Everyone has a few friends too stubborn for their own good. We have our share. But one of our dearest lives in New York, and his stubbornness is mixed with a little “know it all” attitude. He hasn’t been here in six years, but he still tells us where we should go for wonderful cocktails or the latest scene. It didn’t take us long after moving here to realize his contact list was a tad dated.
But we didn’t pay much attention until, he came to visit over the holidays. Need any suggestions, we asked? “No, thanks, I know the best places.” Sure.
When we met the next afternoon, we could tell he was agitated. “1 just can’t believe this town,” he said, grandly waving his hand and making sure we soaked in the drama of the moment.
‘Where do I start?” He was excited enough to grab the attention of a neighboring table, no easy task at the 90-decibel Big Pink. “Well, when I took my taxi from the airport, what are those enormous buildings at Fifth Street and along the water? I thought I was back in New York!”
He really didn’t want an answer; this was going to be a monologue. “And then, after unpacking, I realized I forgot a belt, so I went to Lincoln Road to find one. And what do I see instead of some unique boutique? Banana Republic, Victoria’s Secret, Gap, Williams- Sonoma. I mean, am I in South Beach or at the Mall of America?” ‘Well….” Trisha tried interjecting.
“But wait. This is the best. I go at midnight to my favorite club, Salvation, and I can’t find it! And I know it like the back of my hand. It’s an Office Depot! You have to be kidding!”
“Places change.” “Change!? Listen to this. At 1 a.m. I figure I’ll go to the best deli in town. And guess what?”
By this time we knew what was coming. “Wolfie’s. Closed. Just another skyscraper across the street that some taxi driver told me is $12 million for the penthouse! Those are New York prices. Can’t believe it. I ended up at some place called Jerry’s.”
We looked at each other. Anyone who knows delis knows that Wolfie’s had been less than desirable for many years, while Jerry’s has been one of LA:s premier establishments forever. One thing we knew by living in South Beach-you aren’t going to like this place unless you embrace change. It is a perpetually varying landscape, for better and worse, and the constant transformation of the town is key to its excitement and freshness. But our friend’s rant made us think he had inadvertently stumbled onto this month’s chatter, how the changing face of South Beach strikes some of the town’s most knowledgeable insiders.
“Miami Beach is always remaking itself,” says Mitchell Kaplan, the erudite owner of Lincoln Road’s wonderful Books & Books. “I grew up here, so my perspective goes way back. It was in decline so much that people were talking about tearing down lots of places. No one thought of preservation in those days. It’s hard to say what has been lost with some of the individual character that marked the Beach years ago, but it is so different it bears almost no resemblance to what it was. It went from an old-timer’s place to a hip and thriving city.”
“When I was surfing here as a teenager in the mid ’80s,” recalls nightlife and real- estate entrepreneur Michael Capponi, “South Beach was a slum. We then evolved into 186 Ocean Drive a fashionable bohemian village, one of the top places in America.”
So what’s our friend’s problem? Has all the growth come with a price? Few people explain the pluses and perils of the Beach’s rush to change better than Miami Herald architecture critic and author Beth Dunlop, a Miami Beach native. Among the things she likes is the renovation of so many “really wonderful hotels, just what a great urban historic district needs.”
And the hotels aren’t just for visitors. We love the new Spire Bar at The Hotel, a wonderful rooftop space with the ocean on one side and a great view over the Art Deco District on the other. And the Raleigh’s renovation at the hands of hotelier Andre Balazs is true to its original roots, the Sunday parties are super, and the bar is still an intimate throwback to another era.
“What makes the hotel scene so great,” says Stephanie Balazs, the managing partner of South Beach Group, which owns seven local boutique hotels, “is that there has been very little penetration by the big corporate chains. Except for Loews, and now The Ritz-Carlton, we have the largest number of independent hotels in a major tourist area that I’ve ever seen. And we all try to outdo each other in being creative and original.”
But Dunlop worries that there may be too much force when businesses try to trump the competition. ‘There is astounding development pressure,” she says. “Property owners have a need to build on every square inch of space. The Art Deco District used to be not only low- scale, but also very lush and green. Gone are the courtyards, planting boxes and trees.” And she bemoans what she calls “demolition by neglect,” where developers buy historically protected properties and allow them to deteriorate to the degree where they can only be torn down. A prime example is the fabulous 1918 Avery Smith-designed coral-rock house at Ninth and Collins. Miami Beach’s building department declared the house unsafe in August, and despite a battle by preservationists, it could be dust by the time you are reading this.
“Once we start losing things like the coral-rock house,” says Dunlop, “we lose the character of the district and the real evolutionary sense of history, where you can see decades of change just by strolling around.” But that does not bother the South Beach Group’s Balazs, who has lived here for seven years. “I have guests all the time in the lobby of the Chesterfield asking, ‘Where is the historic district?’ And I tell them they are in the heart of it. I don’t know what they expected. But I also find that most of our guests come to South Beach not to see the historic district, but ‘because of our nightclubs, restaurants and hotels, what makes this city so happening. This is New York in the 1970s, Los Angeles in the 1980s. It just happens to all be set in the middle of a historic district, and that is a great plus for us who live here and people who visit. If you want to just see old homes and history, you should go to Savannah.”
To business owners like Books & Books’ Kaplan, “There has always been the conflict over how much allegiance we owe to the past and how much we should give in to development. There has never been political will to stop the developers. They have always reigned supreme on the Beach.” But Dunlop thinks it’s also the lawyers who have made a living finding zoning exceptions. “They know the rules aren’t ironclad, unfortunately,” she says, “and they seem to use the maximums as their minimum requests.”
You only need to look at the adjoining series of similarly designed skyscraper condos (“Houston-style buildings where it’s all about the driveway,” says Dunlop) popping up on the west bank of Miami Beach to see the evidence of the power of builders in this town. There used to a nice bay view when someone walked or drove south on Alton. “When you ask a City official,” comments Dunlop, “how all those buildings came to be, they say it was ‘old zoning.’ Well, there must have been a lot of old zoning, because the buildings keep coming and coming.”
Pier 1 Imports now greets visitors to South Beach off the MacArthur Causeway. A developer threatens to build a giant Publix and Target on the empty lot across the street So a grocery store, albeit a wonderful one, will become the entryway to the nation’s largest historical preservation zone, the Art Deco District.
“That’s appalling,” says Dunlop. “I like Publix, and shop there, but wouldn’t it be great if that was a little shopping village with some housing mixed in? A big- box, warehouse store has no place there. Visitors to South Beach should know when they arrive that they are in a historic district, not Anywhere, U.S.A.”
“Most changes have been for the better,” says Capponi. But he thinks that there should be more careful planning of what residents and City officials want the Beach to look like in the long term. In resorts that compete with South Beach for image and style-from Portofino to Ibiza to the Hamptons-there is an effort to insure that instead of just approving a single development at a time an overall design plan is carefully followed.
Lincoln might be dotted with chain stores-even eateries like Johnny Rockets pushing in-but it is alive and thriving, especially at night. Our friend may be right-it might not be as iconoclastic as it was ten years ago-but it is far more vibrant as a great pedestrian boulevard. And it still hosts great lifestyle stores unique to the Beach, such as Steven Giles’ Base, which has just expanded with a home department. Restaurants get better (and more expensive) constantly, and retailers reinvent themselves quicker than you can remember what was filling the location last.
“As a tenant, I worry about rents getting so high that only chain stores can afford them,” says Kaplan. “But there is enough variety on Lincoln, and will continue to be so, to guarantee the street is one of the best anywhere.” Dunlop thinks that Lincoln, which she admits used to be “derelict,” is “amazing, one of the most incredible places you can walk in America. I can’t think of anything as exciting that isn’t on the coast of Italy or the South of France. “The best thing that happened to Lincoln was the national chains,” says the South Beach Group’s Balazs. “It’s fun now, and it’s used by locals as well as tourists. That makes it real.”
Ocean Drive, the street that should be the most fabulous in town, seems to have few local fans. Although the Victor, Hyatt’s boutique-styled hotel, at long last promises to revitalize an entire section with a new hip quotient, other portions remain filled with T-shirt shops and fraternity-boy-type bars. “Ocean Drive is both fabulous and problematic,” says Dunlop, who admits she hates “the cabaret district, the sleazy attitude, the honky-tonk.” “We lost something on Ocean Drive,” says Kaplan, “a chance to keep it as great as Lincoln and not let it become the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.”
Which leads us to the last major equation in South Beach’s changing landscape, the club scene. The anti- club camp is represented by Dunlop, who says, “The clubs have a strangle hold on part of the city, leaving it dead by day and too lively for part of the night, when most of the rest of us are trying to sleep. This Bourbon Street, dicey direction has consequences for the whole city, incredible architectural and urban implications, none of which are positive.” “Some residents who don’t like the noise might not like the clubs,” says the South Beach Group’s Balazs, “but those are one of the major reasons that Miami Beach has morphed into the hip place to be.”
“So long as the clubs are really good,” says Capponi, who has owned some of the hottest in Miami, “they are one-of-a-kind and make the town better. Places like Mynt, Opium Garden, Mansion, Crobar and others. It’s the riffraff clubs that are problems.”
Riffraff. Could start a new trend.