As the Miami skyline constantly evolves, developer Ugo Colombo remains a towering presence.
A native of Italy, he arrived in the U.S. in 1983 to attend the University of Miami. Four years later, he founded the CMC Group and soon became immersed in the local real estate scene. His projects, Bristol Tower and Santa Maria on Brickell Avenue, are credited with shaping the style of condominium towers that is dominating today’s building boom.
Despite a string of hurdles, Colombo stays busy. In recent months, he secured a $74 million refinancing for high-end car dealership The Collection in Coral Gables, recruited Douglas Elliman Florida’s former CEO Vanessa Grout to handle CMC’s sales and marketing, and kicked off sales at Miami Beach oceanfront project Beach House 8. Colombo also won a $2 million lawsuit against the Craig Robins-led Dacra Development, which he had accused of withholding maintenance fees on a private jet they owned together.
The CMC chief talked with The Real Deal about recovering from a failed Miami Beach Convention Center bid, a potential market slowdown and how Italy has influenced his work.
How much has Miami changed since you first looked at projects in the 1980s?
Miami has steadily grown since the 1980s. As we all know, we went through an excess in growth that resulted in a market correction, along with a financial crisis. Miami has recovered in record time, faster than any other city.
Have the condo boom and current market prices affected how you do business at the moment?
I backed out from new developments before the market went down and I hedged my risk with the properties I had under construction. Now I see great opportunities on the horizon, especially with interior pockets of land.
Do you think another housing bubble is underway?
The last cycle of condominium sales was highly speculative, with buyers purchasing blocks of units in a building with less than 10 percent down. When the market turned, buyers simply walked away from the problem. Now buyers are putting down up to 50 percent for a preconstruction condominium. Miami is gaining in popularity. Should too many projects come to the market, we might see a slowdown of presales, which could result in a slowdown in development.
Do you see any parallels between the South Florida real estate game and the market in Italy?
I try to bring the quality and design of Italy to Miami. Much of our products like kitchens, bathrooms, doors and fixtures are sourced from there.
CMC lost the bid to develop the Miami Beach Convention Center last year. You were cleared of wrongdoing in the bid-rigging probe, and city commissioners scrapped the project in January. In retrospect, what are your thoughts on that whole experience?
Yes, we were cleared of all wrongdoing. It was a great learning experience to do business in a different arena than what I was familiar with.
What do you think will make Beach House 8 stand out on Collins Avenue? What is the status of that project?
This is one of the only luxury boutique projects with direct ocean views for every residence. The objective is that each full floor residence will feel like a private home on the beach. We hired Italian architect Michele Bonan, who also designed JK Place in Capri and locally, Grovenor House and Casa Tua. We’re scheduled to break ground in May.
You bought the Baru Urbano site in Brickell last year for $21 million. What are your plans for it?
Yes, this is the Flatiron site. We plan to build a tall condo tower with a retail and restaurant component. We’re in the planning stages now. It’s an interesting piece of land. The curvature of the bay actually creates water views from all sides of the building.
Do you prefer to be hands-on with your architects’ design proposals?
I enjoy being involved in nearly every aspect of my projects. I believe the process with my architects should be a collaborative one. This is really my favorite part of the project. I feel I have a handle on what people want.
What’s next for you?
We actually have several projects coming to market soon. These projects will be equal in quality to what I’ve done in the past. Each project will have a unique story with superior designers and architects.