Miami-Dade County

Kitschy, cool Vagabond Motel coming back to life on Biscayne Boulevard’s MiMo district

After years in a sad limbo behind a construction fence, the sirens and porpoises at the marvelously waggish Vagabond Motel are looking decidedly chipper under a fresh coat of paint. The re-plumbed fountain will soon come back to life along with the rest of the iconic but long-dormant motel, which has come to symbolize the fortunes of the fledgling Miami Modern historic district on Biscayne Boulevard.

The reopening of the fully restored 1953 MiMo landmark, set for Dec. 5, could mark a significant milestone in the slowly gathering revival of the boulevard along the city’s Upper East Side.

The Vagabond’s newest owner, developer Avra Jain, is buying four more of the dozen or so historic but rundown MiMo motels that define the district. She has ambitious plans to turn them into a collection of boutique hostelries and dining and lounging spots for locals and visitors looking for distinctive, affordable alternatives to South Beach.

“The boulevard is at the tipping point,’’ Jain said as she led a tour of the bustling, still-unfinished Vagabond restoration. “The demand is there. This isn’t contrived. If you change the motels on the boulevard, you change everything.’’

The Vagabond’s multi-million-dollar makeover, overseen by architect Dean Lewis, will restore the kitsch-edged 1950s verve that made the motel the gem of the boulevard in its heyday, before family tourism gave way to hookers and drug pushers.

Its glorious neon signs are being restored. The mermaid mosaic at the bottom of the swimming pool has been faithfully reproduced using tiles brought from France. A new open-air Cabana Bar will stand by the pool. The interiors will be done up in mid-20th Century Modern style by designer Stephane Dupoux.

But Jain says none of this would be happening without a little-known, and previously untried, city program designed to foster renovation of properties designated as historic.

The program allows owners to sell “air rights’’ — meaning development rights they can’t use because of historic designation — to developers looking to build bigger in high-rise districts such as downtown. The revenue, which can amount to millions of dollars, must then be plowed back in full into renovation of the historic property.

Jain and her attorneys at Greenberg Traurig were the first to figure out how to tap into the transfer of development rights (TDR) program, established when the city’s new Miami 21 zoning code went into effect in 2010.

The ability to raise money through TDRs, she said, is key to the restoration of the deteriorated boulevard motels, whose small size and big renovation needs would otherwise make the job financially unfeasible.

“There’s a reason this building sat vacant for so long,’’ Jain said, alluding to failed efforts in recent years by previous owners to resuscitate the Vagabond, which she bought for $1.9 million last year. “Economically no one could make it work. We will spend $5 million on renovation. Part of this for me was really passion for the building. But it’s otherwise hard to justify spending this kind of money on a 45-room motel.’’

Jain raised $3 million for the Vagabond restoration by selling 440,000 square feet worth of air rights to developers Related Group and Terra Group for use in three high-rise condo projects in Edgewater, Brickell and Coconut Grove. The appeal for the condo developers: the TDRs have sold for $7 to $8 per square foot, considerably cheaper than the cost of buying additional development capacity through the city’s Miami 21 “bonus’’ program, which also permits builders to purchase the right to add volume to their projects, said Lucia Dougherty, Jain’s attorney at Greenberg.

That Jain was able to do so was in part because of fortuitous timing, Dougherty said. There had been no demand for the TDR program because no one was building after the real estate collapse.

“The good news is, there is a place to sell them because people are building again,’’ Dougherty said.

But the process, which Jain and her attorneys described as laborious, took months because the city had not set up rules and procedures for the TDRs. The city also had to establish safeguards to ensure revenue from sale of TDRs is not diverted to other uses.

Jain next plans to use TDRs again to restore two other MiMo motels she has purchased — the Royal, a block north of the Vagabond, which she will turn into an annex to the iconic motel; and the Stephens, at 6320 Biscayne, where she will bring in a national retailer. Jain also has contracts to buy two more boulevard motels, she said.

The city’s use of TDRs in the MiMo historic district, which runs along both sides of the boulevard from 50th Street to 77th Street, has not been entirely uncontroversial.

At the insistence of some neighbors and City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who represents the area, the city imposed a 35-foot height limit on both sides of the boulevard. That raised strenuous objections from preservationists and property owners, who say the restriction has stalled redevelopment of the district by making it nearly impossible to expand smaller, outmoded buildings to make them viable again.

Preservationist Nancy Liebman, co-founder of the MiMo Biscayne Association, argues the city is unwisely allowing the use of TDRs by owners of vacant and non-historic buildings inside the district to, in effect, compensate their owners for the loss of property rights arising from the height restriction. As a consequence, she said, those are being replaced by bland, one- or two-story new commercial buildings that do little to complement the historic buildings in the district.

“They’re using the TDRs to stop people from filing lawsuits because their property rights are being taken away,’’ said Liebman, a pioneering Art Deco District preservationist who favors lifting height limits on the Boulevard to 50 feet, a scale she contends will allow the mix of uses that revived South Beach. “That’s not what TDRs are supposed to be for. It is just creating those one-story buildings that add nothing to the character of the neighborhood. It doesn’t give you the infill that creates a destination.’’

Sarnoff insisted the TDRs are working as designed.

“You’re putting the urban density where it belongs downtown, and you’re keeping a street at the scale at which it was designed years ago,’’ he said. “The proof is in the pudding.’’

Still, Liebman heartily applauds Jain’s use of TDRs to salvage historic buildings.

“She is the Tony Goldman of the boulevard,’’ Liebman said, referring to the late preservationist and developer who helped turn around South Beach and Wynwood. “She got it. She is the best thing that’s happened here so far. We need more [like] her.’’

The historic district was the city’s first in a commercial area when it was established in 2006. The hope was it would spur redevelopment around its set of 1950s motels, which grafted bright neon signs and space-age detailing on simple, Bauhaus-inspired Modernist boxes to lure middle-class visitors traveling to Miami by car with their families.

While numerous shops and restaurants have opened along the district to cater to the gentrifying neighborhoods flanking both sides of the boulevard, only a small handful of motels have been renovated, including the New Yorker and another re-baptized Bianco. But those have proven so successful in drawing economy-minded European tourists that they’re often fully booked.

That prompted Jain, who has redeveloped other urban commercial and residential properties in Manhattan and Miami and is a partner in the Regalia luxury residential tower now nearing completion in Sunny Isles Beach, to take a hard look at the Vagabond.

The motel — designed by Robert Swartburg, architect of the famed Delano in South Beach — had been gutted by a former owner who gamely tried to restore it, saving many of its original details and finishes, including terrazzo floors and Dade County pine ceilings, before losing it to foreclosure in the crash.

She decided to take the chance after her Greenberg team persuaded her they could make the TDRs work. Because banks were not making project loans, Jain said, she raised money up front from friends and family.

Now she’s scrambling to get the Vagabond sufficiently ready for an opening Tiki Party poolside during Art Basel Miami Beach week. Work is more advanced than it seems from the outside, she said. New electrical and plumbing systems have been installed, and windows and wallboards are going in this week.

Eventually, the motel’s former office will be a casual seafood diner, and Jain hopes the Vagabond will become a gathering place for the neighborhood. For her plans to fully bear fruit, however, will require other developers to follow suit by purchasing and renovating historic motels.

That may yet happen. Greenberg’s Dougherty and Iris Escarra say other developers interested in using TDRs have approached them. and other deals are hatching.

TDRs, Sarnoff said, are “selling like hotcakes.’’