Brian Scheinblum’s drive to turn a weary hotel belle in South Beach into a laboratory for the latest in environmentally sensitive operations has been lonely, but it seems he’s no longer a voice in the wilderness. While change comes slowly in this trendy section of Miami Beach, being in the forefront of the green hotel movement may well pay off. In a city that puts a premium on appearance, the Hotel Clifton renovation goes far beyond facelift.

Scheinblum is the soft-spoken head of Cambean Hospitality, a collection of four South Beach hotels that total 205 rooms and share management and operational practices. He hopes the Clifton, the imminent star of the bunch and the only Cambean Earth property, kicks distinctively green butt starting mid-April, when the 35-room, 61-year-old Collins Avenue hotel reopens, potentially becoming the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified hotel in Florida and the first LEED-certified historic hotel in the country.

Cambean Earth is Scheinblum’s environmental brand. A percentage of Cambean Earth room sale profits will go toward such projects as the Everglades Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving Florida’s singular—and essential—habitat. Such partnerships speak to Scheinblum’s philosophy. So do sustainable hotel operations like high-efficiency, dual-flush toilets, low-flow faucets, heat recovery units, and, possibly, solar and wind power, all of which either figure in the Clifton—or will.

“I believe there’s a business model that can be successful while being a good steward of our planet,” Scheinblum said during an interview in early January. “In our energy modeling for the Clifton, we’re going to end up with somewhere between 30 and 40 percent savings on energy cost, which will flow to the bottom line.

“The reason we chose the Clifton as our LEED project was very simple,” he says. “When we bought the property we knew we’d do a major renovation, but we decided to take the building all the way down to the shell and rebuild it as a sustainable property.”

Getting the city on board

Scheinblum has been working on upgrading the Clifton since summer 2007, and it’s been challenging. Still, he says, he’d do it all over again with another property, particularly if the economy improves and financing once again becomes available. Meanwhile, the city seems ready to stand behind him, working with him to provide a handicapped-accessible ramp and perhaps, as Scheinblum has requested, make parking for hybrid vehicles available near the small hotel.

“It looks like a fabulous project,” says Miami Beach Commissioner Saul Gross, head of the commission’s sustainability, or “green” committee. “We’re very excited he (Scheinblum) is making that kind of investment in our community, particularly with a green building.”

Scheinblum has criticized Miami Beach for not moving fast enough to adopt an ordinance that includes incentives for property owners to build projects that meet LEED standards, but Gross suggested such an ordinance is near adoption—and Scheinblum might qualify for its benefits. “The ordinance had been adopted by the sustainability committee before I was even aware that Brian was doing a LEED project at the Clifton,” Gross says.

For now, Scheinblum is preoccupied with making sure the Clifton opens April 15, a week before Earth Day. While the economy worries this local boy, he predicts it will be the only hotel set to open in the city this year (including a W on Collins) that will be profitable.

“I think it has some inherent value these other projects don’t,” he says. “There’s a lot of competition in this market right now, a lot of price-cutting; we want to maintain our rates. We feel we’ve got a product nobody else has.” (He’s contemplating a year-round average ADR of $140.)

“We’re going to get to corporations that are mandating green and LEED travel, and government agencies,” he says. “We’re only 35 rooms, and can hopefully fill the hotel with that type of business without having to do major discounting on online booking engines. From Day One, we’ll be extremely cautious with our marketing.”

The Cambean vibe

When I visited in January, the Clifton was a work in progress. The old sign was still in place, as mandated by the city’s powerful historic preservation committee, and the exterior had been preserved and updated. The “terrazzo” wall in the lobby, which Scheinblum and his partners had wanted to eliminate, was there, too. But the hotel was far from ready for occupancy, so Cambean put me up in the Nash, a 54-room property of similar vintage. My stay gave me clues to the Cambean approach.

My third-floor mini-suite was compact but felt spacious. It’s the kind of lodging that tells you why people come to South Beach: to revel in cool and be seen. It had a front room with an L-shaped sofa, a desk with easy-access plugs, good Wi-Fi and the de rigueur ergonomic chair. The flat-screen television above the desk was cool, as was its sibling in the bedroom, just off the front room; low lighting bracketed the king-size bed on the spare wooden platform. A full-length mirror faced the bed, enhancing the feeling of spaciousness. The bedroom area also contained a deco-styled, Nash-branded clock. The bathroom, unusually large for a South Beach boutique hotel, had a largely glassed-in shower, a long sink, a low-flow toilet and matte-tiled walls. The ambience was cool, comforting and ultramodern, the textures honed to soothe.

According to Scheinblum, the same partners own Cambean hotels, with LLCs for each property. Besides the Clifton and Nash, they are the 49-room Majestic and the 67-room Carlton, which also offers a large pool. “The only way to have these be complementary and have the same amenities is to be managed together,” he says. “We didn’t see flags as the future for South Beach.” With traditionally high occupancy and ADR, he says, Cambean didn’t see the need for a chain loyalty program or reservation system.

Besides, the Cambeans can sell each other, says Scheinblum, particularly now that the collection features an Ocean Drive hotel, the Majestic. Scheinblum imagines a conversation ensuing from a stay at, say, the Clifton: “A couple comes down, has a great time, the wife says, next time, why don’t we stay on the beach?”

Staying green—and local

Although Scheinblum has never worked in a hotel, the field “has always been sort of a hobby of mine,” he says. “My background is really as a real estate developer. The opportunity presented itself. The timing was right when we bought the property here.” He’s speaking of the Carlton, which Cambean bought in 2006.

The Clifton is special, as it exemplifies “something I hold dear: the environment, sustainability, renewable resources—things I have had a great focus on personally, (as have) my wife and the rest of my family.”

Getting his partners onto the bandwagon wasn’t that easy; these philanthropic businessmen were skeptical of costs involved in greening the Clifton, as mandated by the city’s historic preservation committee. “It took trust,” Scheinblum says. And money. While he won’t say what was spent on the Clifton, a traditional renovation could have saved 30 percent.

“If I wasn’t doing LEED on this building, I wouldn’t have done as much demolition or changed every system,” he says. “This is a model project for Miami Beach. We’re looking at this not just to have a LEED property to put in our portfolio. We’re looking at this project as something to educate people. And costs are going to come down.

“If any of the surveys are true, that people are willing to pay 15 to 20 percent more for a green hotel stay, there’s a benefit,” Scheinblum says. “Today’s economy may make things a little more difficult, but there are obviously some opportunities.”