Baker Program students visited the office of Dacra, the developer behind the Miami Design District. Craig Robins, the founder and CEO of Dacra and the visionary behind the Miami Design District, led the discussion on his vision and motivation behind the development. Dacra was established in 1987 with a focus on the preservation of historical districts in Miami and also on building communities of substance. The first area that Dacra focused on was South Beach. In the early 90’s, the area was characterized by a sizable elderly population and criminal activities. Dacra began to acquire, renovate, and carefully curate projects in South Beach. This urban renewal attracted restaurants, retail, and entertainment to the area, helping bring the Art Deco District back to life. As the neighborhood became more popular, the area became over-commercialized. Since Dacra did not own all of the land in the neighborhood, it was unable to fully influence change and preserve the intimate nature of the neighborhood.
Its success in rejuvenating South Beach prompted Dacra to venture into the area that would become the Design District. Learning from the constraints on its development in South Beach, starting in the early 2000’s, Dacra purchased many run-down buildings and vacant lots to control an entire18 square block area. The area had fallen into disrepair and Robins saw this as an opportunity to reinvigorate the area through exceptional design, architecture, art, and experiences. Robins told the students, “Integrating the community culture with business and focusing on an entire neighborhood instead of just a single building will lead to more returns in the long term.”
The vision behind the Design District was to create a physical place that was filled with art, design, and architecture and that almost functioned as an outdoor museum. As Robins remarked, “Design should be on the streets.” Initially, Dacra focused on luring furniture designers away from enclosed malls to the street-level retail spaces to increase awareness amongst people who may never walk into such stores. Robins convinced Alison Spear, Peter Page, Kartell, Luminaire, and furniture designer Holly Hunt to open studios and showrooms in the area. He also was instrumental in bringing Art Basel to Miami in the early 2000’s, which accelerated both Miami’s and the Design District’s growth as a premier worldwide destination for art. In order to generate revenue and further accelerate the neighborhood’s growth, he also founded Design Miami, a design exhibition that only showcased on collector pieces.
In 2010, development of the Design District began in earnest, and Dacra and L Real Estate partnered to develop the area as a luxury retail and lifestyle destination. At the time, major luxury retail brands such as Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Hermes had stores in the Bal Harbor Shops north of Miami. Due to restrictive lease terms imposed by their landlord, these and other high-profile tenants whose presence in the Design District was crucial to its growth were prohibited from opening another store in Miami. Robins saw this as an opportunity and began a dialogue with these prominent brands and ultimately convinced them to vacate their spaces in the Bal Harbor Mall and open showrooms in the Design District. Once brands like Louis Vuitton and Hermes opened stores in the Design District, the proof of concept was established and several brands followed suit and opened their own stores there. Consistent with the artistic concept of the area, each brand attempts to outdo the other when it comes to store design. Almost all of the art in the Design District is curated by Robins, which shows his high degree of expertise and involvement.
Following the discussion at Dacra’s office, the Class of 2021 received an immersive tour of the Design District from Robbins, where he pointed out many of its innovative design elements, architecture, and attractions.