Miami locals rarely go to the Design District. That might change soon

Craig Robins, president of DACRA, walks through the Miami Design District on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. AL DIAZ

The construction, at last, is mostly finished.

Nearly 25 years after developer Craig Robins scooped up his first property in the then-blighted wholesale district geared to interior designers, the latest expansion of the $1.4 billion Miami Design District is almost complete.

The barricades and cement trucks that made Northeast First Avenue look like a war zone are gone. Long-blocked roadways have been cleared for traffic. So are new pedestrian walkways, art installations and plazas. In the Design District, he has preserved historic gems like the Moore Building, which was built in 1921, while mixing in new modernist buildings, spectacularly organic facades and art installations like a Buckminster Fuller-designed dome big enough to walk through.

Two free-to-the-public museums are open, along with new stores ranging from ultra-luxury (Gucci) to urban and hip (Rag & Bone). The high-end Cuban restaurant Estefan Kitchen has been cooking since March, serving up upscale black beans and ropa vieja with live music and open mic nights. The Nite Owl Theater has been screening cult and classic films since August.

But despite attention from big-time media outlets including the New York Times and Vogue, tony soirees during Art Basel, weekly free concerts and monthly Family Day events, the Miami Design District remains a largely-unknown celebrity in its own hometown. The District spans 18 square city blocks north of downtown Miami, from NE 38th to 42nd Streets between N. Miami Ave. and Biscayne Blvd.

“There’s a challenge in getting the word out about what you’re doing,” said Craig Robins, CEO and president of Dacra development, which currently owns 900,000 square feet of property in the 25-acre Design District. “We could have bought a million ads and said ‘We’re the Design District!’ in flashing lights. But the Design District is about authenticity. You have to continue being what you are and hope that over time, it attracts more and more people. We’re putting signals out to draw you in, but you have to come and discover it on your own.”

Over the Presidents’ Day weekend, the District is sending out a giant beacon with the first Watches & Wonders fair ever held in the U.S. The event, which runs Feb. 16-19, features exhibits by 21 of the world’s top watchmakers showing off their latest models, a series of lectures and seminars for watch hobbyists and collectors, kid-friendly activities and timepiece-themed virtual reality and film installations.

Also debuting this weekend is the Miami Design District Concours, a day-long exhibition on Feb. 17 of more than 125 exotic and rare cars from private collections around the U.S.

All of the events are free — except for the watches. You have to pay for those.

But he hopes these events will lure locals who think of the Design District primarily as a place to drop thousands of dollars on a Louis Vuitton purse. He wants you to know you can also see original works by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein for free, grab a sandwich or burrito at the casual OTL cafe or enjoy a cone of soft serve ice cream made by one of Miami’s best-known pastry chefs.

“This is a big moment for us,” said Robins. “We’ve just opened the second half of the neighborhood and everything is coming together. We already have the best art fair and the best design show in the United States. I’d love for us to have the best watch and jewelry show, too. I’m optimistic and passionate about it, but we’ll see if it lives up to its potential.”