BY CHABELI HERRERA for The 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.
They also represent the first hotels built away from the Miami River.
During the last wave of development, Kimpton’s EPIC hotel opened in 2008 at 270 Biscayne Blvd. Way near the Miami River. In 2010 and just across the street, the JW Marriott Marquis Miami and the Hotel Beaux Arts Miami were built as part of the same property at 225 Biscayne Blvd. Way.
I SAY NOW, TO KNOW THE NEW MIAMI, YOU HAVE TO KNOW THE NEW DOWNTOWN.
Oscar Suarez, general manager of the Langford hotel
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.
“We started having more residents that came to downtown, and we started having more offerings,” said Alyce Robertson, executive director of the Miami Downtown Development Authority. “Downtown started developing its own flavor as a destination.”
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.”
MIAMI IS NOT ABOUT THE BEACH ANYMORE. IT’S ABOUT CULTURE, IT’S ABOUT FESTIVALS.
Olivier Servat, general manager of ME Miami
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.
“If you talk about legacy, I think that part of the legacy of our administration is to have broken the perception that progress only goes to Brickell,” Regalado said.
Debra Klemm, the Langford’s director of sales and marketing, said her international clients have responded positively. “They said, ‘We are looking for something different, something boutique, historic, luxury’ — and that’s exactly what we are.”
Downtown’s other new addition, ME Miami, aims to fulfill a similar traveler desire.
The upscale lifestyle brand chose to enter the U.S. market through downtown Miami, targeting travelers who are more interested in interacting with the place they visit. The hotel, at 1100 Biscayne Blvd., is scheduled to open in late April at the site of the former 56-room Casa Moderna, previously known as Tempo. That hotel opened in 2010, before the neighborhood added the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science across the boulevard.
The new proximity to cultural landmarks is what drew ME by Meliá to downtown Miami. ME Miami aims to create a social hub within its walls, attracting creative world travelers interested in immersing themselves in Miami’s arts and culture scene. The hotel’s “aura” manager is tasked with ensuring that guests engage in the authentic Miami experiences they come seeking.
“Miami is not about the beach anymore. It’s about culture, it’s about festivals.” said Olivier Servat, ME Miami’s general manager. “Our job is to make sure we are taking the destination inside the hotel and that as a guest you can really get the pulse of what’s going on around.”
Like the Langford, it’s also near the AmericanAirlines Arena, Olympia Theater and the Freedom Tower.
The area may be getting new attractions too: the Miami Worldcenter complex will comprise 27 acres of apartments, hotel, retail and restaurants. Nearby, a 1,000-foot-tall observation tower called SkyRise Miami at Bayside Marketplace earned voter approval but has faced delays, including a pending lawsuit.
Together, the new hotels will appeal to international travelers, particularly Latin Americans who are comfortable in an urban setting; Europeans familiar with the Spanish hotel chain giant, Meliá Hotels International; and North American visitors who come to the area for business, said Scott Berman, Miami-based industry leader for hospitality and leisure at PwC.
“The destination itself has gone from pockets of international appeal to a world-class appeal,” Berman said.
DOWNTOWN WILL BE THE NEW SOUTH BEACH.
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado
Part of that appeal is the relative walkability of downtown compared with other areas of Miami and its accessibility to the airport and PortMiami, said William Talbert III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The Metrorail’s Orange Line now takes travelers from the airport to downtown. The PortMiami tunnel offers a faster route to and from cruise ships. Metromover and the Miami Trolley move travelers among downtown amenities, Talbert said.
Earlier this week, trolleys and public buses stopped every few minutes across the street from the Langford. Down the road, at the intersection of Southeast First Street and Southeast First Avenue, a Metromover swished by.
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.”