A small art scene develops in a neighborhood, signaled by the visual Hip Hop of wall murals—fierce faces painted one story high and fantasy scenes obsessively detailed in spray-paint tropical hues.
The area quickly gains a reputation as a lively “arts” district, with performance venues, not just clubs, and galleries hanging banners to signal the conversion of fortresslike warehouses. And just as quickly developers follow, trying to capture the emerging vibe. Or did they quietly induce the phenom in the first place? In Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood, the developer and artist cat-and-mouse game of gentrification can’t play out by the usual script.
Forget the noble steel-windowed, terra-cotta trimmed old factories that you find in the Northeast or Midwest, with cavernous spaces roofed in spidery trusses. Instead, blocks of windowless, beige-painted concrete warehouses mutely catch the pastels of the late-afternoon sun. Architecturally they are interesting only for the strange outsider art of their home-made commercial signage—much of which is now obliterated by artists’ far more elaborate murals. These often appear spectrally across weedy lots wrapped in spiky fences or chain link topped by tangles of razor wire.
What’s a developer to do with that? That’s the question Tony Cho, president of Metro 1, is asking. I didn’t quite understand what was at stake until I arrived to judge a design competition Cho put together to create a vest-pocket park in the neighborhood.
As a developer he’s brought in a Ducati motorcycle showroom. The cycles appeal to the showy, brand-brandishing local ethos, but Cho housed it in an unflashy showroom that fits the neighborhood because it could be mistaken for that of a machine-tool wholesaler.
He’d like to see housing, which would bring life to the empty streets, but how authentic is that? The last residential project, built years ago, looks like a worn Hampton Inn, mysteriously parachuted in from some freeway frontage road. Much larger developers are hovering, ones more likely to drop in homogenized, value-engineered hipness. Wynwood finds itself very well located near downtown in a white-hot real-estate market.
Cho introduced me to David Polinsky and Bradley Carlson, developers whose aspiration is to marry loft-style modernism to art-attuned Wynwood. Architect Laith Sayigh provided wall-painting opportunities on projecting sidewalls and balconies for their planned six-story condo and retail project, 250 Wynwood.
Cho, Polinsky and Carlson don’t want to lose the neighborhood’s character. Preservation is too often embalming, though it can be transformative (often for the good, but often with residents, stores, and design much like that of all other preserved neighborhoods: inauthentic authenticity—wrap your brain around that.)
This neighborhood would be most authentic if left alone, ignored by investors and hipsters alike. But that’s not going to happen. It will inevitably evolve, and the question really is who guides that evolution (if anyone) and how Wynwood can continue to be a real place, even with the best of intentions, when (at best) its warehouses and wholesalers are augmented (but probably displaced) by diverse commercial and residential uses bought and paid for by much more affluent people than work and live in this and nearby neighborhoods now.
For Cho’s park project, I was privileged to join a terrific jury, sensitive to entries that could create impact on such a small scale with limited funds. We looked only at portfolios without knowing who submitted them and were pleased to find very accomplished finalists. (You can follow progress here.)
In my personal view, the challenge is both larger than it looks and more difficult. This project could redefine a neighborhood. As what? Stay tuned. I’m eagerly awaiting judging of the final designs at the end of summer.