The Closing: Todd Michael Glaser
South Florida’s most audacious spec developer on flipping the Jeffrey Epstein estate, his Tarpon Island project and his dream to transform Miami Beach
Development is brain damage, at any budget. So if you’re signing up for it, says Todd Michael Glaser, you might as well aim for the stratosphere.
“The problem is, to build a three-bedroom, two bath, $400,000 house and build a $200 million house, every part, every moving part, is the same — it’s just more money,” Glaser said. “So why would I choose to build a $400,000 house 400 times when I can build one $200 million house? You gotta buy it. You gotta permit it. You gotta build it. You gotta sell it. So that was always my attitude.”
Glaser is perhaps South Florida’s most audacious spec home developer, willing to push the limits of luxury and wrenching South Florida prices into a realm once reserved for the Hamptons and Malibu. He’s built homes for celebrities Michael Bay, Chris Bosh, Hulk Hogan, Billy Joel, Alex Rodriguez and Lil Wayne, and collaborated with Lennar chairman Stuart Miller on a spec mansion project on man-made Star Island.
The surfing, pot-smoking, antique car–collecting Miami Beach lifer is okay with the glare that can come with taking on infamous properties, such as the Palm Beach mansion of the late financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, and the Miami Beach home out of where gangster Al Capone supposedly planned the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Glaser is now kicking off his ballsiest project yet: the redevelopment of a mansion on Tarpon Island, the only private island on Palm Beach. Glaser paid $85 million in April for the 2.5-acre island, accessible only by bridge and boat, after a long courtship with the sellers, and hopes to sell the completed project for north of $200 million, which would make it one of the most expensive residences in the U.S.
The Real Deal caught up with him to discuss his childhood growing up inside the iconic Americana hotel, navigating the wild Miami Beach of the 1980s — in one sentence, he managed to reference Rosie O’Donnell, Jimmy Carter and the marijuana-smuggling Black Tuna Gang — how he’d like to transform his hometown, his approach to love and family and the business of building for the very, very rich.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Born: January 11, 1964
Hometown: Miami Beach
Family: Wife Kim, and four children
What was it like growing up in Miami during the cocaine cowboys days?
The seventies was, go visit your grandparents on Ocean Drive. We would surf and nobody ever bothered us. And then in the early eighties, going down to South Beach we got pulled over for no reason. And the police were like, “You’re here either to buy drugs, sell drugs, or you’re idiots.” And I said, “Well, the waves are really good.” And they’re like, “You’re taking your life in your own hands.” [But the drug gangs] were killing each other. As long as you didn’t get in the way, you were okay.
You had a pretty unusual path into the development business, starting off as a fire-sprinkler designer.
When I started in the sprinkler business, I wrote “D U C K” for an air-conditioner duct. And that office had a big laugh for years.
I started doing high-rises and in a high-rise meeting, you’d have 40 subcontractors. And they would make me wait till the very end and they’d have 10 minutes of conversation, but I’d have to sit through nine hours of torment. So I finally said, “You know what, let me just learn.”
What was your first real estate deal?
It was a $180,000 house. You had to put $30,000 down. It’s on Lincoln, that runs parallel with Tigertail, and eight blocks took me an hour. So the next day I’m thinking to myself this is the worst thing I ever bought, because I didn’t check it at 4:30 in the afternoon and the realtors made sure I never saw that.
About four days later, I get a knock. It’s Publix saying we want to shoot a Christmas commercial in your house. I said, “How much?” and they said $28,000. And I’m like, “That’s two years of my mortgage.” I turned it into a business. Any time I finished a house, I would send it to all the production companies.
One of your homes was featured in “War Dogs,” about two arms dealers. But there’s more to that tale.
These boys [Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz] showed up one day. 2228 Park Avenue was a townhouse we had. They paid one year in advance and they were in and out, in and out, never a problem. One day we got a phone call from the attorneys saying they’re not coming back. I knew a lot of the shenanigans they were doing, so when I met [director] Todd Phillips and he was looking for the house, he actually found me and I gave him great stories.
You made a killing by flipping Al Capone’s Miami Beach home. A $5 million profit in a couple of months.
If I would’ve brought it to fruition, we would’ve made a lot more. So in essence, I lost because of it.
I’m a homebuilder, you understand? Now I’m looking for my next deal at the market price and I’ve driven the price up. It’s a lose-lose in a sense because you make the money, but you got to put it somewhere and now you’re paying more money because the market’s strong.
You also bought Jeffrey Epstein’s former mansion in Palm Beach, which played a central role in his alleged sex-trafficking schemes. Are you not afraid of being associated with such toxic properties?
I’m the guy who knocked it down and I’m the guy who flipped it. A guy from South Africa bought it and didn’t care about the whole personification of it because he didn’t give a shit because he never heard about it because he’s from South Africa. Some people’s wives were like, “no way would I ever live there!” Well, then you’re not my buyer.
There’s no downside other than me getting in the public eye which I really don’t like to get in too much —
You say you don’t like it, but your website has every press mention of you dating back to the ‘80s.
Right now, I’m dealing with someone who wants me to build his house in Indian Creek, very high profile. And I sent him a house that I did at 30 Star [Island] that we built in nine months. He’s like, “It’ll never happen.” And then I sent him another job of aerial photography that we did in eight months — for [porn mogul] Kristopher Hinson, the guy from “Bang Bus.”
So it’s really a tool for me before Instagram that I used just to document. The other reason is the city inspector comes in and says, “That column wasn’t there.” I’m like, “Here’s aerial photography.”
You’ve worked and been around a lot of A-list celebs.
I’ve known [DJ] Khaled since he’s 20, 21. I was at [director] Brett Ratner’s house in 1993 and some guy jumps over the wall at 2 at night and hits the ground with a thud and he jumps up and it’s Puffy [P.Diddy]. I’ve been around Hulk Hogan. For me, it’s not impressive other than they’re very talented at what they do.
What does money mean to you?
It’s really more important for my family. I wear the same clothes.
How much cash do you have in your wallet?
A lot. I’m a cash guy. Usually I have $4,000 or $5,000. ’Cause I’m the type of guy that if a job site’s behind and it’s late at night and everybody’s packing up, I’ll throw $500 to each group. And the next thing you know, they’re working.
What are you like as a boss?
I expect what I pay for. If I’m paying you a lot of money, then I want Wagyu beef. And if I’m getting chopped sirloin, you’re going to have a big problem with me, because I don’t like overpaying. But I don’t ever let a subcontractor underbid something either. If I take three bids and one guy’s at a 100, one’s at 97 and another guy’s at 60, I’ll call him and say, “Listen, you missed something.” So I’m not going to sign the contract, get him for 60, and have him go out of business.
You’ve had a lot of success, and the numbers are getting bigger. Do you have a point where you’re like, “I’m good?”
Hopefully by [the age of] 60, I’ll sell Tarpon Island. And I’m buying a property from the owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for $53 million in Palm Beach. So those are going to be possibly my last hurrahs. We’re very into dogs. That’s what I’d like to do for the rest of my life, be able to train dogs, to be able to place them in families. I have that dog whisper.
How did you meet your wife?
It was 1988, at Miami Beach High. And I saw Kim walking. She was 14 at the time. I stayed away until she was 16.
I was pretty promiscuous at the time, so she was scared to death of me. But for 16 years, I chased her. During the time I was hanging out with her, she had a boyfriend, an Argentinian soccer player. He came to my house. We used to fight with our fists — no one even kicked at the time. Son of a bitch headbutted me. Reason he did it is because he asked, “What do you do with my girlfriend?” I said, “I’m going to be marrying her.” And I married her.
What has fatherhood meant to you?
One word. Change.
One of your marquee projects is One Thousand Museum at 1000 Biscayne Boulevard. But it’s not been an easy ride there — you and your partners had to stave off a foreclosure attempt by the Reuben Brothers.
They knew we were refinancing. They knew we were taking an inventory loan. They just want to be assholes. But the best thing in the world is, everybody now knows the Reuben Brothers that are coming to town to lend money are hardass son of a bitches. So they’ve really hurt themselves.
One Thousand Museum was more of a passion project for me. It was the ability for me to build 83 houses at one time. It wasn’t two-bedroom, two-baths. Every unit was a penthouse. I can always drive past and my family, my kids, and everybody will know that I was involved.
In a perfect world, what’s your next moonshot project?
I would like to buy every single Art Deco building from 17th Street to Fifth, West Avenue to Collins. Picture that. They’re all efficiencies and one-bedrooms. And say you have a 16-unit building, each one has four doors. What I’d like to do is buy everything and turn these things into 1,800- to 2,600-square-foot, three-bedroom, four-bedroom townhouses.
So a 16-unit building would turn into a four-unit building, and they’d be $2.5 million to $4 million each. And if you did the entire area, and then you took Ocean Drive and closed it, you put Gucci and everybody on the first floor of all those hotels, you moored out big, beautiful yachts that got tendered in. You had all the beach clubs from the hotels, and you turned this place into a world-class city like in Europe. And you would have these amazing townhouses, the streets would be gorgeous. A lot of these buildings have alleys behind them, so you can capture some of the apartments at the bottom, turn them into parking.
I pitched [Blackstone CEO] Steve Schwartzman one day in Palm Beach. [Starwood Capital’s] Barry Sternlicht, I tried to pitch him. It is probably the most valuable underdeveloped real estate in the world right now.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Anybody that says to you, “I guarantee it,” run.
What’s your biggest regret?
I don’t think I have one. I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do. I’m a simple guy. I’m not very social, I’m not very big on people. I don’t want to hear, “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown…” I just want to know Jack’s dead.