Miami-Dade County

Old INS eyesore in Miami to get makeover

Someone managed to come up with a new use for the blocky, forbidding tower on Biscayne Boulevard that for 25 years housed Miami's federal immigration headquarters — and served as a symbol of bureaucratic fecklessness for many immigrants and asylum-seekers.

If all goes according to plan, soon you’ll be able to check in to 7880 Biscayne Blvd. for the night, work out in the fitness center and take in panoramic views of Miami’s hip, revitalized Upper East Side while supping in the rooftop terrace restaurant.

Yes, the old U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Death Star — previously best known for interminable lines that wound around the block, claustrophobic offices and, not infrequently, rowdy street protests outside — is slated to become a hotel, the centerpiece of a bright new residential and shopping complex that its designers say would transform the whole woebegone block.

Not to mention dispel all the accumulated bad karma: Long before the INS moved in, the tower was headquarters for the Gulf American Corp., infamous peddlers of swampland to the unwary.

“It’s going to be a big movement for that corner,” said Jonathan Cardello, co-principal at ADD Inc., the architecture firm designing the project for a group of Canadian and Chinese developers and investors. “Having people living and staying on Biscayne Boulevard is going to be big. I think it will be a catalyst for the area.”

If built, Triton Center, as it’s called, would be the biggest, clearest sign of upper Biscayne Boulevard’s turnaround to date. It would include 135 hotel rooms in the old tower, which would be stripped, gutted, retopped, and reskinned in stucco and glass. Three new buildings, with 317 condo units, would take up the rest of the block (the decrepit existing garage would be torn down and replaced with internal parking). Shops would line the complex at street level.

The project could help return the long-blighted but fast-improving intersection of Biscayne and 79th Street to the prominence it enjoyed in the 1950s and ’60s, when it functioned as a gateway to the city before construction of Interstate 95 sucked away its business, contributing to the area’s sharp decline.

Across 79th Street sat Biscayne Plaza, Miami’s first car-oriented shopping center. The Playboy Club once served up a measure of glam across the boulevard, and, just to the south, restaurants and nightclubs in neon-lit motels like the Vagabond and the Shalimar drew locals and vacationers.

The Playboy Club is long gone, its lot occupied by an auto-parts store, but the shopping center, an exemplar of Miami Modern architecture, is undergoing extensive renovations and expansion under new owners. Many of the motels, now part of a protected historic district centered in part around MiMo architecture, are being restored. A newly resplendent Vagabond reopened this month as a boutique hotel.

On 79th Street, east of the boulevard, new shops and restaurants are popping up to cater to the gentrifying neighborhoods to the north and south.

Amid all the activity, the old INS building has stood out as a moldering eyesore since the agency, rebranded as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services after 9/11, moved out in 2008 and into several new facilities around South Florida.

The tower, always privately owned, went through a couple of changes of ownership and at least one stillborn plan for conversion to luxury condos, before the Canadian and Chinese partners took control.

Though it’s hard to imagine today, the tower was once quite the MiMo landmark, capped by an electronic news “zipper” and covered in vertical gold-anodized window screens that were spot-lit at night. Designed by the prominent Miami firm Steward & Skinner, also architects for the Miami Seaquarium and the Miami-Dade County Auditorium, the Gulf American tower stood on a two-story pedestal clad in glass and topped by concrete fins, according to the Miami Architecture guide, which says the building had a “monumental” presence.

But the zipper was removed and the glass-enclosed pedestal covered up at some point, probably for security reasons, when the tower was converted to government use, the guide says. That helped lend the building its sealed-off, uninviting look.

The new owners and their architects plan to restore a version of the open glass base and retain a sampling of the tower’s signature gold screens as a reminder of its MiMo past. But otherwise, the tower, which sits just outside the city’s MiMo district and thus does not legally need to have its exterior preserved, will get a completely new look, one that’s more open and contemporary, Cardello said.

“We think this is a good example of adaptive reuse,” Cardello said. “We didn’t find many remnants of anything original, but we tried to use elements of the MiMo features so it’s not completely erased.”

The project is also a feather in the cap for ADD’s Miami office, once a small outpost of a Boston firm that in recent years has become a go-to firm for prominent South Florida redevelopment projects, in particular some involving renovation, expansion and reorientation of existing buildings.

The office, which in two years has gone from 18 employees to 84, tackled the conversion of Miami Beach’s Gleason Theater into the Fillmore, which many regard as the area’s best pop-music venue, the planned transformation of Plantation’s Fashion Mall into a pedestrian-friendly “urban” complex, and a renovation of the Gale Hotel that’s turned it into one of the hottest South Beach spots.

Among other big new projects like River Landing, on the site of the demolished Mahi Shrine on the Miami River, the firm is now working on the conversion of Miami Beach’s old Heart Institute into a Ritz-Carlton and the design of two new residential towers for the massive Miami Worldcenter development north of downtown.

Triton turned to ADD, which is being purchased by Canada-based giant Stantec but will retain its autonomy and separate identity, to bring a modern look and feel to the old INS building and fill out the long rectangular block, which reaches almost to the edge of the Little River behind it, with an ensemble of complementary buildings, each with its own architectural identity, Cardello said.

The complex, Cardello added, is designed to bring a pedestrian-friendly “urban vibrancy” to what’s now a dead corner. Balconies and terraces would face the surrounding streets, giving it an open feel and, by putting “eyes on the street,” provide a feeling of security on the sidewalks. A mid-block passageway lined with storefronts would invite pedestrians in and connect 78th and 79th Streets. Glass and accents in bright tropical colors would enliven the collection of buildings.

“We wanted color to bring the neighborhood the sense of rebirth that people have been looking for,” Cardello said.

There is no timeline yet for construction, he said, but development plans are under review by the city of Miami planning department and will go this coming month before the city’s Urban Design Review Board.

Once they’re done, he promised, no one will miss what was there before.