“Save What You Have”: Miami Developer Avra Jain on Historic Preservation
The hottest place in Miami right now isn’t the white-sand beaches—it’s a historic stretch of Biscayne Boulevard in the architecturally booming area known as MiMo, short for Miami Modern. And the person responsible for much of the buzz is 52-year-old Avra Jain, Wall Street bond trader-cum-real estate developer and preservationist.
Since arriving in Miami in 2002, Jain has left her mark all over a city in dire need of a design makeover, including the much-celebrated dazzling renovation of the Vagabond Hotel (the website describes its new look as “Timelessly Modern. Decidedly Miami.”), and her current project at the historic Miami River Inn.
We caught up with Avra by phone, talking about going back in time, teamwork, and bringing preservation to the next generation.
When did you become interested in real estate and development, and how did that translate to historic preservation?
I was working on Wall Street, and I bought loft apartments downtown. I left Wall St. to do a 100,000-square-foot warehouse conversion in Tribeca in the early ‘90s and never went back to Wall Street. It was a hobby and it became a second career. I’ve always been attracted to existing or older buildings—their charm, and also the construction.
What makes Miami ripe for preservation and development, especially MiMo?
In NYC, most things are historic. In Miami, 1950s, 1960s is old. Back in the day, when people had cars post WWII…all the optimism, the playfulness, the roadside diners.
Miami was founded on a lot of motor hotels (motels) because so many people would come here for vacation. They traveled in their big Cadillacs and Chevys. You can imagine how much fun it would have been, with the big hair and the big cars and neon lights. They would travel up and down Biscayne, looking at the lights and architecture. That is really a big part of Miami’s history.
What has drawn you to focusing on historic hotels, and why is it important for preservation?
It’s what I like, it’s what I appreciate. Not just architecturally, but for what it means to a community. It creates that sense of place, and it gives context and soul to neighborhoods. It takes time to create depth and history. You’re not just housing the architecture and a place in time; you’re housing a lot of memories. That was one of the things that I didn’t really fully appreciate until I did my first motel.
At the Vagabond, locals come by and they are in tears when they see the mermaid at the bottom of the pool. When they were children, this is where their parents took them for vacation. This is where they learned how to swim. One woman said it was the first place she and her family stayed when they got off the boat from Cuba. That’s special. It’s a much more personal, more intimate experience than just renovating the building.
What is the current sentiment about preservation in Miami?
It definitely has momentum. The local preservationists do a great job creating awareness. It’s the success of places like the Vagabond that add to that momentum. I’ve had people come and thank me, which is really unusual as a developer. We not only improved the community, we brought attention to the boulevard—it was the tipping point. It’s just a really good story.
A lot of developers down here at least are of the mindset that preservation is more of a liability than an asset. It costs more to do restoration than to knock it down and build new.
I look at preservation as an asset. If it’s deemed historic, that’s a constraint. But constraints are a chance to be creative. Not just in what you do, but how you do it. I think really great things come out of those situations.
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Preservation takes a lot of research and a lot of partnership between various entities. What makes a good partner?
Someone who knows what they’re doing and is experienced in preservation, and helps you do the homework. We rely a lot on our local preservation officers. Miami has a fairly good collection of archives, that’s been very helpful. We’ve relied a lot on Dade Heritage Trust and the universities here. Arva Moore is probably the premier historian for Miami, she just did a new book on George Merrick (former real estate developer and planner of Coral Gables, Florida). It’s not just the architecture of the buildings, it’s also culturally what was going on and how do you capture that?
Some buildings are very difficult and can’t be saved. In Miami, a building up for demolition deemed unsafe overrides everything. Miami has done a very good job of encouraging more property owners who might have let their properties go into further disrepair.
If they know they have an alternative, a compromise, I think you will see more architectural elements of buildings saved, which is the goal. Miami has given good direction to people like myself so that we can achieve the results that we all want.
Who are some of your biggest influencers?
My mother’s family came over on the second passing on the Mayflower. They were a family of house movers. I remember seeing a photograph of my great-great-grandfather moving a house with horse and buggy and logs. That’s pretty cool. It was always about preserving the house. I remember as a kid, growing up in Sacramento, California, my grandfather lifting a house on blocks. They didn’t knock them down—they moved them.
My father is all about sustainability. He’s an environmental engineer. Preservation really is sustainability. The best thing you can do is save what you have. My upbringing has influenced me. My idea of neighborhood and community has influenced me.
What’s your dream preservation project?
I can never think beyond my own backyard. I think it was the Vagabond. But now I have the River Inn. It’s the oldest hotel in Miami. So many people don’t know it exists. That definitely is a passion project.
You shouldn’t have to book a hotel room for people to experience it. The goal is to get people to come and experience the property. Not in a museum kind of way, but in a lifestyle kind of way. That would be our mission. How do we bring lifestyle into historic preservation, so that more people can experience it, and so historic properties are relevant today?
“I think that’s something we could all be doing ... as a preservation community: getting our children to see these places, enjoy these places.”Avra Jain
You have a 10-year-old daughter. Is she interested in your work?
She loves it. She went up to the bartender at the Vagabond and ordered “the usual” (cranberry and orange juice) and said, “One day I’m going to be your boss.” She would come to the building site all the time. She loves it, and loves what Mommy does, and that makes me really proud.
I think that’s something we could all be doing as a community, as a preservation community: getting our children to see these places, enjoy these places. Imagine how that ripple effect has impact going forward.
A couple of my workers for the Vagabond site had stayed there as kids. For the local workers, it’s personal for them too. They take a lot of pride. They bring their kids by and show them. Preservation really starts there. If the kids start thinking that way, then when they get older, then they care, and they’ll want to buy a house and fix it up themselves or they’ll want to make sure a building gets saved. They will support and stay at places where people have made those investments.