Q&A with Avra Jain: From tree houses to Wall Street to MiMo

Avra Jain at the Vagabond Hotel on Biscayne Boulevard
Avra Jain at the Vagabond Hotel on Biscayne Boulevard

Avra Jain is known for renovating classic Biscayne Boulevard motels in what she considers her quadrants of Miami: Northeast 36th Street to Northeast 79th Street, from Biscayne Boulevard to just east of Interstate 95, an area that encompasses the now-popular neighborhood MiMo (shorthand for Miami Modern). Most recently, she renovated the a 45-room boutique Vagabond Hotel, formerly the Vagabond Motel, at 7301 Biscayne Boulevard.

The Real Deal chatted with Jain as her recently completed project, a renovation of the classic piano bar Magnum Lounge, hosted its grand opening last Thursday.

How did you get into real estate?
It was actually a hobby that became a second career. I was working on Wall Street at the time. I would buy an apartment and then I would trade up…It started when I was a kid and I would build tree houses.

What’s a typical day for you?
I wake up early to catch up on paperwork, then I go to my job sites – projects on Biscayne and on the Miami River [South Pacific Motel, Stephen’s International Motel, Biscayne Motor Inn, among others]. I oversee the construction. A lot of my time is spent on how to commission properties and what kind of people we want to attract. If I remember, I’ll have lunch around 4 or 5 o’clock.

What projects are you spending the majority of your time on?
We’re spending a lot of time on Biscayne Boulevard. The Vagabond Hotel is open. The restaurant will be opening soon. We’re expanding into the Little River, Little Haiti neighborhoods. We’re seeing a lot of office demand up here, too. A lot of people who live here would like to have offices up here. We bought the 5555 Biscayne Boulevard building, which we’re turning into creative Class A offices. We’re doing the “Wotel” project at 63rd and Biscayne at the old South Pacific Motel. The hotel rooms are turned into small office suites. Small businesses like to have their own identity and the coworking thing doesn’t work for them.

Vagabond Hotel

The Vagabond Hotel

Why Biscayne Boulevard?
People don’t realize there are a lot of residential neighborhoods around there. The locals can stay in their neighborhood. When you go there, you see that transformation that happened in such a short amount of time. It’s coming back to life. John Kunkel [of 50 eggs] is doing a fabulous renovation across the street. Jugofresh bought a building north of us. Panther Coffee is coming in. For Miami, the ’50s and ’60s were a big part of its history. What it was before – it tells you what it should be again. You’re uncovering it. It’s part of the soul of what Miami is.

What is over-hyped in the Miami market right now?
That’s a question I’d like to ask Carlos at Related [Carlos Rosso, president Condominium Development Division], because they see so much more flow than I see. The luxury market is very healthy. With commercial retail, there seems to be more demand than supply. It’s still a relatively good value. The market seems to have some legs on it, that’s for sure.

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The markets that are vulnerable are the ones that are farther away from the bullseye, and you see that in every cycle. How far south do you want to be? How far west? I don’t think the Beach or Biscayne would be impacted as noticeably. I think the core of Miami is in pretty good shape right now, but the bigger guys have more insight on that than I do.

What do you see for Miami development in 2015? Any challenges?
No. I think this cycle has a lot of momentum and there’s a lot of “smart money” coming here – real estate investors that have made new commitments to Miami, sometimes first-time commitments and they never come in in a small way. You’re seeing a lot of experienced real estate people coming here and they’re well funded, so these are not leveraged plays. That’s important because it’s the leveraging that creates the bubbles and instability. What’s different this time around is that a lot of the money being invested is cash so the low-leverage makes the markets less vulnerable.

We’re seeing a lot of that with small family funds and large institutional funds – real estate investor families from South America, from New York, from Europe. You’re seeing a lot of experienced real estate people coming here and they’re well funded, so these are not leveraged plays. That’s important because it’s the leveraging that creates the bubbles and instability.

Would you say that’s the major difference between this cycle and the last?
Yes. That’s a notable difference in terms of this idea of instability. I don’t see that same vulnerability as I did in the last cycle. What also makes this cycle different is the breadth of the investors and the change in the city. There are more reasons to be in the Miami. It’s the food and beverage scene; it’s the arts scene. Everybody would like to see better paying jobs. But, Miami has always been a market where a lot of foreigners have bought here – some see the U.S. as putting their money where it’s safe, where property rights are protected and where the political environment is more stable. Miami is still a good value, I think, for what it has to offer.

Who are some developers you admire?
I am a fan of Carlos Rosso from Related because he’s really smart and I like really smart people. I’ve had a chance to work with the Mack family, a well-known real estate group that’s been around for years. I’m partners with Arnaud Karsenti from 13th Floor Investments and David Martin from Terra Group. When you pick partners, you’re really thoughtful about it.

Are you seeing more female developers today than when you started?
There’s only been a few, but there are only a few big developers anyway. I don’t really notice, to be honest. You’re talking to somebody who worked on Wall Street, who went to school in engineering in 1979 when I was the only woman in a class of 60. I worked on the trading floor where there were 120 people and five women. I never noticed. I’ve been asked to speak to women’s organizations about it and I think that maybe that’s how I’ve dealt with it – sort of denied that it exists. And that seems to have worked out really well. You have to be really good at what you do no matter what you do. Being a man or woman is never an excuse. If you know enough about what you’re doing, they’re thrilled to have you there.

I would encourage more women, though, to get into the business. I think sometimes women stay away from the business thinking that it’s a men’s business but I think they’d find that not to be the case if they tried.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.