the city planning department said.

If she’s successful, MiMo advocates say, Jain’s proposal could dramatically change perceptions of the 6-year-old district and its colorful but mostly rundown motels, some of which have survived by catering to the remnants of the Boulevard’s drug and sex trade. Some critics have said the motels, with small rooms and outdated facilities, can’t be feasibly restored for use as hostelries.

But a handful of MiMo motel operators, including the owners of the New Yorker and the Hotel Bianco, have shown that modest but smart period renovations can draw a healthy clientele of visitors looking for cool design, emerging neighborhoods and lower-cost alternatives to South Beach.

Both are looking to expand, and Lewis has designed a renovation and expansion for a third, Carl’s Motel El Padre, that will also be up for a preservation board vote at the same hearing as the Vabagond.

“They’re all realizing that if they make improvements, their clientele changes,’’ said Belle Meade activist Frank Rollason, a former city administrator whose wife, Fran, founded a nonprofit group that supports the revival of the MiMo district.

Complaining that the shuttered Vagabond — which backs up to their neighborhood — had become a draw for vagrants, Rollason and his Belle Meade neighbors pressured the city to board up the buildings’s entryways and windows. They say they want the motel restored and reopened as soon as possible, and the Belle Meade Homeowners Association issued a letter of support for Jain’s proposal.

“We’re thrilled,’’ Rollason said. “Avra knows what she’s doing. I have no doubt she’s going to make that a fine establishment again. If the Vagabond reopens, it will be great for us in the neighborhood because, as the Boulevard goes, so goes our neighborhood.’’

And, as the Vagabond goes, so may go the MiMo district, which was created by the city in 2006 to protect a 27-block stretch of the Boulevard distinguished mainly by mid-20th Century buildings but also exemplars of Art Deco and Mediterranean design.

Though stories that Sinatra and Martin hung out at the Vagabond’s nightclub may be little more than urban myth, the motel with its Olympic-sized pool, expansive open court and jaunty architectural frills was inarguably the gem among all the neon-lit inns built along the Boulevard in the ‘50s to accommodate a new type of tourist: families who arrived in Miami by automobile.

In the Modern style of the day, the 50-room motel was designed by B. Robert Swartburg, architect of Miami Beach’s Delano Hotel, as a stripped-down structure in the shape of a square U around an expansive pool court and parking lot.

The charm was in its whimsical details: The nymphs-with-dolphins sculpture facing the Boulevard. The wavy motel entry canopy supported by V-shaped pipe columns topped by saucers. The tall neon sign illuminated by shooting stars.

But jet travel and suburban flight soon sent the motels and the Boulevard into a decades-long tailspin fueled by crime, drugs and prostitution that bottomed out with the crack epidemic of the ‘80s.

And though an influx of gentrifying urban pioneers and a determined cleanup by the city and property owners have since sharply turned around the Boulevard’s fortunes, seeding the corridor with new restaurants, nightspots and neighborhood shops, the motels have lagged behind, none more conspicuously than the Vagabond.

First designated as a historic landmark in 2003, the Vagabond operated as a motel until 2006, when owner David Lin sold it for $4 million to would-be developers with little experience who eventually ran into money problems and the economic recession. Lin regained control but had been unable to sell the property until Jain made an offer, which is still pending. Lin had been asking $2.9 million.

“It’s a heavy first step,’’ Lewis, the architect, said of the renovation. “It’s just a shell.’’

But the architectural bones and details survive with only minor alterations, he said. Jain also hopes to take advantage of a relatively new city program that allows owners of properties in the MiMo district, where buildings are limited to 35 feet in height, to sell “development rights’’ to investors wanting more density in other areas of the city. The proceeds must be invested in the MiMo renovation.

Jain has assembled a team of well-known hotel operators and designers, including Nikki Beach designer Stephane Dupoux, to turn the shell into a high-end boutique motel — if there is such a thing. It would include a spa and gym in a semi-submerged basement at the rear of the property, as well as a signature dining spot behind the double-height glass lobby, Lewis said. The developers will also re-create the long-gone pool canopy and terrace bar.

“It’s just a spectacular property,’’ Lewis said.