MiMo historic district sees a future in the past

Saffron the entertainer waits for the return strut down Biscayne Boulevard during the Cinco de Mimo festival’s Pink Pooch Parade in 2010. This October, the MiMo Biscayne Association is throwing another event at Legion Park called Art in the Park.
Saffron the entertainer waits for the return strut down Biscayne Boulevard during the Cinco de Mimo festival’s Pink Pooch Parade in 2010. This October, the MiMo Biscayne Association is throwing another event at Legion Park called Art in the Park.

The plaster nymphs seem unnaturally downcast behind the fence at the Vagabond Motel, the dimmed leading light of Biscayne Boulevard's fledgling Miami Modern historic district. After years of frustrated stabs at renovation, the droll '50s drive-in hotel sits vacant, a victim of over-large ambition and foreclosure.

Yet just a few blocks south, the husband-wife team of Walter Figueroa and Shirley Diaz put the finishing touches on their tenderly refurbished motel, a far less attention-grabbing but still significant exemplar of the MiMo style by architect Norman Giller.

The New Yorker has its original name back after years as the Davis Motel, and with its restored lobby and terrazzo floors, new mid-century-style furnishings, and resplendent new neon signs, it will be the star attraction of the MiMo district's third annual street fair Saturday.

Nearly four years after the city of Miami bestowed historic designation on 27 long-neglected blocks of upper Biscayne Boulevard, the pace of progress is starkly uneven along the district, best known for its cheery if rundown mid-21st century MiMo motels.

Signs of verve abound: Despite a deep recession, the district has become a thriving restaurant row, with tasty and tasteful food both high and low from the pricey star-chef fare of Michy's to Ver Daddy's taco stand -- and lots in between, catering in large part to the gentrifying single-family neighborhoods that flank the boulevard.

Though retail shops have struggled, new services pop up regularly:, from pet-grooming, and hairstyling, to dry cleaning and, since December, a gleaming new workout gym, Biscayne Boxing, in a smartly restored 1940s MiMo building.

And, of course, the famed, historic Coppertone Girl sign that once hung in downtown Miami was restored and installed in the district at the end of 2008. Like Diaz and Figueroa of the New Yorker Motel, a handful of hopeful property owners have embarked on modest but winning renovations. A Haitian-American couple, Thomas and Jocelyne Hider, converted a small Art Deco gem of a hotel into a loft residence for themselves, with a soon-to-open antique store, Memoires, on the ground floor.

Developer Michael Luis painstakingly renovated a low-scale MiMo apartment building just off the Boulevard at Northeast 74th Street and Sixth Court after the recession killed plans for a new mid-rise.


But for every culinary and preservation success, there is a vacant storefront or seedy liquor store or dilapidated motel, still catering to the diminishing traces of the drug and sex traffic that once plagued the entire district.

At the landmark Shalimar, a planned renovation stalled before it started. At the Vagabond, owner Eric Silverman worked years to establish a viable new use for the motel, but ran out of money before he could complete renovations.

People familiar with the situation praise Silverman for what one supporter called a ‘‘yeoman's effort," but said he paid too much, took on too much debt and lacked development experience.

"Eric and his Vagabond were the poster child," Luis said. ‘He had ideas but he just didn't have the capital or the experience to make it happen. And now it's an eyesore.

"There is so much hoopla surrounding this MiMo district, and I commend the city and their supporters, but I'll tell you, there haven't been enough completed projects to give it momentum. They got the restrictions, they got the district, and now what? When is it ever going to get cleaned up?"

Supporters acknowledge establishment of the district has yet to lead to any major renovations. But they note the young district has made remarkable progress despite the national real-estate and banking collapse.

They say the district has also faced particular challenges, including uncertainty over height limits and development rules produced by the ongoing political squabble over the frozen Miami 21 rezoning plan, as well as the difficulty in adapting small '50s motels to new uses.

"It's wonderful what's happening along there," said planner Randall Robinson, who coined the MiMo term with designer Tery Teri D'Amico, and co-wrote a major book on the style. "The interesting thing is, it was kind of grass-roots. What the area lacks in bricks and mortar is more than made up for by the enthusiasm and buzz they've created. Now it's more than just about the neon signs."

Some longtime Upper East Side residents say what's happened along the strip in the past few years amounts to a radical transformation -- from pimps and prostitutes to young singles and families with strollers and dogs.

"The sleaze doesn't disappear overnight," said urban historian Antolin Carbonell, who grew up nearby and returned to Belle Meade for good 20 years ago. "It's not as obvious now, though I take early morning walks and I still see the occasional prostitute." But, he added, "There has never been anything like this number of restaurants here. All these young families with children, that never happened here before."

How closely that's related to the historic district is debatable, however.

Neighborhoods along the Boulevard, especially on the eastern side, had been gradually gentrifying for years, spurred in part by the city's creation of several residential historic districts in the area, starting with Morningside in 1984. Pioneering business owners saw opportunity given the relatively hip and well-off clientele.

But supporters say the MiMo district has provided an identity to market and promote, which is now just starting to draw curious tourists. A key player has been the MiMo Biscayne Association, a nonprofit group of residents and business and property owners, including veterans of the battle to save Miami Beach's Art Deco district. It's the group that since 2007 has organized the annual street fair and other events to spread awareness of the Boulevard district.

Its creation in 2006 was in part a reaction to concerns that the development boom still in full swing then would bring new, over-scaled development to the Boulevard.

By barring demolition or significant alteration of significant structures, the district preserves the strip's human scale and unique architecture -- which includes not only MiMo motels but also fine examples of older Mediterranean Revival and Art Deco buildings. City planners hoped that would also provide the surrounding neighborhoods with a distinctive, pedestrian-friendly commercial spine offering needed amenities and services.

And that is exactly what's happening, said Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes the Boulevard.

"Interesting places in Miami will continue to sell. Everyody's looking for a new experience, and MiMo's very different," Sarnoff said.


Sarnoff, however, finds himself at odds with local property owners and the MiMo association over his insistence on a 35-foot limit for additions and new construction in the MiMo district. Critics say the measure, now in place, will further stall redevelopment.

MiMo district supporters hope Sarnoff will relent and permit heights up to 55 feet, which they say would allow property owners more flexibility -- in particular motel owners who may need room to expand to achieve economic viability.

"You need enough height where you can put in some retail, you can put in some parking, and some apartments on top, and you can get a return on the land," Carbonell said, noting that historic districts from Delray Beach to South Beach allow heights of four and five stories.

But Sarnoff says other measures in the works will help property owners. A proposed business improvement district, seeded with $100,000 Sarnoff obtained, would use fees from local owners to promote business activity.

And a new transfer of development rights (TDR) program would allow property owners to sell off air rights they can't use because of district restrictions, and use proceeds to renovate. Critics are skeptical. MiMo association co-founder Nancy Liebman calls the TDR "a fairy tale." Longtime Boulevard business owner Henry Patel, whose King Motel was among the few respectable hostelries at the district's low point, says he's tired of unfulfilled city promises. "There has been progress here, but the credit should go to the people who have been there 25 years, hanging on, like myself," he said. In the meantime, with the restored New Yorker, Liebman says, "We can finally point to something that is worth coming to and staying in." Meanwhile, Diaz and her husband sank their savings, home equity and months of sweat into the New Yorker renovation.

"I wish everyone here would do the same," Diaz said. "This area has flourished. But it still needs a lot of tweaks."

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