The Urbanist

Tony Goldman, Grandfather of South Beach, Isn’t Slowing Down One Bit

For Tony Goldman, it always begins with a vision. Literally. “I had a terrible reading problem when I was growing up,” says Goldman, the preservationist-developer who gives the latter a good name. “Because of that I put a lot into visual catalogue. I think visually.

“My whole life I have had this ability to see more than what my eyes see…I see what could be. Other people do, too, I’m sure. But I think they ignore it, or they visualize it and then judgement comes along. You can always come up with 1,000 reasons why something can’t be done.”
Consider South Beach, for example.

“When I saw Ocean Drive for the first time, within moments, I could see it finished,” Goldman recalls. “It was pure and instantaneous. My sense are constantly open for inspiration. That’s how it works for me. I don’t always see the vision of what could be instantaneously. But it is always within a day.

The New York Times dubbed Goldman “the granddaddy of South Beach, who time and again is credited with recognizing the potential in the crumbling pastel treasures of Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue.”

The Ocean Drive and South Beach that New York native Goldman first saw was far, far different than they are today.

“There were five foot sidewalks and parking meters everywhere — two people couldn’t walk side by side,” he says. “All there was were old people, junkies and dealers.”

Still, in the setting and in the architecture, with an understanding of the region’s historic legacy and with that uncommon visual relationship with the world around him that could be — Goldman saw potential.

“It doesn’t happen every day, but it does happen,” Goldman says.

Flash-forward more than two decades and the result is the indelible imprint of Goldman’s vision is the defining nature of Ocean Drive, of South Beach, and of the region’s entire global reputation. As he has done with communities in New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere, Goldman was the singular driving force behind the preservation-sensitive re-development and re-emergence of all of South Beach.

But Goldman is also quick to point out that it took a whole lot of people, in a whole lot of positions, with a whole lot of varied talents, to actually make it happen.

“It took many, many kindred spirits working together with a dedication and with contributions of so many different kinds to make South Beach what it became,” Goldman says. “It took people with so many different talents. That’s the way it has to be. Sure, maybe it takes one compulsive crazy guy to drive it, but hey…that’s OK.”

Goldman says people have often decried his vision and criticized the possibility of him bringing it to life. But once he has that vision, once he has run down a checklist he maintains in his head to ensure that he is committed to it — he’s going to make it happen.

“It takes complete dedication, total commitment from every fiber of your being to make it happen, no matter what it takes,” he says. “We do that. And that’s why we have never failed.”

“I’ve taken the jump in the pool. The first time, I was 17 years old, I saw my wife across the room and it was love at first sight. These moments come to me. My heart beat picks up and I know, I just know that something colossal is coming down the road.” — Tony Goldman

Other people might dismiss visions of what is possible, but not Goldman. He says it’s because he was conditioned very young to know he can actualize even the most challenging visualizations.

“I’ve taken the jump in the pool,” Goldman says. “The first time, I was 17 years old, I saw my wife across the room and it was love at first sight. These moments come to me. My heart beat picks up and I know, I just know that something colossal is coming down the road.”

Despite having cemented his reputation as the grandfather of South Beach, and around the United States as arguably the most celebrated preservation-sensitive developer of re-emerged communities, Tony Goldman isn’t done yet.
Not by a long shot.

“I wouldn’t do what I do if I didn’t love it,” Goldman says. “I find that creativity gives you energy, that it keeps you young.”
Together with daughter Jessica Goldman Srebnick and son Joey, Tony Goldman has set  his eye on Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood and is already beginning to help breathe life into an area that most would have thought was hopeless just a few years ago.

Tony Goldman doesn’t really much like being called a “developer.” And in a sense, he’s not. Developers build buildings and move on. Goldman builds communities, develops in terms of critical mass with a unified vision shared with others, and then sticks around to help guide the evolution of distinct, individualized, pedestrian friendly urban neighborhoods.
By now his history is legendary.

In 1968, Goldman began the Goldman Properties with one employee and youthful exuberance. He was self taught and explored the use of spaces early on. He began by developing residential brownstones on the Upper Westside of New York City.

In 1976, Goldman was drawn to the magnificent but dilapidated historic cast iron architectural district known as SOHO, a neighborhood just south of Houston Street in downtown Manhattan. It’s a credit to Goldman’s vision that he saw through the decay and recognized the uniqueness and beauty of the cast iron buildings – and the neighborhood’s potential. Goldman knew that loft living was the urban wave of the future and that Soho would be at the center of it all. He envisioned a mixed-use community, with loft spaces where residents could live, work and play. Goldman Properties renovated 18 buildings, the flagship being the Soho Building, the district’s largest and tallest mixed-use office building. In 1979, with a vision of drawing a vital new market to the neighborhood, he opened the internationally acclaimed Greene Street Café, the first of New York City’s great jazz super clubs since the 50’s. Goldman’s revolutionary wine bar, Soho Kitchen and Bar, opened in 1984. Trendsetting shops, hot restaurants and influential art galleries sprouted up alongside artists’ lofts and living spaces. Fast-forward to 2000 and the first phase of Goldman’s luxury loft condominium development, the Lofts of Greene Street Phases 1 and 2. The project has helped to make Greene Street – between Prince Street and Spring Street – the epicenter of Soho and its premiere retail street.

In 1985, on a quick trip to Miami, Goldman discovered South Beach. Miles of oceanfront property at the southern tip of Miami Beach were filled with run down hotels, empty and decaying buildings. He was instantly enchanted, recognizing the unusual, architecturally significant community of Art Deco Buildings situated on an urban grid system of streets and sidewalks facing a park and the white sand beach.

“The minute I saw it I knew I had discovered the American Riviera,” he remembers.

Recognizing the incredible, seemingly risky opportunity, he dove in, purchasing 18 properties, one property a month for 18 months. Goldman put the same energy and passion into South Beach’s revitalization as he had put into Soho, but he realized that a grand vision was required to get waves of people on board. He teamed up with others to lead the South Beach movement to revitalization through preservation and economic development. In 1987, his flagship hotel property, The Park Central was renovated and reopened as the centerpiece of the South Beach renaissance. Goldman worked with local community and government organizations to help shape the future of South Beach, getting involved on every level – from creating a bond issue that lead to widening the side walks on Ocean Drive to helping establish the fashion industry’s permanent presence on South Beach.
The New York Times dubbed Goldman “the granddaddy of South Beach, who time and again is credited with recognizing the potential in the crumbling pastel treasures of Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue.” In 1988, he opened the areas most prestigious four star restaurant “Lucky’s” at The Park Central.

For almost two decades, Goldman has maintained a strong presence on South Beach, overseeing the development of many other properties. In 1998, Goldman reopened The Hotel, formerly known as the Tiffany Hotel, working closely with his daughter Jessica and innovative designer Todd Oldham.

In 1994 Goldman began developing in the village of Wall Street, investing in nine properties and breathing new life into New York City’s suffering financial district. In 1997, with son Joey, he opened the Wall Street Kitchen & Bar. Immediately popular with the Wall Street crowd, the restaurant offered 50 wines by the glass and 50 beers on tap, in a rich, elegant setting – the historic 1906 American Bank Note building, which Goldman restored to its former grandeur placing it on the National Register as well as New York City’s list of Landmark properties. In 2002, Goldman opened Stone Street Tavern, in the heart of the Stone Street Historic District, and meticulously restored five historical properties with living lofts above stores and restaurants.

Philadelphia…Boston…now either developing or consulting with those who will in Detroit, Buffalo, Goldman is recognized as a unique visionary urbanist in the truest sense of the word. Among a dizzying are of regional and national awards, designations and honors, he received the Louise Du Pont Crowninshield Award, the highest accolade bestowed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

There’s a formula to how Goldman approaches actualizing the spectacular visions he has of revitalized diverse urban communities.

“We buy critical mass early on and work together with neighbors to create a shared vision of what we can do and form associations so everyone is working together,” Goldman says.
Goldman focuses on dilapidated urban area where real estate prices are low, so that he can afford to buy in critical mass and afford the expense of carrying properties through the years — or decades — it takes for the neighborhood’s shared vision to come to life. Each new initiative is based on the intrinsic qualities of the architecture and the distinctive culture and history of the community. Balancing auto traffic with absolutely pedestrian friendly cultures is essential. So too is an arts component. Then come restaurants to breathe life into the suddenly new, hip district.

“There is no way I have ever found to bring people to an area better than hospitality and that is mostly food and beverage,” Goldman says. “You have to do it right and you have to focus on reaching the people you want to attract.”

Goldman was looking around for another Miami-area project for he and his son to work on together when they came across Wynwood. Once again, Goldman had one of those defining visionary moments.
“Wynwood had something that was missing in Miami — a gritty urban scene,” he says. “Wynwood is unique in it has a critical mass of old box-shaped buildings. The architecture isn’t historic — yet. But we thought we could create a model of what can be done with warehouse districts in major urban areas.”

Goldman has invested in Wynwood to the tune of two dozen-plus properties. He successfully stewarded through zoning changes that fundamentally preserve the area’s historic integrity while permitting businesses to operate on pedestrian-focused streets.

Joey Goldman opened an Italian restaurant, Joey’s, in Wynwood to wide acclaim.

Launching at Art Basel 2009, Tony Goldman in collaboration with respected art curator, Jeffrey Deitch, presented Wynwood Walls, a mural park featuring the spontaneous work of nine leading international artists who used building walls as canvases, creating the largest collective of museum-quality street murals in the US.  Wynwood Walls continued to evolve in 2010, with many additional murals of inspiring urban art added and on view,  free, and open to the public, at NW 25th Street and NW 2nd Avenue.  In tandem with Art Basel, November 26, 2010, Goldman Properties celebrated the opening of Wynwood Kitchen & Bar, a passionate blending of exciting contemporary street art and innovative brasserie cuisine.

This year, the esteemed arts organization, Miami Light Project, will launch a community oriented arts program, “Light Project at Goldman Warehouse,” under a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Arts Challenge grant.  To match that grant, Goldman Properties is refurbishing, re-fitting and re-envisioning Goldman Warehouse to accommodate the project.

“Thousands of people came through [Wynwood Walls] during Art Basel,” Goldman says. “Open some good restaurants, pop in a town square and all of a sudden you have created something from nothing.

“I’ve found to my delight that real hard-core Miamians go through there and they have this sense of Miami chauvinism — like this is something distinct to Miami, that no other place has. That’s my payoff. That’s what makes me feel good. That’s what keeps me going.”

The Wynwood district project continues today. Just this week, Goldman says, he approved design plans for a building that will serve Wynwood with scaled office space, permitting businesses to start out small and have room to grow.

“We’re just at the beginning in Wynwood,” Goldman says. “We’re 10 to 15 years from realizing the full potential.”

These days, shunning the idea of slowing down, Goldman has more irons in the fire than it seems possible for one man — particularly for a man who doesn’t have a computer on his office desk in New York and who has a cell phone for the anachronistic use of actually talking to people.

Among other things he is working on is a documentary film on his approach to redevelopment, consulting around the country and envisioning a possible redevelopment plan for beloved historic Coney Island. In Miami Beach, he wants to lead the charge to see Lummus Park play host to regular cultural programming to bring residents to it on an ongoing basis. He is hoping that friends of his in the industry will bring him in to share a vision for downtown Miami — no easy thing given the historic cyclical nature of downtown’s failures.

“Wynwood is what downtown would have been, could have been, and still might become,” Goldman says. “I think it will one day too.”

His passion about downtown Miami’s potential as a real urban community — not the phony one pitched by developers over the years — accentuates Goldman’s historic connection to and philosophy of urban areas.

“All great cities are powered by the vibrant heartbeat that comes from the center core — downtown,” he says. “Everything is driven by that heart. That’s what’s missing in downtown.”

Perhaps Goldman has a specific vision of downtown Miami, as he has had with so many other urban areas in so many states across the country and most notably locally in South Beach and Wynwood.

Perhaps one day the opportunity to actualize such a vision will come along. If so, the smart money would be on success. Tony Goldman, who grew up on the streets of New York and parlayed trouble reading into becoming a distinct visionary, just doesn’t know from failure.

About Michael W Sasser

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