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Designing Craig

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."

 

"The timing was right for Craig and I to go our own ways," Scott Robins says now, offering no more insight. "It wasn't any one thing. We're very independent and strong willed, but I don't think that [a difference in philosophy] had anything to do with it."

With the divvying up of property, Craig Robins, for the first time in his career, finds himself alone. Everything he achieved on the Beach, he achieved with a partner, either with a senior partner (New York City-based developer Tony Goldman, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell) or a peer (Scott). Now, having invested heavily in the Design District in what colleagues have called a "bold move," a "nervy move," and a "huge gamble," he's finally on his own.

Craig Robins isn't finished with Miami Beach. Although most of his eggs are now in the Design District basket, he's ecstatic over the prospect of reshaping the hospital where he was born, at 63rd Street on Allison Island. And he intends to take some South Beach spirit with him and infuse it into North Beach and Miami.

But Dacra's actual South Beach properties are in the hands of Scott Robins, including those on Washington and Collins avenues. Neither will disclose just how much space that is, but Craig allows, "Scott has a very important and meaningful portfolio of properties." The division of assets leaves Craig with some 500,000 square feet in the Design District, plus another half-million or so in Miami Beach.

"I hope they'll be able to coexist in a respectful business manner," says Goldman of the two brothers. "Any time a breakup occurs in a family business, it's because there are divergent interests. Partnerships are a very sensitive issue; each partner has a perception of what they bring to it. One may think he brings more; the other thinks he does. Maybe they're both saying, 'I just want to do my own thing.' As opposed to fighting over what I want and you want, maybe both are saying, 'Let's maintain what's important -- the family -- and let's do our own thing in business.'"

Now that the brothers are on their own, Scott, in addition to the bricks-and-mortar matters he knows well, has to deal more with tenants -- which had been Craig's role in their partnership. "I'm personally involved in every lease," Scott says. "To me the most important part of being a landlord is knowing tenants. I'm enjoying it immensely."

At least one tenant whose digs changed hands has noticed an immediate shift in philosophy. Kevin Arrow, director of the Espanola Way Art Center (one of the earliest Dacra acquisitions), heard about the split between the brothers from his then-landlord, Craig.

"I got a letter from him at the beginning of the year saying that they'd divided their holdings, and that the whole [north] side of Espanola Way belongs to Scott," he remembers. "A couple of weeks later, I got a letter from Scott, applauding my efforts over the years, but saying that he was no longer interested in sponsoring the art exhibits we were having there, no longer giving us a rebate on studio rent, and that we should cease planning shows."

Arrow also notes that Scott hired a management company, and has begun to pay closer attention to such details as, oh, paying rent on time. "Craig was definitely understanding and patient, and a lot of artists came through that place and screwed him by taking advantage of his altruism," he says. "Scott's a different type of businessman, and he won't tolerate that."

Scott Robins says he's still interested in running the art center as a haven for artists, but is in the process of "upgrading the tenant mix" in the space (i.e., looking for artists who can afford it). "It's a very old, beautiful building, and it's still an underpriced, inexpensive loft-style building," Robins maintains.

The story of Dacra and Craig Robins is one of those heartwarming riches-to-riches tales. Gerald Robins, the family patriarch, made his fortune in real estate, moving from New York City to Miami Beach in the late Fifties and buying a house on Star Island. (He continues to operate several real estate companies in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.) Craig was born in 1963. After divorcing Craig's mother, Jerry married Joan Benjamin in 1972. Craig gained a stepbrother (Scott, seven months younger), and a stepsister (Stacy, two years younger), to go along with the sister he already had (Gina, also two years younger), and the whole Robins Bunch grew up in Miami Beach.

 

As Craig was finishing law school in 1986, he weighed his career options. He always had a love of art, and he considered following a cultural calling by becoming a fine arts dealer.

But some visionary developers in South Beach would make the decision for him. That same year a couple of heavy hitters from New York City approached Jerry Robins with a proposition. Developer Tony Goldman was looking to renovate the once-majestic but then-decrepit Park Central Hotel on Ocean Drive. Along with his friend and fellow New Yorker Mark Soyka, Goldman asked Jerry Robins if he wanted to invest in the project. Soyka remembers the initial meeting about the Park Central project, and that Craig Robins showed up as his father's representative. "We met at the Carlyle Hotel, me, Tony, Craig," Soyka recalls. "We discussed the whole idea of restoring South Beach, and how that would be an exciting and challenging prospect."

The meeting was the start of a crucial business relationship between Craig Robins and Goldman; Robins calls Goldman "the second big influence on my career, after my father." After working on his father's behalf on the Park Central deal, Craig saw an opportunity to marry the real estate business with artistic pursuits. "I was looking around for a studio for an artist I wanted to invite from Spain, and South Beach was just at the very beginning," Robins says. "It was a place to find cheap space. Tony Goldman owned the space [which eventually became Dacra's corporate offices at 420 Fifth St.], and I asked him if I could buy it. He told me I could buy 50 percent interest in it, and for $20,000 down, I got an artist's studio."

After that first project with Goldman, Soyka says, Craig Robins started becoming "aggressively" involved in South Beach real estate. Robins formed Dacra Development, Inc., in 1987 and started buying and developing property.

"We were very successful together," Goldman notes. "But he felt he wanted to do things on his own, that he'd gained enough experience, that he wanted to branch out more. We parted with both of us wishing each other well."

Although most in the real estate business sensed the potential to make a buck on South Beach in the late Eighties, Robins's instincts as a style impresario gave him valuable foresight.

"It was probably 1987, I was standing in front of Amsterdam Palace, and saying to somebody, 'Calvin Klein is going to buy this and make this his house.'" He smiles; it was Gianni Versace who, five years later, did exactly that. "I was pretty close, for some wild prediction."

Scott formed Dacra Construction in 1988. "Craig told me that Dacra was very young, but it did have some name recognition and goodwill," Scott Robins remembers. "He told me that, if I'd like to incorporate my own company using [the Dacra] name, I could and should." Craig's Dacra Development always remained a separate company, but the two brothers would often form new companies together to acquire, renovate, and manage particular properties. Among their early successes was buying and rehabbing the hotel and storefronts on the north side of Espanola Way and opening the Espanola Way Art Center.

"Craig was very much an anomaly," says Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin. "Up to that point [in the late Eighties], everybody who was doing pioneering work in South Beach, rehabilitating old buildings, was from out of town -- mostly from the Northeast, mostly from Manhattan. Local people shunned South Beach. The business and political leadership of the city thought that South Beach had no potential, that there was no point in saving or restoring it. Craig was the first local boy to see things differently."

Mark Soyka, who went on to establish two of Miami Beach's most successful eateries, the News Cafe and the Van Dyke Cafe, describes the Robins brothers as "children of the fathers of the city." Although their father supported their initial efforts, and Jerry's reputation certainly didn't hurt them when it came to getting outside financing for their projects, Soyka stresses the younger Robinses built Dacra to its current prominence on their own. "It wasn't like Jerry said, 'Here's some money, go play.'"

As the decade turned and South Beach gained momentum, Craig Robins hooked up with the man he calls the third great influence on his career: Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. The Jamaican music maven with the reputation for ruthlessness had sold Island Records, once home to Bob Marley and U2, for a reported $300 million, and had jumped into the South Beach hotel business. He first acquired the Marlin and then the Netherland and Tides hotels in 1991. Craig and Scott joint-ventured with Blackwell in developing the latter two projects.

 

The next year the new collaborators landed an even bigger windfall when the Cavalier, Cardozo, Carlyle, Leslie, and Victor hotels came up for sale at a sealed-bid auction. Their former owner, developer Leonard Pelullo, had started serving a 24-year federal prison term for racketeering and wire fraud in 1991, and his creditors were busy liquidating Pelullo's assets, including the five Art Deco hotels. In April 1992 Craig and Scott teamed with their father and Blackwell and successfully bid for the hotels for an estimated paltry sum of $8.5 million.

The pairing of Blackwell's deep pockets and the Robinses' South Beach savvy produced some of the enduring gems of the Art Deco Historic District. Craig Robins and Blackwell also created a hotel management company, now called Island Outpost.

"I basically built that company up, and then Chris in 1994 made me a very good offer to buy us out," Robins recalls. "It was a very good deal for him, in retrospect, and it was also a very good deal for us.

"Then we had this dispute over one property," Robins offers.
That property was the Governor Hotel, a 125-room edifice on Washington Avenue across from the Miami Beach Convention Center. Though Dacra and Island had gone into the project together, Blackwell wanted to buy Robins out in 1995. They disagreed over price, and Blackwell sued.

"We got attacked," Craig Robins says. "That was very difficult for me. It's the only situation like that I've ever been in. Chris was a very important mentor to me. He is and was much bigger than we are, and it was a good experience to be this little company being attacked by this massive company." The lawsuit, like most, was an unpleasant one, with Robins at one point accusing Blackwell outright of defrauding and stealing from him. In the end, they settled. "We divided some of our assets and went on with our lives," Robins says. (A spokesman for Blackwell declined to comment on the litigation.) The pair still owns the crumbling Victor Hotel, though they've been trying to sell it for more than a year.

That Craig Robins was able to stand up to Blackwell comes as no surprise to anyone who's ever been across the table from him. When William Cary became historic preservation coordinator for the City of Miami Beach in 1994, the first project he reviewed was Dacra's proposed renovation of 736 Collins Ave., which became the Guess Building. When Cary and his staff met with Robins, and began to criticize his plans, the meeting soon degenerated into what Cary now calls "among the most horrible meetings I've ever attended in my life.

"Craig recognizes that he has this public persona of being a person that can get things done, the way he'd like them done," Cary continues. "We had a major disagreement as to how this building should be restored, and you could tell that Craig wasn't used to being contradicted. He literally accused us of being stupid at that first meeting."

Cary notes that they eventually worked out a compromise on the property, and that he's seen "a wonderful maturing" of Craig Robins in the intervening five years. Still he has noticed a marked difference in the business styles of Craig and his little brother.

"Scott takes the approach of a fine diplomat: He listens very carefully, he's prepared to work with you on everything," explains Cary. "Craig takes more of the major-developer approach: I'm going to do this, I can make this happen. It's a harder sell with Craig. Working together, though, they were kind of a brilliant combination."

One former City of Miami Beach employee, who asked not to be named, sums up the difference between the brothers thus: "Scott's really a nice guy, very smooth. Craig needs a lot of attention, and he gets it from having power. Scott's very nice, Craig's a vindictive hothead. It's James Bond versus Conan the Barbarian."

Craig's quest for attention broadened as his real estate successes grew. He even briefly sojourned as an airline owner, buying up Chalk's in 1997 and renaming it Pan Am Air Bridge. But this foray came to an underwhelming end, and he sold it in 1998. One of his partners in the airline, former Arvida Co. chairman Chuck Cobb, has called the airline deal the most conspicuous failure in his own career, but Robins still includes it in Dacra's colorful tenth-anniversary autohagiography brochure. His latest extracurricular enterprise is publishing; first off the press will be a children's book.

 

While Craig Robins loves to take risks, broker deals, and make money, he loves the refined world of art just as much. In addition to promoting various local and international artists, he has built a personal collection that includes works by Antoni Miralda, Carlos Alfonso, Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt, and Jose Bedia. He's not only bought the works of these and other artists, he's sponsored and subsidized several of them, enabling them to continue creating. And as much as he relishes being a patron of the arts, he thrives on being known as a patron of the arts. His artistic altruism is perhaps his favorite piece in his own public relations self-portrait, an unfinished multimedia mosaic of sound bites and press clippings.

Craig Robins is sipping espresso and talking politics at the Van Dyke Cafe on Lincoln Road. (The restaurant's owner, Mark Soyka, recently opened an eponymous Miami restaurant some ten blocks north of the Design District, paralleling Craig's crosscauseway ambitions.) He reflects on the closing decade, during which he rose as a player in the Miami Beach political arena.

He doesn't go so far as to deem the upcoming November mayoral and city commission elections inconsequential, but says, "I don't see this as a crisis time. It doesn't seem like malicious or unscrupulous forces are trying to take over the Beach."

As his wealth and visibility grew, Craig took a keen interest in becoming one of the forces that helped shape the political landscape. "As I began to get active in business, I realized that the power structure on Miami Beach didn't regard, or in any way respect, South Beach," he remembers. "The great irony was that [South Beach] was the greatest single potential focused resource that the city had, and the political process wasn't aware of that.

"I learned the game piece by piece," he says. As a onetime protege of Tony Goldman, who was and is a big-time political force on the Beach, he tried to assert himself as an organizer and advocate for the South Beach development and business community. "As you participate more and more, you know more of the personalities, so more and more you become a factor that the whole process itself has to deal with, has to incorporate," Craig explains. "As that happens, you do actually, in some limited way, begin to have a say."

Robins, Goldman, and their South Beach cohorts began to assert political leverage in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Robins was a leading voice in a chorus of South Beach businesspeople who helped broker a compromise between the preservation movement and developers over the issue of expanding the city's Art Deco Historic District in the late Eighties, helping to cement his reputation as a "preservationist developer." In 1992 Robins also played a key role in forging a deal that allowed the city to go ahead with its plans for the Loews Hotel on Collins Avenue, a pact that diverts some of the bed-tax money generated by the hotel for street improvements throughout the city.

Robins's money and moral support has helped several current Beach commissioners into office, notably Mayor Neisen Kasdin. "My very first campaign event was in the back yard of Jerry Robins's Star Island house in January 1991," says Kasdin, referring to his initial, successful run for city commission. "It was a fundraiser only for businesspeople from South Beach, 80 percent of whom had never participated in a Beach election. None of the other candidates knew who they were. It was very much a South Beach insurgency."

That 1991 election brought in what was then known as the "Reform Commission." Headed by retired judge-turned-mayor Seymour Gelber, the commission took office in the wake of the bribery and influence-peddling scandal that brought down Gelber's predecessor, Alex Daoud (who spent much of the early Nineties in state prison). Robins calls the Daoud years "a dark and terrible time" for the city, and points to that era as an example of what can happen when private-sector power brokers have too much influence over public officials.

His role at the forefront of South Beach's emerging political importance makes perfect sense to campaign consultant Ric Katz. "[The Robinses] have been well-known in the Miami Beach Jewish political world and business world for a long time, and they're totally respectable," Katz says. "[Craig] is part of a small group of South Beach business people who get together with aspirants and help get people elected. We haven't always been on the same side, but I've yet to see the negative side of his influence. I haven't seen Craig Robins use his power against people."

Still, murmured grousing about Robins's influence at city hall does surface periodically. Tony Goldman thinks any charges of undue pull on the Beach, Craig Robins's or anyone else's, are absurd. "Nobody tells anybody what to do, and I'm on the inside," he says. "We can be influential, but at the end of day, you make a case, you shut up, and you let the process decide."

 

Does Craig Robins believe his political connections allow him to do whatever he wants on Miami Beach? "That's one question," he says, then proceeds not to answer it. "The other question is, What do we want to do? A lot of times, what you want to do is really a good thing to be done, and it looks like you can do whatever you want to do." In other words Robins, for the most part, has gotten his way in Miami Beach, but its citizens are not complaining: They seem pretty happy with the results.

With Dacra's 1995 move into Miami's Design District, during which Dacra acquired nearly half of the 500,000 square feet it owns today, Craig Robins moved on to the City of Miami political stage, just in time to watch the arrests of City Manager Cesar Odio, City Commissioner Miller Dawkins, and Finance Director Manohar Surana as a result of the Operation Greenpalm bribery investigation.

"I like the City of Miami. I'd like to feel like a stakeholder there, and be involved in the process," Craig says. He points to the community meetings he attends in the Design District, the conversations he has with city officials, and his success at generating good press for the neighborhood as his gambit in what he hopes will be a long-term investment in the city.

"Miami has been through a very difficult time, but a time like this in a place like the City of Miami is very dangerous," he continues. "They caught a few bad guys doing some bad things, but one would assume that there was a whole infrastructure in place, a style and culture of doing business, that didn't get caught. I don't know who they were, but on Miami Beach, there were definitely a series of characters who were facilitators and advocates for how things got done. When Daoud went away, they didn't go away, but Gelber was strong enough that no one was going to mess with him."

But, he concludes, "I'm optimistic about the City of Miami."
Craig's buddy Neisen Kasdin has sensed a geopolitical shift in the developers' interest, noting that Craig Robins is not nearly as active in Miami Beach issues as he was even three years ago. On the other hand, Kasdin points out that Scott has begun to assert himself ever more strongly in the weird, wacky world of Beach politics.

Craig's relationship with the City of Miami, meanwhile, appears to be going swimmingly. Mayor Joe Carollo and his parade of city managers have agreed to spruce up the public property surrounding Robins's buildings in the Design District. After a lengthy planning process involving numerous designers, planners, and architects, the city has begun streetscape improvements in the area. If Robins hasn't reached the level of respect, admiration, and access he once had on the Beach, he seems to be well on his way.

Strolling through the Design District with Craig Robins in 1999 is kind of like strolling through Sicily with George S. Patton in 1943. His visits to his tenants have all the respectful banter and underlying intensity of a general reviewing his troops, though there's no evidence Robins has slapped any soldiers or shot any donkeys. There's even a battle map of the neighborhood taking up the whole of the west wall of Dacra's district office. Standing before this map Robins indicates Dacra properties with, not a riding crop, but a laser pointer.

He traces the outlines of his properties: the Moore Building, the Melin Building (which includes the Dacra headquarters in which he's standing), the Buena Vista, the Newton Building, the Buick Building. All these spruced-up edifices front on NE Second Avenue, and form what Robins calls "the core of the district." He then spins on his heel and passes a work of functional art covered in photocopied press clippings about the Design District (and him, of course). The clips -- from the New York Times, New York Observer, Metropolitan -- are mostly short blurbs. But at this early stage, Craig will take what he can get, at least until the House Beautiful feature comes out this fall.

Craig then commences a tour of the terrain shown on the map. After checking in with a series of furniture wholesalers, architects, and interior designers, Robins steps out on to the west side of NE Second Avenue and gestures (sans laser pointer) at the Buick Building across the street. Two stunning murals -- one of a man with a butterfly alighted on his forehead, one of a woman facing two directions at once -- stare out from the building's façade; clearly, this melding of art, design, and real estate is what Robins lives for.

 

"This is just an incredible piece of public art by Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt," he points out. "On the other side of the buildings, they're going to have two monumental pieces twice the size of these. We just got approval yesterday. One is an angel lying on a bed, with portraits of these two on the wall. And the other one is these two boxers...."

He trails off and stops walking, looking down at the sidewalk. A shiny metal bolt protrudes about two inches out of the concrete.

"This is insane," he hisses, kicking at the offending screw with the bulky black toe of his shoe, as if simulating someone staring at an incredible piece of public art, then tripping and falling over a reminder of an uglier reality. "I don't know what could have ..." But there's more evidence: A No Parking sign, snapped off at the base, lies on the ground next the bolt. A few feet up the street, a concrete trash can, once bolted to the sidewalk. "Someone must have just crashed his car and taken this out," he says.

He stares open-mouthed at the obstacle, looking for all the world like he might want to shoot a donkey. Then he snaps out of it, and goes on to describe his vision for the Design District, and how his plans are proceeding.

"It was a low-rise neighborhood, it has a phenomenal location, and it had worked well in the past," he says. "It was obvious to me that this was the next place that South Beach would grow to. I always say that South Beach is not just a place, it's a movement. It's a way of doing things, a real community that's human-scale, pedestrian-oriented."

In the late Seventies and early Eighties, Robins recounts, the Design District was the "thriving center of the universe" in South Florida for interior-design showrooms. The commercial area bounded by North Miami and NE Second avenues, and NE 42nd and NE 38th streets, also was a $30-per-square-foot rental market. By the mid- to late Eighties, crime in the area began to scare off the businesses; the Design Center of the Americas (DCOTA), the vast showroom complex near the Fort Lauderdale International Airport, actively campaigned to lure away wholesalers. In 1995, when Robins began scouting around, the district was half vacant, and buildings could be had at five dollars per square foot.

Four years later, with Dacra owning literally half of the neighborhood, the transformation is well under way. Some of the design-oriented who stuck through the lean years are still around; one by one, as the major buildings have been rehabbed and reopened, new, big-name clients (Knoll, Sola Topee, Leah's Gallery) have moved in, betting the farm on Robins's battle plan.

"There's been a huge transformation of tenants, and part of what we're doing is trying to create the right mix of tenants," he says. Some of that mix is tapped from relationships he's already forged. Soon to arrive in the Melin Building: a Design District offshoot of Big Fish Mayaimi, the hip Miami River eatery/music venue owned by Montse Guillen and Antoni Miralda (himself one of Robins's favorite artists). "We'll start to get that South Beach style and food and beverage," Robins enthuses. "We don't want to become a nightclub kind of place, but we do want to get a more sophisticated kind of mixture of residential and creative businesses.

"You know, to get major firms to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to build down here is really challenging," he says. Does the reputation of Craig Robins, swell South Beach developer help bring such firms into the district? According to Robins, you betcha. "It's about having a plan that will work, having a reputation for making things work, and having a certain enthusiasm that people will trust, and aspire to," he declares.

Tony Goldman is reserving judgment on his friend's bold move. He sees Craig Robins as a great visionary and dealmaker, but making the deal is just the beginning. "[The Design District] is an interesting play," he says. "The question is -- and I haven't been there enough to know -- How much of Craig's time is devoted to the street level, the street merchants, street life? It'll take a personal commitment of time, and a physical presence in the area."

Robins estimates that the Design District is about a third of the way there. The next step: Double the size of the "critical mass" -- even more design tenants. "Then the mix of what's here will become so unbelievable, the design community won't even think of going anywhere else," he declares. "With that will come some of the other components that will make it a really fun place: the residents, the food-and-beverage operations. The third phase will be a lot of new construction and additions."

 

Still the Design District remains surrounded on three sides by considerable urban blight. Kevin Arrow, whose family once operated a business in the district, suggests the only way to ensure the the area's future would be to build a wall around it. "I hope people aren't just blindly going over there thinking it's a nice safe environment like South Beach, because it's not -- yet," Arrow cautions.

Even Robins can't aim his laser pointer at a target date for the completion of the turnaround in the district, or when the encircling neighborhoods might start to revive. Mayor Kasdin calls the move a huge gamble, one that might well have precipitated Craig's break with Scott.

"Craig has grandiose designs; he wants to be nationally recognized," Kasdin says. "He's very ambitious, and that entails taking big risks. Scott, I think, was more or less content with what he had [on South Beach]. There was a difference in philosophy: Scott wanted to stay local, Craig wanted to go national.


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