Jewelry district envisioned as downtown diamond in the rough
By Catherine Lackner
Banking on a significant infusion of private investment capital to set it apart from other revitalization projects, Miami's Downtown Development Authority is backing the creation of an official jewelry district.
Cost projections for redesigning and upgrading the 4-block area of the central business district have not been made, but authority board member and property owner and developer Scott Robins said he will begin gathering estimates. Mr. Robins will be spearheading the jewelry district project for the authority.
"The City of Miami has a diamond in the rough called the jewelry district," Mr. Robins told other DDA members at a July 19 meeting. "It's one of the best-kept secrets in Dade County. Nobody else has it and it's up to us to nurture it."
Bounded on the south by Flagler Street, on the north by Northeast Second Street, on the west by North Miami Avenue and on the east by Northeast Second Avenue, the district is among the largest in the US, after ones in New York City and Los Angeles, he said.
The district is dotted with historically significant buildings that are the product of the 1920s Florida land boom, said Bernard Zyscovich, whose Miami architectural firm this month completed a study of the neighborhood.
The structures in the report include the Shoreland Building, built in 1926; Gesu Church, 1920; the former Post Office building , 1917; and the Metro Mall, 1926.
"Most of the buildings are pre-1940s," Mr. Zyscovich said. "Underneath 1960s facade renovations, they are interesting."
But landmark buildings and a booming jewelry trade are all that the area has going for it, he said.
"Conditions are pretty terrible. There's no landscaping and garbage is not dealt with. These are beautiful buildings on crappy streets," Mr. Robins said.
There's also nothing to set the area apart or identify it as a district, he said. With historically accurate facade renovations, streetscape improvements, public art, coordinated signage, signature gateways, landscaping, pavers and street furniture, "we think something significant could happen," Mr. Zyscovich said.
Streetscape face-lifts are on the drawing board throughout Miami, and one is under way to beautify Flagler Street. But Mr. Robins said the proposed jewelry district plan will be different and needs to benefit from a combination of private and public investment
"Usually, the public sector starts before the private sector. In this case, there's significant private development going ahead. We have a core group of property owners who are dedicated. You really can't compare this to Flagler Street."
Mr. Robins, authority board member Sergio Rok and other owners of historic downtown buildings have invested their own money to restore the buildings although public funding for improvements has been limited, he said.
"We haven't seen buy-in on Flagler Street," authority board member Tim Prunka said. "I'm not a big believer in, 'if you build it, they will come.' We have lots of empty stadiums."
"Downtown has been down for so long, whatever we do now is a knee-jerk reaction," said authority board member Jorge Perez. He called many of the streetscape face-lifts "ill-conceived and a big waste of money.
"The needs are so bad, you don't want to delay. The problem downtown isn't just bad signage or garbage or landscaping - it's a combination of things. You need private investment dollars to change that."
"I don't believe street improvements alone are going to be adequate to create change downtown," Mr. Zyscovich said.
He and Mr. Robins insist that the show of renewed investor interest in downtown, combined with the jewelry district's reputation, would position it for success.
"The draw is already there," Mr. Robins said. "We don't have to go out and find it."
Board members said they are concerned that improvements in the proposed district not clash with plans for Flagler Street.
"There's no coordinating council for downtown design," Mr. Perez said. "Maybe the DDA should be it, but we aren't."
He said jewelry-district promoters should work with the City of Miami Planning Department to "create linkages" so that the effect isn't visually jarring.
The board agreed to support the plan in concept.
"I think this is the best shot we have," Mr. Zyscovich said.
"If you take that district and change all that you say you will," Mr. Perez said, "downtown will change in five years. It will change so much that you can't even control it."