Ellen Buckley gears up development firm following nearly a decade at Terra

CEO of Coral Gables-based Prospera Real Estate is starting her pipeline with a North Miami townhome project, amid a difficult time in the market

Ex-Terra Exec Ellen Buckley Gears Up Own Development Firm
Prospera Real Estate's Ellen Buckley

During her nearly decade run at Terra, Ellen Buckley managed $6 billion in South Florida real estate projects from concept to final design. But after rising in the ranks to vice president overseeing development at David Martin’s Coconut Grove-based firm, Buckley found no more room to grow professionally. 

So last year, the 44-year-old developer left Terra to start her own firm, Coral Gables-based Prospera Real Estate, which recently submitted a site plan with Miami-Dade County for its inaugural project, 37 townhomes called Faith Place Village near North Miami. She is also laying the groundwork for a senior living project in Florida’s St. Lucie County and a master-planned community in Austin, Texas, Buckley told The Real Deal

“I think I reached my professional ceiling at [Terra],” Buckley said in a soft, assertive voice. “I have a personal drive to realize my vision for my own projects.” 

Buckley picked a turbulent time to plant her own flag, leaving behind the stability of a high-ranking position with one of Miami’s most successful builders. While new development in South Florida has remained strong compared to other major real estate markets nationwide, the region is not immune to conditions that make it more difficult for new projects to get off the ground. Developers are finding it harder to recruit capital investors, while having to deal with skittish lenders and a higher interest rate environment. 

Yet, Buckley is confident she’s more than ready for the challenge of steering her start-up during less than favorable market conditions. 

“I think one of the hard lessons in real estate is [navigating] through difficulty and uncertainty,” she said. “There is a marketing risk, a financial risk and a political risk. And certainly the most obvious one is that I am a woman in a male-dominated industry.” 

Overseeing signature projects 

When Buckley joined Terra in 2013, among her first assignments was co-project manager of Park Grove, a three-tower condominium complex completed between 2018 and 2020 in Coconut Grove, said David Martin, Terra’s CEO and co-founder. The firm and its partner, Coconut Grove-based Related Group, built Park Grove with $286 million in financing. 

During her tenure, she oversaw a handful of Terra’s signature projects, including the $400 million Grand Hyatt-branded Miami Beach convention center hotel that will be co-developed with Aventura-based Turnberry; and Grove Central, a mixed-use development next to the Coconut Grove Metrorail Station, Martin said. Terra and co-developer Grass River, also based in Coconut Grove, recently completed that project, which was built with a $204.5 million construction loan. 

Buckley’s duties primarily entailed working with architects, engineers and consultants in the planning, zoning and design phases of Terra projects, Martin said. 

“[Buckley] worked with the teams of professionals focused more on the pre-construction side of the business,” Martin said. “She has good passion. I am very happy with her progress and her growth here. I wish her the best.” 

Some of Buckley’s colleagues told TRD that leaving Terra at her peak may seem crazy, but that she had run out of milestones to achieve at the firm.

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“She is clearly not risk-averse,” said Al Dotson, managing partner of Miami law firm Bilzin Sumberg. “She is not only ready [to start her own firm], but she is clearly in a position to be very successful at it.” 

Dotson’s firm represents Terra and Prospera on planning and zoning matters. He’s seen Buckley take charge by pushing project consultants to meet deadlines, hobnob with elected and government officials, give sales teams guidance about unit specifications and exhibit other characteristics of successful developers. 

“In many meetings with her, ‘can’t do it’ was not an option,” Dotson said. “She knew exactly what details were important, what objectives we needed to achieve and pushed everyone to work as long as needed to complete them.” 

Prospera gets off the ground

Since forming Prospera in early January of last year, Buckley said she has hired a small full-time team and is relying on a vast network of consultants and colleagues. She’s raising capital on a project-by-project basis, but declined to identify her equity backers. 

As she was launching Prospera, Buckley began negotiations with the Faith Community Baptist Church in an northwest unincorporated Miami-Dade  to redevelop portions of the congregation’s 3.2-acre home at 10401 North West Eighth Avenue. Buckley’s firm would add 37 townhomes on a site that has an existing 10,872-square-foot church and elementary school, according to a March 13 site plan submitted for administrative review by Miami-Dade County’s planning and zoning department.

It took several months to negotiate the terms of the agreement, conduct her due diligence and secure funding for the project, Buckley said. In December, Washington D.C.-based Capital Impact Partners provided the financing for Faith Place Village. Buckley declined to comment on the amount and the terms because she did not have authorization from the lender, she said. 

Prospera and the Baptist church are seeking zoning changes that would allow a 25 percent density bonus to accommodate the number of proposed townhomes. In exchange, the joint venture would agree to permanently set aside four units for workforce housing, but also “endeavor to make 100 percent of its units for sale into workforce housing,” a letter of intent states. 

On March 26, Miami-Dade Planning and Research Chief Alejandro Zizold requested that Prospera and the Baptist church submit more documentation, including a detailed landscape plan and a detailed description of amenities at the project, county records show. 

Typically, county approvals of site plans can take between six months to a year. But Buckley anticipates the project could break ground by the end of this year.

To make the townhomes affordable for blue collar workers, Prospera and the Baptist church are proposing that units will range from 866 square feet to 1,100 square feet with no garages. In addition to proving she can build a successful development firm, Buckley also wants to develop projects that provide attainable workforce housing, she said. 

She is currently exploring developing a few mixed-use projects that “may apply the Live Local Act,” Buckley said. Under Florida’s Live Local Act, approved last year by state legislators, developers can fast-track mixed-use project approvals administratively and without public hearings. Projects can also bypass city and county zoning restrictions if developers designate at least 65 percent of a mixed-use project for residential uses and at least 40 percent of the units for households earning no more than 120 percent of the area median income. Developers also have to maintain below-market rate rents for a minimum of 30 years for affordable and workforce housing apartments. 

“When you see underutilized plots of land [like the church property], there’s an opportunity to provide attainable workforce housing,” Buckley said. “It is not on a massive scale, but we have come up with a way of unlocking homeownership that the middle class is missing.”

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