Updated 5 yearss ago
Dacra's Craig Robbins is turning a blighted Miami area into an international destination -- again.
By David Villano
In 1987, fresh out of law school, Craig Robbins sank $20,000 into a venture to acquire two aging properties insurance in Miami Beach's seedy southern end. Friends called him crazy. Today they call him a visionary. His Dacra Development Corp. has led much of the revitalization of South Beach, now one of the world's most recognizable tourist stops. With South Beach bursting at the seams, Robbins, 37, is turning his attention across the causeway to Miami's Design District. Like South Beach in the mid-1980s, the Design District is a low-rent neighborhood that suffers from years of neglect and a reputation for crime. To the north sits the city's low-income immigrant enclave of Little Haiti. To the west are the chronically blighted black neighborhoods of Liberty City. "A lot of people have said this may not work," says Robbins. "But, of course, that's what they said about South Beach."
The Design District gets its name from the interior design showrooms that flourished there in the late 1970s. The opening of the mammoth Design Center of the Americas in Broward County, coupled with the city's devastating race riots in the early 1980s, drove away tenants. By the early 1990s, half the commercial space was empty.
Robbins proposes a working center for design professionals and merchants that doubles as a tourist draw for the well-heeled and the fashion-conscious. To that end, Robbins has sparked a revolution in the design industry nationwide by persuading high-end furniture showrooms and galleries in the area to open their doors to the public. Typically, only interior designers, architects and other design professionals are granted access.
Since 1994, Robbins has put $25 million in the area, acquiring 18 buildings totaling about 500,000 square feet of mostly commercial space. He's sprucing up the streetscape with public art, and he helped persuade city officials to fund a $100,000 master plan. The efforts are paying off: A few cafes have opened, artists and other professionals are moving in, nightlife is returning and real estate values are rising. "Our model has always been to create value by elevating the neighborhood as a whole, not just adding more product," Robbins explains.
Real estate analyst Michael Y. Cannon of Integra Realty Resources says the Design District's location -- just north of Miami's new arena and planned performing arts center and 10 minutes from South Beach -- is ideal for an urban shopping and entertainment destination.
Robbins says his investment so far is "extremely profitable." Since 1998, more than 50 new stores have opened. Among them: Chicago-based designer Holly Hunt, Milan-based Dilmos and office furniture maker Knoll. Lease rates in some buildings now exceed $20 a square foot, up from $5 in the mid-1990s.
If the district's turnaround remains on course, expect similar design-centered entertainment zones in other cities. Robbins says his company is both eager and "very well-poised" to replicate the concept. "It's amazing to think that this little neighborhood in Miami is changing the very nature of the design industry."
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