Seven employees were cleaning up Harry's Pizzeria after a slow Monday evening last month when three men grabbed the security guard out front and pushed him inside. A man in a dark hoodie pulled out a semiautomatic handgun and shouted, "Everybody, on the ground!" When 34-year-old pie server Jesus Aguilar was too slow to obey, the robber slugged him with the pistol.
While his cohorts pilfered the employees' pockets, the lead thug grabbed the manager, a 23-year-old North Miami resident named Kristen Miknyoczki. He forced her into the back room, where the restaurant's safe was hidden. But she was too rattled to remember the combination. Fearing the cops were on the way, the trio fled out a back alley.
The harrowing crime at one of the Design District's most popular eateries never made the news, but it has sent a shock wave through the neighborhood just as developer Craig Robins's $312 million makeover is finally coming to fruition. The City of Miami gave Robins the green light to orchestrate a stunning transformation, tearing down buildings to create an open-air, high-end luxury destination with some of fashion's biggest names.
Design District Robberies Rock $312 Million Luxury Overhaul
But since the new luxury stores began opening in October, the Design District and surrounding streets have seen an influx of criminals staking out stores, restaurants, and construction sites. Between November 20 and February 20, there has been one aggravated assault, four robberies, and ten break-ins and thefts in the neighborhood. In addition to the Harry's episode, some of the more eye-popping crimes include:
• thieves lifting $37,495 worth of merchandise from the temporary Louis Vuitton store at 170 NE 40th St. on November 21;
• two men beating up a food delivery driver and taking his cell phone in front of 270 NE 39th St. on December 11; and
• a mugger attacking a Key Largo woman in broad daylight and stealing her $700 Canon camera on NW 38th Street at NW First Avenue on January 14.
As some observers ask whether crime could threaten his bold plan to make the Design District Miami's flossiest retail setting, Robins insists those fears are unfounded. "It concerns me to have any incidents occur in the Design District," says the developer, who spends $1 million annually on security. "Luxury malls and neighborhoods attract a certain amount of crime. However, we have less crime than other major luxury retail properties in South Florida."
Miami Police Commander Manny Morales, whose watch includes Buena Vista, the Design District, and the Upper Eastside, agrees. "The Design District has the lowest rate of incidents involving people crimes like robberies and assaults," Morales says. "It's insulated like a bubble."
The Design District — an area that encompasses 0.2 square miles bounded by NE 38th Street, NE 42nd Street, NE Second Avenue, and North Miami Avenue — was founded in the 1920s by Miami-Dade's pineapple king, T.V. Moore. The larger-than-life pioneer diversified his portfolio by transforming a pineapple plantation on NE 40th Street into what became downtown Buena Vista, anchored by the area's most iconic structure, the Moore Building, which housed Moore's Furniture Company in 1921. Moore went on to build a movie theater and many of the distinct, low-rise warehouse and gallery spaces that have come to define the district's aesthetic.
"Moore created a jewel in the Buena Vista district," says Miami historian Paul George.
A decade later, Moore teamed up with Richard Plummer, an interior decorator to the rich and famous, to make downtown Buena Vista home to the best in home furnishings. Moore rechristened the area the Design District, which thrived for more than a half-century. But in the '80s, the new Design Center of the Americas in Hollywood siphoned away design houses. Many tenantless buildings fell into disrepair, and the neighborhood declined.
Robins, meanwhile, was busy pioneering his own renaissance in South Beach. A Miami Beach native, Robins graduated from the University of Miami School of Law in 1987, but he abandoned a legal career to pursue real estate dreams.
Along with his mentor, Tony Goldman, Robins made astute moves in the early '90s to buy rundown hotels and dilapidated apartment complexes on Fifth Street, Ocean Drive, Española Way, and Lincoln Road. Through his company, Dacra, Robins transformed the neo-deco masterpieces that redefined South Beach.
The developer also served on numerous boards and was instrumental in bringing Art Basel to Miami in 2001 and founding the Design Miami fair. By the mid-'90s, Robins had followed Goldman across the bay to conquer a new frontier. While his sensei staked a claim in Wynwood, Robins planted his flag in the Design District.
He discovered the neighborhood in 1991 when he helped a friend buy property there. By 1994, Robins had purchased four buildings totaling 50,000 square feet. A year later, he bought the Moore Building on NE 40th Street. By 1999, he had amassed 18 properties totaling 500,000 square feet of retail space. Today Robins owns 55 parcels that encompass 65 percent of the 18-square-block district.
His first goal was to restore the Design District as the premier destination for interior design. "When I first got here, it was a depressing place," Robins recalls. "I realized the first thing we could do successfully was bring the design houses back."
Robins lured furniture-makers and art galleries such as Holly Hunt, Knoll, Diaspora Vibe, and Solange Rabello Art Gallery and attracted local stars such as Alison Spear, Chad Oppenheim, and Matthew MacDonald. In 2009, Robins enticed the first luxury retailers, Christian Louboutin and Yohji Yamamoto's Y-3.
Two years later, Robins presented his full, radical vision to the Miami City Commission: a boutique hotel, a midrise apartment tower, and a pedestrian mall lined with luxury fashion shops and trendy cafés. The 30-foot-wide mall — mainland Miami's answer to Lincoln Road — will run north to south from 38th to 42nd streets, anchored at both ends by department stores. The commission approved the plans last summer, and construction is underway.
"It's about having a mixture of creative business in a neighborhood with great architecture and design," Robins says.
Since 2011, Robins has been closing deals with the biggest names in high-end fashion. He partnered with Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, which plans to house its signature brands in the mall. Several shops have already opened temporary locations, including Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Cartier, and Hermès. "By 2014, we'll have 60-plus brands," Robins says. "By the end of 2015, we'll have 120-plus brands."
The development has garnered accolades from politicians and retail real estate experts. "I definitely support it," says Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, who represents the area. "I just want to make sure people from the surrounding neighborhoods benefit from the redevelopment too."
Christopher Barney, a senior leasing associate at Continental Real Estate Companies, says the Design District will reel in South American and European clients. "The Design District has one of the only Céline stores in America," Barney says. "These brands will attract a larger radius of customers."
But where there's an influx of cash, criminals are sure to follow. Last November 21, just a month after its opening, three shoplifters hit the Louis Vuitton store. According to a Miami Police report, the trio snatched a $36,500 alligator-skin purse, a $630 wool-and-silk scarf, and a $365 wallet. One suspect distracted a salesperson by asking to try on shoes while his accomplices placed the merchandise in a brown shopping bag and walked out.
New Times research reveals a string of crimes since the Louis Vuitton heist. On December 11 at 8:54 p.m., a delivery driver named Elton Rumbaut was approached by two men near 270 NE 39th St. One pulled a gun and the other punched him in the face and took his phone. Morales says the suspects were apprehended later that evening. (The alleged robbers still have charges pending against them.)
On January 4, 58-year-old Mildred Roca was also mugged at gunpoint as she was walking south on NW Second Avenue near 39th Street. The robber took her $300 Android tablet. On January 14, a man tackled 18-year-old Carly Tomka and ripped off the Canon EOS Rebel XS camera slung around her shoulder. The Harry's Pizzeria robbery happened January 21. Eight other thefts and break-ins have been reported within a 0.5-mile radius in the Design District.
Robins disputes the crime figures, though, insisting the only capers that took place on his properties were at Louis Vuitton and Harry's. "When I heard about the Louis Vuitton incident, I was very surprised and concerned," he says. "But then I found out it was carried out by professional thieves from Atlanta who had hit other important luxury malls."
An incident report from the Coral Gables Police Department confirms the shoplifters hit three luxury destinations, including Bal Harbour Shops, before they were busted at the Village of Merrick Park. Robins points out that criminals often target high-end retailers, noting a 2011 shooting at Bal Harbour Shops and two smash-and-grabs at Merrick Park's Gucci store and a jeweler in 2009. (Overall, Bal Harbour Shops had zero assaults and robberies, two burglaries, and 11 thefts between November and February, according to police reports.)
"I don't believe these crimes at Harry's and Louis Vuitton were something specific to the neighborhood," he says. "Despite being a walking retail neighborhood, we are especially committed to having better-than-shopping-mall security."
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Dacra has hired Miami-based All-American Security to provide round-the-clock patrols and assign guards to man the entrances of restaurants and shops. Miami PD has also assigned two beat officers to the district during business hours in addition to its regular patrol units. "Dacra is fully engaged," Morales says. "They bought into the concept of building a partnership with the police department."
Charles Bell, operations manager for the Genuine Hospitality Group, which owns Harry's, says Dacra responded immediately and is taking the robbery very seriously. "The safety of our staff and customers is our top priority," Bell says. "We feel more secure than ever in the neighborhood."
Across the street from Harry's Pizzeria, inside the glass-walled showroom of furniture-maker Baltus USA, operations manager Marylin de la Hoz compliments Dacra for its security plans. But she says incidents like the Harry's robbery make her worry that crime could continue to pose a problem as new shops arrive.
"It is definitely a concern," she says. "Not just for me but also for our clients and our employees."