Israeli-born and Brooklyn-raised, Miami-based developer Asi Cymbal has been making waves lately in South Florida. Last night Cymbal’s team won Fort Lauderdale’s approval for Marina Lofts, a controversial proposal that involved relocating a century-old Florida rain tree into a new park and using the site for the 800-plus-unit Marina Lofts, a condo complex on the south bank of the New River designed by renowned Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. “I was not anticipating a 4-0 unanimous approval,” Cymbal told TRD of his reaction to the vote, which concluded around 3 a.m. after more than 120 people, including Ingels, approached the dais. “This really speaks to the courage of our city leaders in creating and following through with a transformative roadmap for Fort Lauderdale,” Cymbal said.
Elsewhere in South Florida, the 44-year-old lawyer and developer has properties in Miami’s Midtown and Design District. He made a splash netting $11 million for a half-block of contiguous buildings in the Design District to Dacra developer Craig Robins, who is using the space to build a high-end shopping mall. Cymbal’s Miami base is Midtown, with the company offices on the second floor of one of their properties, Gigi. The following interview was conducted in Cymbal’s cow-hide sofa and carpeted office above the restaurant after the jump.
What is your full name?
Asaf Cymbal, but I prefer to go by Asi.
Where and when were you born?
Petach Tikva, a little town in Israel, in April 1969.
How did you end up in Brooklyn?
As a baby. They were very difficult times in Israel, and the idea then was that if you moved to the United States, you would be much better off financially. My father has a brother who was an auto mechanic living in Coney Island, and my father’s a house painter, so he went to paint houses in Brooklyn. My parents divorced when I was 7 or 8, and at that point, [my mom, sister and I] moved back to Israel for a couple of years. I loved it there; it was black and white between a public housing project in Brooklyn and being in an open-air, kid-friendly environment in Israel. But we moved back to the U.S., back to the same public housing project, Trump Village, built by Donald Trump’s father.
Do you ever go back to Coney Island?
I do not. I was highly motivated to improve my life and so I kept on pushing forward and out. For me, it was a very difficult way to grow up.
You have said your mother’s work in real estate took the family out of poverty.
Yes. She was a bookkeeper in a tie factory and had moved to a small rental building that turned co-op, so she borrowed money from friends and family to buy a unit at an insider price. And she ended up making more money in that deal than from a year working at the factory.
Do you work together today?
Yes, she’s a partner in this building and an investor in our projects. We’ve made a lot of money for her, which I’m very, very proud of.
How did you land in Miami?
I knew I was coming to Miami about 15 years ago, but I wasn’t ready for it. I had an amazing opportunity in New York (working for real estate developer Shaya Boymelgreen, who had just signed a partnership with diamond magnate Lev Leviev and his company Africa Israel to develop mixed-use projects in Manhattan) but I wanted to come to Miami, so I convinced [my mom] to come down here first, then my sister came down here from Chicago after graduating with a PhD in psychology, and then a couple years later, I came down.
You’ve mentioned South Florida’s diversity as something that really appeals to you.
I feel more comfortable in a completely mixed socioeconomic environment.
Do you think you’ll achieve that in Marina Lofts?
100 percent. That’s the whole vision. You don’t have to be rich to live there (studios will start at $1,100 per month), you just have to be likeminded, to care about architecture, design, the environment. I don’t identify with the demographic living in penthouses. I identify with those living in a 450-square-foot studio, because that’s how I’ve lived for most of my adult life.
How did your childhood shape the kinds of projects you’re drawn to?
Access to design, access to luxury, because I’m very sensitive to the fact that most people don’t have that access. I went to a very tough high school, Lincoln High School, where I had to pass through metal detectors every day, and then I went to Vassar, an amazing opportunity that changed my life completely. It introduced me to design.
All these people around me were talking seriously about art. I didn’t know what art was. I never went to an art museum ‘til I went to college.
You said you spent more than $15 million on Marina Lofts even before finding out it was approved. You seem to have a great appetite for risk.
History’s made by people who reach and have the courage to take risks, and that’s what drives me.