Designing a District

BY ANGELA CARAWAY-CARLTON
Think you know the Miami Design District? You don’t know the half of it. This winter, what is arguably South Florida’s hottest neighborhood reveals an entirely different side.

Whether you realize it or not, the moment you arrive in the burgeoning Miami Design District, you’re meant to be part of a highly curated experience. Look up and you may spy native Florida orchids perched in the trees of the plaza in partnership with Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden; gaze out a second-floor window or plaza and you’ll discover hidden art and lush rooftop gardens. Even the parking garages where you stash your car or the buildings that house major fashion boutiques serve as functional art and design.

Everything is intentional, and nothing is there by mistake. This is a neighborhood designed to feel like a thrilling place you’ve never been before, but familiar enough that you always feel at home—which is exactly what Craig Robins, the real estate developer and mastermind behind the District, imagined more than 20 years ago.

For the last five years, a cacophony of construction has thundered through the mushrooming neighborhood, bringing forth high-end fashion houses and stimulating public art installations. And we haven’t seen it all just yet. Starting this December, the next stage of the District will unveil ten new restaurants, cultural destinations and still more luxury boutiques in the freshly developed area of 41st Street. “No one realizes, and it even blows my mind, that only half of it is open now. The size of the neighborhood is going to double,” says Robins about this latest phase that will add approximately 250,000 square feet of new, mixed-use commercial space. “In December, you can walk around and it no longer feels like a construction site. It’s going to be transformative, and better and better each month.”

The District’s latest addition sprouting up on 41st Street is the multi-level Paradise Plaza, which has a considerably different aesthetic than the already popular Palm Court, with alleys, bridged walkways and plazas that are reminiscent of Europe. “When I studied in Spain, I was enamored with the open-air, pedestrian-friendly shopping districts,” Robins says of the new look. “I wanted to create that same celebration of space. We have been lucky to work with an incredible roster of architects and designers to create unique public spaces, beautiful buildings and a sense of vibrancy throughout the neighborhood.”
Those who remember the District more than a decade ago may recall when there were only furniture and design stores, an Indian restaurant called Sheba, and a lounge named Grass—but the current, thriving version of the District packed with restaurants, boutiques and art galleries is something that Robins envisioned long ago. “All of these things that I’ve done in South Beach or the Design District, I always have a clear vision and a belief in the place, and then that vision evolves over time. As it evolves, I adapt,” says the developer, who started buying up mass properties in the ‘90s like he was playing a real-life game of Monopoly at a time when no one believed the city could extend from South Beach. “By having the ability to control an entire neighborhood, I knew it would make a creative lab for the city.” What’s emerged from 2012 to now is what Robins describes as a cross between Los Angeles’ Rodeo Drive and Tokyo’s dining, shopping and entertainment mecca, Ginza, only totally different. “I don’t know anyplace that has the graphic design, art, fashion, and is a totally walkable neighborhood like the Miami Design District.”

The Culinary Side
This latest phase promises to be one of the most exciting, turning the District into a culinary destination that Miami hasn’t seen before. While early pioneers like Michael Schwartz paved the way for new hotspots in 2017 such as Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s fine-dining Cuban restaurant, Estefan Kitchen, and the health-conscious OTL, in the coming year, expect an explosion of megawatt, chef-powered restaurants to take over Paradise Plaza. Those who follow the worldwide food scene and its players will be impressed with three different concepts by French chef and restaurateur Joël Robuchon, known for his Parisian stand-out L’Atelier; an outpost of New York-favorite ABC Kitchen by Jean-Georges Vongerichten; and a massive food hall concept from New Orleans’ iconic St. Roch Market. Later in 2018, two new destinations from local darling Brad Kilgore will grace the first and second floors: Ember, a wood-fire dining experience, and Kaido, an Asian-inspired restaurant/lounge that will focus on cuisine informed by his research trips to Tokyo, Bali and Bangkok, as well as house a hidden bar called Ama. Just like everyone else in the neighborhood, Kilgore knows it’s about fitting into Robins’ master vision for the District. “Each building has its own touch or style, with their designs on the façades of the buildings. It truly inspires us to do something special on the inside, not only with the look and feel, but the food and drinks that are going out,” says Kilgore, who’s teamed up with Mark Alan Diaz of MAD Design. “Craig was looking for different concepts, restaurants that we don’t have in that area. Luckily, the two ideas for Ember and Kaido, I’ve had in my head for years and this was the perfect opportunity to build them.”

The Artsy Side
While its mural-weighty neighbor Wynwood often draws most of the artsy hype, the District has managed to land some of the most desirable artists and architects in the world, and now the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) also has a shiny new permanent home there with double the space for exhibition galleries and a new sculpture garden. Like most things in the neighborhood, even a parking garage is never ordinary, and that’s the case with the new seven-story Museum Garage, where multiple distinguished artists have planted their creative spin on its five dramatically different facades. Look at one side and you’ll be in awe of Clavel Arquitectos’ real cars that dangle from the wall, appearing as if they could fall at any moment, while another side reveals a dark edginess with the black Japanese manga, French Baroque and Renaissance-inspired façade by French artist Nicolas Buffe. Just in time for Art Basel crowds, look for new permanent art installations like the sculpture of a forbidding skeleton at a bus stop by Urs Fischer, and a shading structure with water features designed by brothers Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec that you can sit or walk underneath. “The brothers were actually commissioned to modernize the new fountains on the Champs-Élysées in Paris,” points out Maria Ruiz, director of community relations for Dacra, during a recent hard-hat tour of Paradise Plaza. “This is the kind of stuff that really thrills me, that we have their amazing designs right here in the District.”

The Fashionable Side
While the fashion scene in the District already rivals any major national or international city with more than 60 brands, the luxury offerings will keep coming with new flagship stores by Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Prada, Joseph, Rag & Bone and Creed. What will also continue is the diverse appearance of those brands’ buildings; many of the world’s renowned fashion houses that have set up shop in the District have abandoned their longstanding traditional looks to project their own creative façades and exclusive District designs. Shoppers can also expect to see more wallet-friendly boutiques such as COS, which is not dissimilar to H&M but with mid-range prices.

So, when does the District ever stop evolving? The short answer: it doesn’t. “Our goal is to keep adding interesting content and brands,” says Robins, hinting at further expansion down the road. Until then, he’s looking forward to celebrating the new and now. “ All of it coming together as a symphony of excitement and energy, and hitting a point of critical mass, that’s what I’m most excited about.” And when this latest phase is complete next year, he says: “Maybe my wife and I will have a glass of wine.” Meet you in the District?

 

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