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Nov 22nd
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Written by Erik Bojnansky - BT Senior Writer   
November 2011

Design District artists and galleries prepare for some big changes

DesignDistrict_1Within five years, Craig Robins hopes to attract at least 20 more luxury retailers and a boutique hotel to Miami’s Design District, where he owns the majority of commercial properties.

To prepare the ground, Robins, president and CEO of Dacra Development, will have to relocate tenants and knock down some things. Among the first to be shuffled out are artist-run studios and exhibition spaces that Robins has been subsidizing for years.

“We leave in February,” says Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova, an installation artist and co-founder of Dimensions Variable, located at 171 NE 38th St. “They’re going to tear down the building that we’re in.”

Robins, a prominent art collector, says he will be relocating artist-run spaces throughout his Design District properties as part of an overhaul of Dacra’s two-decade-old resident-artist program. “There are artists [in the Design District] we’ve been giving free space to since 2002,” Robins explains. “The idea of the artist program is that we help them during the transition period.”

Among the art spaces that will be moving:

• Locust Projects, the nonprofit alternative gallery space at 155 NE 38th St. that was founded 13 years ago in Wynwood.DesignDistrict_2

• Swamp Space, an art studio and exhibition space at 3821 NE 1st Ct., run by painter and sculptor Oliver Sanchez.

• Bas Fisher Invitational, an gallery space co-founded by photographer Naomi Fisher and painter Hernan Bas that has operated since 2004 inside the Buena Vista Building at 180 NE 39th St.

“At this point,” Fisher tells the BT, “there are too many issues up in the air with the BFI to comment on our future plans.”

Some artists and galleries, such as Locust Projects and Bas Fisher, will be relocated elsewhere in the Design District, where, Robins says, they will receive “more visibility.” At the same time, Robins wants to bring in some new talent. “It’s healthy at some point to give [subsidized space] to people who haven’t had that opportunity,” he says.

Robins’s interest in revamping Dacra’s arts program coincides with media reports of a pending migration of luxury retail boutiques from Bal Harbour Shops to the Design District. According to the Miami Herald, Cartier will open a “temporary store” in the Design District next month, and Hermès intends to build two stores there by 2013, including a 10,000-square-foot flagship operation.

Last month the Daily Business Review reported that the Hermès stores will be located beside the Moore Building at 175 NE 40th St., and at 163 NE 39th St., where Maitardi restaurant is now located.

Maitardi was launched two years ago by Graziano Sbroggio, whose Graspa Group also owns Tiramisu, Spris, and Segafredo on Lincoln Road. Says spokeswoman Annabelle Bovet: “As you are most likely aware, there are extensive plans being discussed regarding the future of the Design District area, and Graspa Group, owner and operator of Maitardi, is in direct contact with the main decision-makers.”DesignDistrict_3

Also receiving plenty of buzz is the announcement by French luxury-goods corporation Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy that it plans to open a Louis Vuitton store in the Design District by 2014.

Media have speculated that other LVMH stores will soon follow. “I heard they [LVMH] are underwriting the project,” says Design District property owner Rusty Atlas, referring to Dacra’s retail expansion plans.

Robins says there are plenty of “rumors and gossip,” but in reality his plans and deals are still evolving. “We’re trying to negotiate with several different people,” he says. As for LVMH, Robins would only confirm that he wants all the company’s stores in the Design District. “We’re talking to all of them,” he says.

Since 1995, Robins, who previously renovated historic buildings on South Beach, has been snatching up and redeveloping properties throughout the Design District. He is credited with transforming a once-forgotten part of Miami into a popular spot for high-end furniture and home-accessory stores, fashion boutiques, restaurants, and art.

Partly financed by a reported $45 million loan from French banking giant Crédit Agricole, Robins launched another buying spree last year. Today he estimates he controls between 60 and 70 percent of the Design District, which lies west of Biscayne Boulevard roughly between NE 36th and 43rd streets. “I think it’s the best real estate in Miami,” he says.DesignDistrict_4

Artists played a role in enhancing that real estate, particularly in the area of NE 38th Street and 1st Court, across the street from a 46,000-square-foot vacant parcel where Robins plans to build a boutique hotel.

Kathryn Mikesell is co-founder of the Fountainhead Residency, an organization that provides housing and support for visiting artists from around the world, some of whom have shown their works at the Locust Projects and Bas Fisher spaces. Robins, she says, has “provided a valuable opportunity for everyone. There were artists who were able to work rent-free for a year and generate publicity for their nonprofit projects.”

Often, adds Rodriguez-Casanova of Dimensions Variable, rent came in the form of a donated piece of art annually to Robins’s collection. “We were incredibly grateful that we were there for five years,” he says.

Locust Projects was enticed by Dacra to move from a Wynwood warehouse to the Design District in 2009. “We were open to the possibilities,” says the gallery’s executive director, Chana Budgazad Sheldon. “The space was presented as an option and we took advantage. It allowed us to grow for the past three years.”

Robins also made it clear to his tenants that these arrangements were temporary and that he intended to redevelop the block. “I’ve been here for six years and I didn’t really expect to be here that long,” says Oliver Sanchez, operator of Swamp Space.

Robins won’t reveal what will replace the spaces now occupied by Swamp Space, Locust Projects, and Dimensions Variable, but does say that the structures will likely be demolished: “Those buildings are really not in very good shape. I think it probably will make more sense to put new construction there.”DesignDistrict_5

To help him chart the Design District’s future and formulate a master plan, Robins has hired a team of land-use experts, including University of Miami architecture dean Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, a founder, along with husband Andres Duany, of the New Urbanism movement.

He’s also seeking help from arts organizations to run Dacra’s art space program. “We don’t want to be in the business of managing it anymore,” Robins concedes.

Dennis Scholl, vice president of arts for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, says he’s spoken with Robins informally about the program. “He always bent over backwards to make sure that the artists and the arts community is looked after,” says Scholl. “We don’t have any formal role at this point in time. We’re always looking at opportunities to see if we can help.”


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