Under-the-radar players

South Florida real estate professionals are making a mark, if not making headlines

Apr.April 01, 2015 07:00 AM

South Florida has a wealth of prominent real estate developers and other industry professionals whose names frequently surface in headlines, and sometimes on buildings. Yet other, lesser-known names are also making their mark on the South Florida landscape — and they’re worth keeping an eye on.

The Real Deal talked to a handful of real estate players currently involved in significant projects who have managed — whether purposefully or not — to stay (somewhat) out of the limelight.

Amenities at The Crimson will include a large swimming pool, landscaped sundeck, gym and a business center.

Amenities at The Crimson will include a large swimming pool, landscaped sundeck, gym and a business center.

Stephan Gietl, principal, CFO and COO of McKafka Development Group

Stephan Gietl entered the South Florida real estate scene after meeting his business partner, Fernando Levy Hara, in 2009. Both were students in a two-year, advanced management development program for real estate at Harvard University.

After specializing in analyzing real estate cycles, they both chose to invest in the same business concept: Buying fractured condos and distressed properties in South Florida.

Gietl had just come from successfully developing a 1 million-square-foot mixed-use project in Prague. He sold it to a German fund for $700 million in early 2007.

“We were very lucky to have finished the project, but the big question was what do next,” said Gietl, 47, who is a native of Vienna. “So I went to Harvard and met my business partner.”

They looked at the most distressed areas in the U.S. to launch their business, finally settling on Miami. Their first project, a $10 million-plus investment with partners, was Las Olas by the River. They picked up 62 condo units in a 284-unit project, rented them out and sold them, one by one, to international investors.

In nine months, the partners’ investors — high net-worth South Americans and Europeans — got back their money and earned an internal rate of return of more than 60 percent, Gietl said.

So they next set off to buy 68 out of 260 condo units at Village East in Fort Lauderdale, as well as all of Airport Villas and a 90-condo unit property near Miami International Airport.

“Then, in 2012, we saw that the cycle had come to an end, and we focused on buying distressed land,” Gietl said. They bought waterfront land in Edgewater, next to where Related would later buy property for Icon Bay.

“When the crisis slowly came to a halt, we were one of the first movers in this area,” Gietl said.

“It was clear that with all the future development going on in Miami, with Swire and Brickell City Centre, which will create thousands of jobs, there will be a need for people to live close to downtown, and Edgewater is close to downtown and it’s waterfront. This was the natural area where housing is going to expand.”

Their development The Crimson will have 90 luxury units, priced from $500,000 to $1.8 million. So far, more than 70 percent of the project is sold, with 95 percent purchased by international buyers. Construction is expected to be completed in the fall, Gietl said.

Next, the partners are focusing on developments on the west coast of Florida, in Sarasota and St. Petersburg. Overall, the total sell-out value of their current projects is $200 million.

“We consider the market, especially Dade and Miami, overheated,” Gietl said “I think it is reaching its peak in the current cycle.”

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There will be 426,000 square feet of stores and restaurants at River Landing.

Andrew Hellinger, managing partner of River Landing

Hellinger readily admits he has been called “the little known developer” and he said that moniker suits him just fine. He is a self-professed “recovered attorney” who had specialized in bankruptcy and litigation at his firm, Meland, Russin & Hellinger, before making a career change to focus on real estate. In 2006, his client, Leviev Boymelgreen convinced him to leave the law firm and become president of his company.

“When they hired me, they asked a lawyer at my firm, Coralee Penabad, to be general counsel, so we transformed our practice group at the law firm into a real estate property management and development group,” said Hellinger, 49.

Boymelgreen had extensive holdings in Miami, including 1101 Brickell, five acres on the west side of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and 17 acres on the site where Miami Worldcenter will be built. Hellinger said all of those assets, valued at $750 million, were sold by the end of 2008.

“So, by 2008, we sold off the partnership holdings and decided that with the economy changing, we should use our skills to help institutions and banks that had troubled assets reposition themselves and work through the times,” he said. “We converted our development business at Leviev Boymelgreen to a consulting management business, managing developments for institutions that had troubled loans and troubled assets.”

By 2011, he decided to get back into development, eventually paying $26 million for the former Mahi Shrine Auditorium, on nine acres at 1400 Northwest River Drive.

“Back then, I was called crazy,” he said. “Today, I am called a visionary.”

The site will house the future River Landing, a $300 million mixed-used project that will include 430,000 square feet of retail space and 500 apartment units, bringing housing, shopping and restaurants to the now-hot Miami River neighborhood.

The project, which will also sport a riverfront park, is expected to be completed in the fourth quarter of 2017. Hellinger said he views it as filling a need in the community. “We are building to what the average Miamian needs … to afford to live in the urban core,” he said.

Aventura Mall offers over 300 stores over 2.5 million square feet of space.

Aventura Mall offers over 300 stores over 2.5 million square feet of space.

Jackie Soffer, co-CEO of Turnberry Associates

Jackie Soffer was born into real estate, a member of the third generation of a family known for developing what is now the city of Aventura.

After graduating from the University of Colorado, she spent a year as a ski school instructor in Aspen. “I didn’t really want to come back to Florida,” said Soffer, who grew up in Miami Beach. “I felt more of a connection to Colorado.”

But one day, her father, Don Soffer, called and said that he hadn’t sent her to college for her to teach skiing. “So, I made the decision to come back and start working for my dad,” she said. “He wanted me to learn the business.”

She moved around the company beginning in 1990, learning all aspects of the business —working in one of the family’s hotels in Orlando, then in office leasing, and in the development of One Turnberry Place.

Soffer then turned her attention to Aventura Mall, becoming involved not just in its development but as a tenant, too. She and a friend opened a store in the shopping complex.

“It was very good for me because I got to see life from a tenant perspective, not just a landlord perspective, which is a valuable thing,” she said.

By 1995, Soffer and her partner had sold the store, but she continued to focus on the mall. When it underwent its first expansion in 1997, adding a Bloomingdale’s and an AMC movie theater, in addition to a slew of other tenants, she oversaw the leasing and marketing.

Over the ensuing years, Soffer and her brother Jeffrey (who in contrast to Jackie frequently makes headlines, not least for his marriage to supermodel Elle Macpherson) have partnered on an array of other projects. Some of those include: a 600,000-square-foot shopping center in Destin; various shopping centers and residential projects in Las Vegas; and residential projects in South Florida such as Porto Vita, Turnberry Ocean Colony and Turnberry on the Green.

“Whether it is dealing with the crisis with the banks during the recession, or merchandising a mall, merchandising a hotel, putting restaurants in hotels, renovating, I enjoy doing it,” she said.

In 2008, Soffer oversaw the second expansion at Aventura Mall, which brought in Nordstrom and other retailers. Now she is focusing on the mall’s future third expansion.

“What I have focused on for so many years was giving back to the community, improving our assets, giving people more reason to come and reason to stay,” said Soffer, who in August will marry Dacra President and CEO Craig Robins, who is transforming Miami’s Design District into a luxury shopping destination.

Next, Soffer and her brother are partnering with New York-based LeFrak, led by Richard Lefrak, to develop Biscayne Landing, a master planned community that will have nearly 4,400 residential units, office buildings, and an outdoor shopping center, anchored by restaurants.

Already, prospective tenants have expressed interest, although drawings are not yet released, and leasing will not be launched until May, she said.

Amenities at The Mansions at Acqualina include a private room for entertaining, a fitness center and a cinema.

Amenities at The Mansions at Acqualina include a private room for entertaining, a fitness center and a cinema.

Jules Trump, founder of the Trump Group

Jules Trump’s career has spanned retail and real estate, and in South Florida, he has made his mark developing such projects as Williams Island, Acqualina Resort & Spa, The Mansions at Acqualina, and now, The Estates at Acqualina — all in partnership with his younger brother Eddie. In some circles, the brothers are know as the “Other Trumps,” as they have no relation to The Donald and his clan.

The Trumps grew up in Pretoria, South Africa, where their family owned a retail store. “You learn to work hard, but most of all, you learn to focus on customers,” Trump said of the experience.

When they immigrated to New York in the 1970s, they bought a men’s clothing store, a 140-store chain called Bond’s Clothing. Trump called it “more or less a real estate play.” Next, they bought a jeans company, which they ultimately sold to Gap.

By 1980, the Trumps had purchased the land that would become Williams Island, while still operating retail businesses, including a chain of bowling alleys and a network of auto parts stores, the latter of which they expanded and took public .

What drew Trump to South Florida?

“We came for Passover vacation and we felt it was amazing, and we saw the business that could be done,” Trump said. “Our feeling was that the same skills we thought were relevant in the retail business, we were able to transfer successfully into the real estate business.”

They worked on Williams Island over 15 to 20 years, constructing eight towers and creating a bridge and a marina. They even convinced Sophia Loren to be their spokesperson.

In 2000, the brothers bought the four-acre oceanfront property that would become the future home of Acqualina Resort & Spa. The goal was to create a hotel and condominium project. After the management company they hired failed to deliver the standard of care they wanted, they decided to operate it themselves.

Next on tap is The Mansions at Acqualina, a tower with 78 condos priced from $8.4 million to $55 million, located south of Acqualina Resort & Spa. Construction is now nearing completion, and closings are expected at the end of June.

Yet, the new height of their real estate careers, they say, is The Estates at Acqualina, a two-tower development to be built on property on the north side of Acqualina that will have condos priced from $3.9 million to $40 million.

“It will by far be the best thing we’ve ever done,” Trump said.


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