Lincoln Road Miracle: From Scruffy Derelict to Enchanting Shoppers' Paradise

I know I'm not alone in wishing to express my gratitude to those Miami Beach leaders who have done so much to revitalize Lincoln Road. An appropriate opportunity for praise occurred a couple of weeks ago, on April 13, when city officials gathered to commemorate the installation of the final piece of the Lincoln Road redevelopment puzzle, a snazzy sculptural structure by architect Carlos Zapata that functions as a welcome mat at the mall's eastern terminus.

Congratulations are definitely in order. For Lincoln Road, it's been a bumpy ride. From blight and neglect and virtually no business activity to more than $16 million in improvements over sixteen long months of construction. During the height of that makeover, many a merchant nearly gave up the ghost as visitors shunned the place to avoid the dust and dirt. But those who held on have been richly rewarded, property owners in particular.

The ceremony two weeks ago marking the end of renovations was, of course, merely symbolic; the new-and-improved Lincoln Road Mall has been open for business since December 1996. Nevertheless the event came at an auspicious moment, for very soon Lincoln Road will be celebrating once again. But this time the people who will be reveling won't be the planners and architects and those hordes of locals who have grown fond of lounging around their fetching open-air town square.

No, the people who'll be raising toasts this time are the true visionaries, those who long ago understood that new plumbing and sidewalks and landscaping were only a beginning; who could see ahead to a time when the Darwinian forces of the free market would spell an end to charming yet unprofitable anachronisms such as Area Stage, Heres Gift Center, and the House of Beads; who knew the future by its true name: "shoppertainment."

In short order, perhaps by late May or early June, this exciting next phase in the maturation of Lincoln Road will be heralded by the arrival of a modern new movie theater. At long last the bad old days of Beach residents schlepping miles to see first-run films will be over, as Regal Cinemas opens an eighteen-screen megaplex at the Road's western end. It'll feature the latest amenities, too: thousands of cushy stadium seats, digital sound, ground-floor shopping, and much more.

As welcome an addition as this movie palace will be for film buffs (just imagine being able to see the new Star Wars blockbuster without having to trek all the way to CocoWalk!), it actually serves a higher purpose. By pumping several thousand more people onto Lincoln Road every day, it will be the catalyst that propels the mall into the retail stratosphere.

That fact alone should remind us that Beach city fathers can't take all the credit for creating such a smashing success. After all, without the prescience and courage of a few outstanding business people and savvy property owners, Lincoln Road today would be nothing more than just another pretty face.

Take Regal Cinemas. The real accolades go to the project's developers, the people who put their own financial necks on the line to make it happen: Dan Golinsky of Golinsky Properties, financier Mark Kottler, and George Panarites of the New York-based Finestra Development Corp.

Still, some of the glory must go to the Beach's elected officials, who could have torpedoed the entire venture if the commission had been unreasonable in dealing with the developers. One good example: parking.

Golinsky and his partners, their eyes riveted on the bottom line, offered to build a puny 300-space parking garage to accommodate their theater's 3000 seats. Farsighted Beach commissioners approved the arrangement without blinking. Less sturdy politicos might have quavered and caved in to constituent demands that the developers either cut down the number of seats or provide much more parking in congestion-choked South Beach.

Had that happened, you could have kissed the gourmet popcorn and Dolby Surround sound good-bye. So what if moviegoers and other Lincoln Road visitors are forced to park far, far away? Getting people to wander around on foot has always been part of the plan, compelling evidence that Golinsky and his crew were perfectly in sync with the city commission and the whole Lincoln Road concept.

Just how attuned to the Road's special ambiance are these business pioneers? Listen to Golinsky, who recently explained the fascinating "shoppertainment" concept to the Herald: "People will buy tickets on the first floor, then meander around the retail shops. They can dine before or after on Lincoln Road, then go up to the cinema.... People want to come to South Beach for multiexperiences. They want to eat at great restaurants, go to movies, and see people dancing outside a Cuban cafe."

Dancing diners at Cuban cafes. Obviously this is a man who understands the community.

Golinsky's perceptive insights find resonance with local developer Michael Comras, whose many projects include South Miami's universally acclaimed Shops at Sunset Place. As much as any individual, Comras can stand up and take a bow for dragging Lincoln Road into the big leagues. Directly as a property owner or indirectly as a real estate broker, he is responsible for some of the most significant upcoming changes.

A year or so from now, when a walk along the Road will be punctuated by the enticing presence of Banana Republic, Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, and the Gap, you will have Michael Comras to thank. As he recently told the Herald: "In order for Lincoln Road to be successful, we have to have the proper balance of national, regional, and local tenants. We can't be all one way or another. When people want to shop, they won't have to run to Aventura or Coconut Grove."

Amen, brother. Couldn't have said it better myself. What sense does it make to spend millions spiffing up Lincoln Road and luring people by the busload if they're only going to leave frustrated because the dang place is about the only mall in America that doesn't have a Gap?

Without saying it in so many words, Comras also puts the lie to those sneering elitists who think financial success is something dirty, and who like to whine about the Road's loss of "personality" or "eccentricity" or whatever they believe it once had.

What it most certainly did not have was thriving commerce. Michael Comras and his brethren are acutely aware of that and would respond: Businesses generate taxes. Increased tax revenues allow upgraded public services. And enhanced services are essential to sustaining the high-quality lifestyles Miami Beach residents have come to expect.

That vital economic chain of life is something Comras has been methodically linking together, and clearly he appreciates the energy it will bring to the Road. As he put it: "It's going to make Lincoln Road a place to come shop, not just stroll and drink."

That won't mean you can't stroll, of course. And it won't mean you can't drink. But it does mean that, after stocking up at Pottery Barn (on the Road, not all the way up in Aventura), you'll be able to recharge with a really good cup of coffee from Starbucks (Lincoln and Meridian) before heading on to some serious browsing at Williams-Sonoma.

When have you ever been able to do that on South Beach? Not since Lincoln Road's glory days some 40 years ago. For that matter, when were you last able to get a simple plate of pasta on the Road without going into hock? I don't know about you, but I could easily see an Olive Garden restaurant where that gloomy West End bar now sits.

And don't get me started about the futility of searching for a decent burger anywhere on the Road, regardless of price. Can you say Johnny Rockets?

And how was it we missed the chance to snag South Florida's first Nordstrom? It would have been a perfect fit in the old Woolworth space.

Before it's too late, I'd like to make a suggestion: The Miami City Ballet soon will be moving from its choice corner building to a new home. Please, people, let's not repeat the mistakes of the past. Now is the time to approach Gloria and Emilio about grabbing that spot and putting in a Bongos Cuban Cafe.

Do that now, and I guarantee the dancing diners will follow.

[email protected]

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Mullin
Contact: Jim Mullin