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My cherished "souvenir" from my recent excursion to this south Florida city has nothing to do with cruising South Beach, hopping a cruise ship, taking in the NBA's Heat, or getting immersed in Latin and Cuban culture.
On the hunt for a novel design piece for the Miami loft-style condo I bought four years ago – as the United States was crawling out of the 2008-09 recession – my real estate agent, Scott Voelker of EWM Realty International's Nancy Batchelor team, recommended the Miami Design District, or, as he calls it: "a real happening place."
" ... A lot of people go over to the district because it's chic and cool, and everybody talks and reads about it," he says.
After hours of window shopping and popping into dozens of the upscale home-decor, clothing and art stores within the 18-block district in mid-Miami, I happened upon Urban Art. The home-decor boutique bills itself as "a comprehensive art and accessory resource for upscale interior designers" who search the world for the perfect home items, such as antiques, furniture and accessories.
With everything from a Cambodian buffalo bell sculpture, to an antique Chinese rosewood console and a Dutch inlaid chair (from the hundreds to thousands of dollars each), I chose the simple, understated elegance of a stone disc imported from Mexico – cloud white with tinges of grey, it's about 96 centimetres in circumference and as heavy as a bowling ball, held upright with a simple black cast-iron stand.
The cost of owning a slice of one of the trendiest and must-go-to areas of Miami?: $480 (U.S.), including the 6-per-cent Florida state tax.
But hey, "it's Miami" – the typical response by locals whenever something seems unreasonable. And it's the price you can expect to pay for owning a little piece of the Design District, which is working its way into the company of international design meccas, including Paris, Milan in Italy, Cologne in Germany and New York.
Easy access, but parking's a pain
Just a few kilometres from the internationally renowned downtown banking centre, the Miami International Airport and tourist-swamped South Beach, the Miami Design District is bordered by the Buena Vista and Little Haiti (once one of the poorest areas of Miami) neighbourhoods to the north, the Wynwood Arts District to the south, and the wealthy Upper East Side community to the east. It's bound by NE 36th Street, NE 43rd Street, NW First Avenue and Biscayne Boulevard.
Historically a part of Buena Vista, a nearly 100-year-old residential neighbourhood with some of the most historic homes in Miami-Dade County, the Design District was founded in the 1920s during the furniture-making boom for South Beach Art Deco-era hotels. When crime rates in Miami began rising in the 1970s, the district fell into urban decay. According to Design District literature, in the late 1990s, Miami native Craig Robins began acquiring and "redefining" area properties – working toward juxtaposing design brands with globally relevant art collections, temporary and permanent art and design installations, and hip restaurants.
The district's owner is now Miami Design District Associates (MDDA), a partnership between Robins of Dacra (the real estate development company behind the urban revitalization of other areas of Miami, such as South Beach and Lincoln Road) and the Paris-based global real estate development and investment fund L Real Estate.
Since the district's transformation began in earnest in 2010, warehouses and gallery spaces have been converted to retail spaces, art galleries and dining hot spots, with the goal of maintaining its "historic nature." Besides shops by high-end designers including Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Fendi, Berluti, Emilio Pucci, Maison Martin Margiela, Prada, Céline and Cartier, interior and graphic designers and the like have set up offices within the district – which is also known for its loaded calendar of fashion, design and culinary events. For several days in early December, for instance, it's bustling with art lovers as part of Art Basel – an annual modern and contemporary art show founded in 1970 in Basel, Switzerland, and also held in Hong Kong.
In 2012, when Robins presented his redevelopment plan to the City of Miami while seeking its approval, it was estimated the project would cost $312-million, incorporating extensive renovations, 540,000 square feet of new construction and a nine-metre-wide pedestrian mall running north and south from 38th to 42nd streets, according to the Design District's website.
By 2015, MDDA expects the district to include more than 120 luxury-brand stores, a world-class boutique hotel, 15 to 20 restaurants, luxury residential condos and lofts, galleries, furniture showrooms, and numerous large-scale public art installations.
But for all its lure, the district has a big flaw: the lack of parking that can be a pain for anyone intent on driving. For now, there is a handful of parking lots and street-metered parking, with revitalization plans calling for both underground and above-ground garages. City buses (with a $2.25 adult fare) and no-fare trolleys do, however, make their way into the district while fighting sometimes unbearable traffic.
MDD a part of area renaissance
Why the design boom in a city also known more for its fun, sand and sun?
Since emerging from the recession, Miami (dubbed The Magic City for its burst of growth since its incorporation nearly 120 years ago) has been undergoing another rebuilding and construction surge, in large part to cater to international buyers – many of them Canadians – because of its affordability compared to other world cities, according to Miami real estate interests. For instance, of 19 global cities tracked by the Southeast Florida Multiple Listing Service (MLS), Miami ranked No. 17 in cost per square metre for urban housing at $446 – well behind the top three of Monte Carlo, Monaco ($4,628), London ($3,125) and Hong Kong ($1,919), and even lagging Toronto (13th at $770) in 2013-14.
"Miami is a deal for most wealthy people when you look at some of the most expensive cities in the world – Moscow, London, Paris, Toronto," notes Mr. Voelker, 52, who moved to Miami from Ohio in 2005 to feed his love of water activities and warm weather.
As a resident and condo owner in Miami, he, too, takes frequent trips to the Design District, accompanying friends and colleagues at restaurants such as Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill (a South American-inspired menu that Mr. Voelker describes as "bizarre" with its tapas, large-plate and grill choices), and to get home-decor ideas and indulge in a few of his own decor "souvenirs" – among them, lamps, a chair and tiles.
At Waterworks, one of the bathroom design retailers in the district, it wouldn't be unusual to drop $30,000 for bathroom tiles, he says.
"It's almost like it's its own little town now," he says about the district. "It's really quite amazing – there's been a whole little renaissance of that area."