Dev Motwani is excited about downtown Fort Lauderdale. The Fort Lauderdale resident and president of Merrimac Ventures grew up in the neighborhood, where his family owned and operated a motel.
Now, Motwani, a supporter of a new master plan for the area’s North Beach Village, is implementing his own pedestrian-friendly components at the Gale Boutique Hotel & Residences, such as wide sidewalks, shade trees, and bike racks. The Real Deal sat down with Motwani to discuss the area’s future.
Tell us about the city’s master plan process for North Beach Village.
The city of Fort Lauderdale has hired RMA Associates to look at the village and really take it to the next level, look at other modes of transportation, look at the public infrastructure, adding shade tress. The people behind RMA were really instrumental in the creation of downtown Delray, among other areas. They’ve had a number of stakeholder meetings, and we’re waiting to see the initial draft. RMA understands about creating that active pedestrian environment and retail, and that’s what we’ve been missing in the area. We have a lot of hotel rooms, but not a lot of retail or cohesion. So that’s what we’re looking for.
If we create that environment, it’s going to pay back in spades.
How did you end up in South Florida?
My family moved to Fort Lauderdale in the mid-80s to get into the hotel/motel business. What Fort Lauderdale had at the time was the motel business targeting the spring break destination. We moved from St. Charles, Missouri. We had family that owned a motel down here. We bought a place right on Fort Lauderdale Beach to be right in the middle of the action, or so we thought. Immediately after we moved here, the city kicked out spring break.
Fort Lauderdale Beach started to transition from the moment we arrived.
Where do you live?
I live in a house in downtown Fort Lauderdale. After growing up living in a motel with a lot of neighbors, it’s nice to have my own space.
What are you working on right now?
We’re doing the Gale Boutique Hotel & Residences. It’s cool for me because the property is in the neighborhood that we grew up in. My family lived in the motel. It was called the Merrimac, which is why our company is called Merrimac Ventures. As a kid, this was my neighborhood. It’s where I rode my bike; it’s where my friends were. For me, this property was always a big component of the neighborhood. It’s 2.5 acres — a full city block. For the time we lived [in the area], it was an assisted living facility.
You’d always hear stories about how it was the place to be and how it really created the neighborhood. It’s cool to be retrofitting it, renovating it and reopening it as a boutique hotel. We’re also doing the Four Seasons in Fort Lauderdale.
Both are in presales while we finish out the design for the hotels and interiors. Hopefully we’ll get started on construction between late this year and early next year.
Why the Gale brand?
I’m friends with Keith Menin and Jared Galbut and I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done. I really enjoy the Gale on South Beach. It’s the kind of place where you have a local vibe, it’s right off the beach and in a great location, it’s a great value to the consumer, and I just felt like the food and beverage was really exciting. From my perspective, I was excited to bring them to Fort Lauderdale because I’d say they’re a step beyond the edginess and hipness of Fort Lauderdale but it didn’t take it too far too fast. It’s still a growing market.
I see the Gale as the next evolution of the market and catering to the young professionals.
When the Gale was the Escape Hotel, developed by Bob Gill, it was the first hotel with an outdoor swimming pool that was open year-round. In addition to that, it has this great jazz, piano bar that served as a gathering place for locals. It was a central component of the neighborhood. We think it’s a perfect fit to create a gem in the neighborhood. It’s one of the only historically designated properties in the area. It’s important for me to celebrate that. We’re recreating that pool where the restaurant was, which we’ll open to the public. We’ll be revitalizing the purposes it served in the past.
What’s the history behind the Las Olas Riverfront and when did you get involved?
It’s kind of like a Cocowalk/Bayside project. All entertainment-oriented retail that was anchored by a movie theater. The property was developed in the ’90s, so it had that Mediterranean feel. It really kick-started development in downtown Fort Lauderdale. But the property was shut down for redevelopment toward the end of the last cycle, and then it sat vacant through the downturn. We purchased it a few years ago with an eye for redevelopment. We’re looking at [making it] a large scale mixed-use project with residences, hotel, retail and possibly office.
Now, we’ve got Las Olas Boulevard and a lot of great things happening, but you don’t have a lot of activation. We need to activate it.
We’re talking to a number of joint venture development partners. It’s a big undertaking. It’s a 4-acre site that will have a number of uses: retail, residential, some commercial, a hotel.
How do you and your brother Nitin work together?
The responsibilities are divided, but we’re business partners on the majority of our projects. We act as sounding boards for each other. We’re very close, and we didn’t want our work relationship to affect our personal relationship. He can’t argue with me and I can’t argue with him. With the family business, we’ve been working together our whole lives. My father passed away 20 years ago, and we were both in high school. My mom took over the business. We were both involved, but we were very young.
Even through college, after college when we both lived in New York, we were still involved. It wasn’t until he moved back to Florida and then I moved back where we had to figure out how to divide up the work. It just kind of naturally happened that Miami Worldcenter came out as an opportunity for us to get involved that would require him full-time. I’ve stayed in Fort Lauderdale to oversee our family business, which is what the Four Seasons is. But I’ve also created a real estate fund to do a number of other projects, which is what the Gale is. He has more influence on the family stuff, less so on my real estate fund.
Are you the older or younger brother?
I’m the younger brother.
What else is going on?
We just finished getting approvals on a luxury apartment building in the Flagler Village neighborhood. That project is being developed by Fairfield Residential.
We’re less on the land-banking side and more on identifying a site, creating a vision, going through the design and entitlement process, and then depending on the site, either doing a joint venture with someone like at the Gale and the Four Seasons, or sell them if there’s a more appropriate ground-up developer, or in select cases, develop them ourselves.
My brother is developing Paramount Fort Lauderdale. That’s a project that I acquired and sold to them. There is a little bit of crossover because it’s my brother’s project and I sold it to them. It was a good opportunity and we already had a lot going on. It was nice to keep it in the family.
Did you cut him a deal?
No, no. They paid market.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.