Designing Craig

Craig Robins has built a reputation as the good developer. Just ask him.

Outfitted in his usual South Beach high-end casual attire -- navy T-shirt, brown trousers, clunky black shoes -- developer Craig Robins leans against a granite statue of a hoplite in full battle gear.

He places one hirsute, toned arm up on the ancient warrior standing sentinel before the Moore Building in Miami's Design District. His intense, mottled blue-hazel eyes stare forward, his gaze sharpened by both his eyebrows and his severe widow's peak of close-shorn, thinning gray hair. First the other arm is hanging at his side, then it's on his hip. Now he's smiling, in a sly, knowing sort of way. Now he's not.

"Yeah, yeah, nice, good, great, excellent," the photographer intones between clicks of his 35 millimeter. "Very GQ," he adds. "You're used to being photographed."

Miami's most celebrated purchaser and rehabber of dilapidated historic buildings is equally as appreciative of the shooter's craftsmanship. "There's nothing worse than a bad photographer who wants to be creative," Robins laments.

The shutterbug is spending this muggy, overcast June morning shooting the 36-year-old Robins, not for the famous men's magazine, but for the almost-as-famous interior-design mag House Beautiful. Elizabeth Mayhew, no less a personage than the magazine's style and decorating editor, is writing the story, which is scheduled to appear in the October issue.

The article very likely will laud the role of Robins and his Dacra Development, Inc., in bringing actual design companies back to the Design District. It should be another feather in his cap, which by now is beginning to look like a Sioux headdress. Robins was one of the pioneers of the South Beach renaissance, snapping up run-down hotel, retail, and residential space on Fifth Street, Ocean Drive, Espanola Way, and Lincoln Road. He then turned these properties over to his contractor brother Scott Robins, who transformed them into some of the neo-Deco masterpieces that redefined South Beach.

Although many real estate moguls made a ton of money applying essentially the same formula to the gentrification of South Beach, and several of them got into the game before the Robinses (including Mel Schlesser, Saul Gross, and Craig's mentor Tony Goldman), the Dacra companies were the only truly local developers closely identified with the South Beach phenomenon. Those in the know point to two big reasons for Dacra's fame: Craig and Scott's sensitivity to scale, style, and historic preservation in their projects; and Craig's relentless drive to lead an extremely public life.

Craig Robins, a Miami Beach native, isn't just a developer. He's a patron of the arts in general, and of several painters in particular. He has served on numerous advisory boards in the City of Miami Beach, and he's on the board of directors of local banks, museums, art galleries, and the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. (Scott is also active in community service, though in a more unassuming sort of way.) As Craig's business grew, he became an important player in the rise of South Beach as a political force. He and his corporate entities give generously to the election campaigns of favored candidates, in Miami Beach and elsewhere. In some races he takes a more active role, holding fundraisers, bandying about names with his private-sector peers, rallying support for some candidates, and working against others.

Rich developers do these kinds of things, but few have done so while continuing to generate the amount of public-relations warm fuzzies that Craig Robins has. Much of the collective goodwill toward Robins and Dacra is based on both what the company has done (build small-scale, often innovative projects), and what it hasn't done (build enormous, horrendous condominium towers). While his track record on Miami Beach certainly earned him a reputation as "the good developer," Craig Robins has used his personal visibility to ensure that everyone knows it, even those outside the business world.

A few in Miami Beach gripe that Robins's rep and political clout have made him and Dacra inordinately influential in the city, greasing the skids for any proposed project that has his name on it. Others have spotted in him a tendency to believe his own (numerous) press, and to get huffy when anyone dares to cross him.

As the House Beautiful photographer noted, Craig Robins is used to being photographed, and knows how to present his good side. Not that there's much evidence of a dark side, but like any self-promoter worth his salt, he wants to accentuate the positive. For example he is extremely reluctant to speak with New Times about the most newsworthy event in Dacra's corporate history: his split with stepbrother Scott. Their parting in March did not seem acrimonious, but it included a huge amount of prime property. Scott kept most of the South Beach projects, and Craig now owns several properties on Lincoln Road, in Allison Island in North Beach, and in his current darling, the Design District. Craig prefers to leave the topic alone, referring to an article that appeared in the March 22 issue of the Daily Business Review as containing his last word on the matter. In that piece Craig gave only vague explanations, calling the split "an asset-enhancing business decision."

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