Fred A. Bernstein

< Back

Tony Goldman in Miami

An urban pioneer's new venture

Published in The New York Times, January 18, 2005

January 16, 2005
A Founder of SoHo Has Another Vision for Miami

Thirty years ago Tony Goldman helped turn SoHo, then a down-at-the-heels manufacturing district, into an artists' mecca. Twenty years ago, he began buying properties in the Art Deco district of Miami Beach, where he opened the Park Central hotel in 1987. He is still buying, selling and renovating properties in both locations.

"I always buy chai," said Mr. Goldman, using the Hebrew word for life, which also represents the number 18. So when he invests in a neighborhood, Mr. Goldman explained, he tries to purchase at least 18 properties, enough to give him clout - and the chance to make a lot of money if prices increase.

In the last 12 months, Mr. Goldman has "bought chai" in a new location - a Miami neighborhood called Wynwood, which doesn't even appear on many maps. Virtually all of Mr. Goldman's Wynwood properties, which he acquired with his son, Joey, 32, are warehouse buildings occupied by shoe wholesalers. At night, the neighborhood is eerie: roll-down gates cover the buildings' facades, and there isn't one car on the streets.

But Mr. Goldman, 61, believes Wynwood will become the city's next arts district - "a kind of Williamsburg," he said, "but with a Latin/Caribbean flavor." Its neighbor to the north is the Miami Design District, the enclave promoted by Craig Robins, who worked with Mr. Goldman in South Beach in the 1980's. Its neighbor to the south is the so-called performing arts district, in which a concert hall and opera house designed by the architect Cesar Pelli are nearing completion.

Miami, it seems, has district fever.

"The big story is that the people who made South Beach happen have now crossed the bridge," Mr. Robins said. "The fact that Tony is one of those people is an extremely positive sign."

But the performing arts district has benefited from a vast infusion of public money. And the design district already had dozens of furniture and lighting showrooms when Mr. Robins got there in the early 1990's. Wynwood has no such advantage, though it may soon be bordered by Midtown Miami, a 56-acre development expected to replace old rail yards with some 3,000 condominium units, 900 rental apartments and hundreds of thousands of square feet of shops.

Mr. Goldman is not the only big player in Wynwood. A partnership led by David Lombardi owns a number of warehouse buildings and is developing 36 loft units (of which 33 are already sold, Mr. Lombardi said). In other cases, artists have turned some of the warehouse buildings into studios and galleries. But the biggest attention-getters in Wynwood are private museums. Donald and Mera Rubell opened theirs in 1996, and they are planning to move into an adjacent house later this year. Martin Z. Margulies, a developer of oceanfront condominium buildings, just added 10,000 square feet to his own museum, the Margulies Collection, which focuses on photography and conceptual art.

Last weekend, Mr. Goldman and his wife, Janet, unveiled their museum, the Goldman Warehouse. But unlike Mr. Margulies and the Rubells, who favor challenging works, the Goldmans prefer huge, happy canvases with thick acrylic paint applied in swirls. They seem sure that the works, by such artists as Jules Olitski, who is in his 80's, will someday be recognized as great. It is similar to the approach they take in real estate: go their own way, and see who catches up.

Mr. Goldman and his son said they envision the streets of Wynwood filled with artists sipping lattes. But they also know that things don't always happen as planned.

Between his success in SoHo and South Beach and his foray in Wynwood, Mr. Goldman made a detour to Philadelphia. There, he announced, he would revitalize a corridor southeast of City Hall, which he dubbed "Blocks Below Broad." As usual, he "bought chai," but after Sept. 11, 2001, he said, the office building market in Philadelphia softened. So Mr. Goldman sold some buildings and shifted his focus to residential development; he expects to build a pair of loft buildings by the hot New York architecture firm SHoP/Sharples Holden Pasquarelli. But the buildings will have small floor plates, he said, because he doesn't want to overwhelm the neighborhood. "I always think," he said, "from the street up."

The street, Mr. Goldman said, must be a place where things develop unexpectedly. "Artists go to places that have an urban edge - they don't go to tidy suburban neighborhoods," he said.

Indeed, those artists already in Wynwood have expressed fear that they will be priced out of the neighborhood. But Joey Goldman, who has been working for his father since he was 18, said that isn't going to happen. "It's going to remain an accessible and largely low-rise neighborhood," he said. There is a 120-foot height limit in the district, he said, "and we are not looking to change that." He said he envisions widening sidewalks, to make room for cafes, and building a parking garage, so that streets can be for people, not for cars. "We already have the site for the garage," he said.

Tony Goldman has turned Goldman Properties (with offices in New York, Philadelphia and Miami Beach) into a family business. His daughter, Jessica Goldman-Srebnick, focuses on the company's Miami Beach hotels, including The Hotel, which was designed by Todd Oldham in 1998. The Goldmans recently opened a new bar on the building's roof.

"We're always looking to improve our properties," said Mr. Goldman, standing at the bar with Mr. Oldham during a party last month. (Janet Goldman owns a New York jewelry business called Fragments.)

One of the most successful parts of The Hotel is the French-Brazilian restaurant Wish. In Philadelphia, one of Mr. Goldman's buildings is home to the nouvelle Mexican restaurant El Vez. And his revival of SoHo began, in large part, with the late, great Greene Street Cafe.

"If you feed the people, the people will feed the neighborhood," Mr. Goldman explained.

There will, he promised, soon be a restaurant in Wynwood. Maybe he should call it "Chai."