The Royalton has occupied a corner in downtown Miami since 1923—sometimes as an architectural gem, other times as an eyesore. In the beginning, guests poured in, attracted by the elegant Classic Revivalist style and deluxe accommodations. By the 1990s, however, the building had disintegrated into a low-rate, flea-infested motel. Today, however, the 43,706-square-foot building has been transformed, both in appearance and purpose. Restored to pristine historic condition, the Royalton now provides housing for individuals who were at one time homeless.
“Being able to pair those two things up—a renovation that is beautiful and historically accurate and [the] creation of housing for these needy people—is very novel, ambitious, and a win-win all around,” says Matt Greer, CEO of Miami-based Carlisle Development Group, one of the co-developers of the Royalton.
A Group Effort
The idea of reinventing the Royalton began with Miami-based Carrfour Supportive Housing, a nonprofit that provides supportive housing for the formerly homeless. Carrfour, which works closely with the City of Miami in its ongoing effort to reduce homelessness, was seeking a way to provide homeless housing in downtown Miami. By offering housing in an area where these individuals are comfortable and accustomed to receiving services, Carrfour believed it could achieve the most success.
What’s more, Carrfour realized that the combination of low-income and historic preservation tax credits could finance the Royalton restoration. The nonprofit approached the Carlisle Group to team up on the project, seeking Carlisle’s expertise in historic restoration and multifamily development.
Carlisle spearheaded the financing effort—an overwhelming task. About $18.5 million was obtained from various sources, including the City of Miami, the National Park Service, and the State of Florida. Carrfour and Carlisle obtained additional funding under a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program administered by the Miami-Dade Housing Agency. Function and Form
Renovation of the Royalton had two priorities. One was historic restoration that would meet the National Park Service standards; another was safe, functional housing for residents. Fortunately, the two goals never conflicted—in fact, some aspects of the restoration were made easier by the building’s new purpose. For example, old hotels such as the Royalton have units that would be considered painfully small by modern standards. If the building were to be restored for market-rate or luxury housing, the interior would need to be gutted and new room layouts established. For this purpose, however, former hotel rooms converted into 200- to 265-square-foot studios were entirely appropriate.
The 100 units were designed for functionality, not luxury. “The units are clean and efficient with high-wear paint and fixtures,” Greer says. Each unit includes a small kitchen and bathroom and is furnished with a bed, table, stove, refrigerator, and microwave. Twelve units are fully handicap-accessible and feature roll-in showers and wheelchair-accessible sinks. The building also includes more than 6,000 square feet of public spaces, including offices for Carrfour, classrooms for training sessions, a TV and meeting room, and a computer lab.
In contrast to the strict practicality of individual units, the façade and lobby were painstakingly restored to their original luxury. Microscopic paint studies identified the original paint colors, analysis of old photos enabled recreation of the original coffered ceilings, and terrazzo floors were uncovered and restored. The building features “an elaborate classical style with columns, articulated capitals, and a lot of ornamentation on the façade,” says Royalton preservation consultant Scott Strawbridge, then-owner of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Residential Redevelopment Corp. and current director of development and facility for the Housing Authority of Fort Lauderdale.
While the Royalton was an unusual case, Strawbridge says it’s historic preservation at its best. “Historic buildings are worthless unless they’re occupied,” he says. “If you can’t activate the building and give it a purpose, it doesn’t have any value. This is the brilliant story of the Royalton—a lifeless building now serves 100 transitioning homeless people.”
Restoration With a Purpose
Potential residents of the Royalton go through a screening process with Carrfour; they must be drug- and alcohol-free for a minimum of six months before moving in. Rents depend on income. Supportive services offered on-site by Carrfour include case management, employment training, recovery support, life skills training, financial literacy training, and social activities. The goal is to help residents become fully functioning members of the community.
This might not have been an obvious goal for the site, Greer says. The building could have been torn down and replaced with high-end condos or apartments more in line with other downtown Miami projects. “But what message does that send—that we don’t value anything historically beautiful?”
The Royalton, Greer says, proclaims that Miami values both its past and the most vulnerable members of its society. “It says we don’t warehouse our poor. We don’t segregate them,” he says. And the residents are able to live “somewhere that helps them generate self-respect.” Elizabeth Lunday is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.
Overcome Difficult interruptions to workflow with these strategies.
1. Be patient and persistent. The restoration of the Royalton wouldn’t have been possible if Carlisle and Carrfour had not sought out every funding source, explored every option, fulfilled every requirement, and worked incredibly hard to obtain tax credits and grants.
2. You can never do too much preservation. The original plan for the Royalton didn’t include microscopic paint analysis to match the new paint colors to the old, but in the end, this was done to help satisfy the National Park Service requirements. “It’s like putting money in the bank,” says Scott Strawbridge, director of development and facility for the Housing Authority of Fort Lauderdale. “If you’re going for tax credits, do as much as you can—more than you promised—because you might have promised something else that’s not possible to deliver.”
3. Get the community behind you. Both Strawbridge and Matt Greer, CEO of Miami-based Carlisle Development Group, emphasized that the Royalton would not have happened without the support of the local government, nonprofit agencies, and the citizens of Miami. “It starts with a great nonprofit, a great mayor, and great community policy. As a developer, we aligned those forces and fashioned them into something unique, but it’s not something we could have created from whole cloth,” Greer says.