The Road Rolls On for Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road

Ritz-Carlton South Beach owner wants to extend the unusually successful pedestrian plaza toward the ocean

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The Lincoln Road pedestrian mall in Miami Beach has defied the odds by surviving without cars. For decades, the retail strip has attracted throngs of tourists, beachgoers, spring breakers and locals, who walk along the east-west boulevard flanked by restaurants, shops and al fresco dining.

But the iconic stretch of South Beach never quite lived up to its creator’s vision of connecting the Atlantic Ocean to Biscayne Bay.

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Now a Miami Beach hotelier wants to move closer to that vision by remaking the end of Lincoln Road closest to the ocean. flag luxury, the New York-based developer and co-owner of the Ritz-Carlton South Beach and the Sagamore Hotel South Beach, is floating a plan to extend the pedestrian-only portion of the street two more blocks toward the Atlantic shore.

Over the decades, Lincoln Road in Miami Beach has transformed from posh to kitschy to culturally edgy. In its latest version, the strip is home to such national names as Apple, Cheesecake Factory and Starbucks. But an overlooked stretch of Lincoln Road, just to the east, has long felt disconnected. It’s open to cars, and Flag Luxury’s owners say the area is suffering from crime and vacancies.

The hotel operator’s proposed makeover would start with the 100 block of Lincoln Road, between Collins Avenue and the ocean. Flag Luxury’s proposal includes redesigning that stretch to make it friendlier to pedestrians while still remaining open to cars.

The 100 block would also get public art features, including most prominently the Lapidus Arch, a tribute to the influential architect Morris Lapidus, whose vision the company is looking to realize. Lapidus, a master of the Miami Modern movement,  designed many of Miami Beach’s signature hotels along Collins Avenue, including the famed Fontainebleu.

After the 100 block renovation, Flag Luxury’s plans get more ambitious. The hotelier would move on to the 200 and 300 blocks of Lincoln Road, between Washington and Collins avenues.

“Those 200 and 300 blocks should be incredible,” Dayssi Olarte de Kanavos, president and chief operating officer of Flag Luxury, told Commercial Observer. “They’ve been forgotten.”

Those blocks are open to cars, and their vibe doesn’t match the posh hotels to the east or the pedestrian streetscapes to the west. The Lincoln Road pedestrian mall begins at Washington Avenue and stretches west to Alton Road.

“There’s been a lot of wear and tear. The maintenance hasn’t been strong in that area,” Olarte de Kanavos said. “We’d like to provide a better experience for the public. It’s really the east anchor to Lincoln Road. We’re being impacted by rising crime, and we have many storefronts empty.”

For the redesign of the 100 block of Lincoln Road, Flag Luxury is negotiating a development agreement with the City of Miami Beach, and the city’s Historic Preservation Board is scheduled to review the proposal in July. If the project makes it through the city approval process, it could be completed in 18 months, said Flag Luxury Chairman and CEO Paul Kanavos.

The next step would be to extend the Lincoln Road pedestrian mall east by two blocks – and that’s where things get tricky. Property ownership is fragmented, and the list of regulatory approvals is long.

“It’s complicated – it’s a jigsaw puzzle,” Paul Kanavos said. “We have state, county and city hurdles. We have to find a funding mechanism.”

Kanavos said he’s unsure how much the project would cost. The newspaper Miami Today reported the cost of the proposal at $23 million, but Kanavos didn’t cite a specific number.

While retailers often object to road proposals that would limit vehicular access to storefronts, Kanavos said that’s not an issue with the proposal to extend Lincoln Road’s pedestrian mall. “We have overwhelming support of the merchants,” he said.

Lyle Stern, president of the Lincoln Road Business Improvement District, calls the proposal to lengthen the pedestrian mall “a great idea.”

“There’s a spectacular opportunity to improve those blocks, not for the building owners and not for the tenants, but for the residents and the tourists,” Stern said. “We should look at everything in the city through the portal of ‘How can we improve the experience?’ ”

One challenge, Stern says, will be figuring out how to reroute public bus traffic. Closing more of Lincoln Road to car traffic would mean relocating a busy bus stop in the 300 block of Lincoln Road.

Miami Beach restaurateur Jamil Dib, co-founder and co-owner of Vida & Estilio Restaurant Group, also likes the plan. “That’s a super-busy but very tricky area that needs love,” Dib said. “It’s like Main and Main. What do we want our tourists to see?”

Dib operates four restaurants on Espanola Way, which the city closed to cars about a decade ago. “It’s totally pedestrian, and it’s maybe the best-performing street in Miami Beach,” Dib said.

Meanwhile, lengthening Lincoln Road would make it even more of an outlier among U.S. pedestrian malls. The stretch is already one of the longest, stretching 3,000 feet from end to end.

Among the U.S. pedestrian malls that are still standing after decades of demographic change, many cover less than 1,000 feet, a Cornell University researcher reported in a study published in 2021. In an urban design fad popular in the 1960s and 1970s, commercial districts nationally converted streets to pedestrian malls, but many were later torn up and reopened to car traffic.

Lincoln Road was built more than a century ago, long before pedestrian malls became a nationwide craze. In 1912, developer Carl Fisher had workers clear mangroves to make a pathway from the Atlantic Ocean to Biscayne Bay, and named the new thoroughfare for Abraham Lincoln. It was Lapidus who turned it into a pedestrian mall in 1960, and though it’s been updated since, it still bears his legacy of “selling a good time.”

“When I got into hotels, I had to rethink, What am I selling now?” Lapidus once said. “You’re selling a good time.”

Jeff Ostrowski can be reached at jostrowski@commercialobserver.com.