Downtown Miami ushers in new hotel boom

By Chabeli Herrera  |  March 28, 2016  |  Miami Herald

In a long-forgotten corridor of downtown Miami, two black flags with gold lettering swayed from the historic Miami National Bank building, signaling a new spirit of hospitality in Miami’s urban core. “The Langford,” each flag read, named after the first boutique hotel of its kind to take residence downtown — in a building from 1925, no less. The Beaux Arts-style hotel includes touches from the last century: 1920s-style sinks, 1940s sailor tattoo-inspired wallpaper and 1950s Cadillac seat-inspired headboards.

Marrying Miami history and renewed opportunity, the Langford aims to reignite the downtown core as a Miami destination in its own right.

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony at 121 SE First St., hotel general manager Oscar Suarez quoted Miami historian Paul George. “‘To know Miami, you have to be able to know downtown,’” Suarez said. “There is so much history in downtown Miami, and I think we are creating history. I say now, to know the new Miami, you have to know the new downtown.”

The new downtown — the area north of Brickell and south of the Adrienne Arsht Center — has evolved drastically in the past decade. Propelled by a population boom that has brought restaurants and attractions to the area, downtown has morphed from a nine-to-five sleepy town to the kind of urban core that is luring hoteliers nationwide. Once home to just a handful of longstanding hotels, such as the InterContinental Miami, built in 1982, and the Miami Marriott Biscayne Bay, built in 1983, downtown is welcoming a new generation of hotels. Opening this spring are the 126-room Langford hotel and 129-room ME Miami, of Spain’s ME by Meliá brand. Next year, a 250-room futuristic Yotel hotel is set to open near the Langford, and Miami Worldcenter’s massive two-tower hotel, with 1,700 rooms total, will break ground for the first phase of its construction, just a block from ME Miami.

The properties mark the first downtown lodging developments in recent years. The last new hotel was the gutted and renovated Continental Bayside Hotel that opened as b2 hotel in early 2013 and was later rebranded as Yve Hotel Miami.

The shift further into the urban core, experts say, began when developers set their sights on downtown Miami as a place people could reside in, not just work in. As the population of the city began to balloon and Miami grew away from the core, it became a challenge to drive into downtown for work. As condos pierced the skyline, the surrounding infrastructure adjusted to cater to the area’s new residents. From 2000 to 2015, the population of downtown, including Brickell, doubled from about 40,000 to 80,000, according to the Miami Downtown Development Authority’s 2014/2015 annual report. Last year, the area boasted 400 restaurants and bars.

“The rule of thumb is retail follows rooftops. I like to say that retail follows balconies in our case,” Robertson said.

Coral Gables public-relations executive Hanna Thornton and her husband, Ryan, were part of the population influx, moving to downtown from the suburbs in 2013. “When we moved there originally, everything closed after 5 o’clock,” Thornton said. “I think it’s definitely changed. I’ve noticed more things are opening later and there is more of a dinner scene. There are a lot of younger kids.”

The shifting demographics and enhanced infrastructure primed downtown for lifestyle and boutique hotels — the kind that appeal to millennials visiting the area for work or leisure. Residents ages 25 to 44 make up nearly half of the population downtown, according to the DDA’s report.

“Miami is really playing out the current trend in hotel development as millennials take over,” said Max Comess, managing director of the hotel group at commercial real estate investment banking firm HFF. “They want an authentic sense of place, and they want to feel a certain connectivity to the city they are residing in.” That’s downtown’s sweet spot among powerhouses like South Beach and Brickell. More than any other part of Miami, experts said, downtown has the combination of history and culture that attracts hotel brands aligned with the current trend toward authenticity.

At the Langford opening this week, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said he hopes the hotel, with its original black-and-gold elevator doors and rooftop views of the area’s other historic properties, will pioneer more activity downtown and draw people to the amenities in and around the area, such as Wynwood and the Design District.

Getting around via public transit is an attractive option for any traveler, said Brian Adler, who represented the Langford hotel and is a partner at law firm Bilzin Sumberg’s land-development and government-relations group. “People don’t necessarily want to rent a car and park in downtown; they don’t know the area,” Adler said. “Now we have viable options, which are the trolleys and Uber and Lyft, which have international appeal.” Mayor Regalado said there’s still plenty of work to be done to ensure downtown’s transit infrastructure is on par with other major cities with a strong urban core.

Despite the area’s shortcomings and recent development boom, he offered a definitive prediction: “Downtown will be the new South Beach.”

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