South Florida's Biggest Developers Discuss Motivations For Projects, Pressures Of The Job
If you hear the word developer, there's a pretty good chance you're thinking crook. You're probably picturing someone who would pave over wetlands, pay off politicians, and generally act like a body-dumping bad guy from a Carl Hiaasen novel.
So we set out to challenge that stereotype. We sat down with a few of South Florida's biggest developers to discuss the motivation for their projects, the pressure of the job, as well as their plans for the future.
This isn't a best-of-style list, or even a group that includes the richest. You won't see names such as Related's Jorge M. Pérez or Lennar's Stuart Miller—names you've probably read about too many times.
No, this is a list of largely lesser-known people behind the big developments these days—people you maybe haven't heard of before these pages, but people you should probably know.
Principal of Premier Developers, Fort Lauderdale
You might think those summers in college would have shaped young Bradley Deckelbaum. He was a poli-sci major at Emory University, and during breaks he'd take a job for his dad, a contractor. Deckelbaum's job was to clean up construction sites, sweeping and picking up debris, and generally just to keep things straight. So, maybe all that manual labor showed him what it's like for the people who now work for him.
“I would love to say it did, but I would be full of shit,” Deckelbaum says. “Doing it over the summer, it's different pressures than the guys who work for me, who are doing it to pay bills.”
It's an honest answer that maybe does show that Deckelbaum learned something from those summers. After law school at Georgetown University, Deckelbaum took the job he had promised himself he'd avoid—at the big New York City law firm. His time at Proskauer Rose taught him how to do long hours, and how to move projects along, he says. Those skills helped when he came back home in 2002 to join his father's business.
That time in New York also taught Deckelbaum something that would define him back home. Those who work with him say he has an unwavering desire to do things his way, something for which he offers no apologies.
Deckelbaum rode the wave of South Florida real estate as it crested and then was right on top when it crashed. In 2007, his company had a pair of projects along Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach that went nowhere. One project got canceled outright, and the bank ended up taking the land for the second. It was a colossal failure, but Deckelbaum says he's a strong believer that everyone needs one big setback before they can be successful. “There's absolute truth to that. Luck plays a big part of it, and right now, I'm very lucky.”
A few months back, Deckelbaum was paddleboarding on the Middle River in Fort Lauderdale when he spotted a choice piece of land, 400 feet of waterfront across from George English Park. He's converting it now into Riva, 15 stories, 100 units, prices from $550,000 to $4 million. It's the kind of select, high-end project that existed before the bubble burst.
It's also the kind of project that Deckelbaum says will define him some day. It's not just that it's one of Broward County's higher-end projects since the bubble, but it's that Deckelbaum says he'll be one of the tenants. He points to the fact that his parents have lived in one of the developments they built for 15 years now. His name, and his company, haven't been mentioned in many lawsuits or conflicts over the years, and Deckelbaum says that's deliberate. “My goal isn't to get in and get out quick. I live here, and I'm from here, and I need to be able to show my face around these places,” Deckelbaum says.
Hudson Holdings, Delray Beach
Avi Greenbaum is used to people assuming that just because he's a developer, he must be a bad guy. He has a standard response: “You want to hate me? I have three severely autistic children. Welcome to my world.”
Greenbaum has faced his share of people thinking poorly of him since his company bought up several historic properties in Delray Beach, including the Sundy House. All along, Greenbaum says his company planned to restore the historic buildings, while also putting up new construction—but there have been a lot of doubters, a lot of people outwardly calling Greenbaum a liar.
“We have projects all across the Southeast, and some places we walk in and people love us, like we're the saviors of history,” Greenbaum says. “Then you walk in to other places and they think you must be the devil.”
Greenbaum got his business savvy by watching how his father didn't. Growing up in Lawrence, New York, Greenbaum's father was an internist and had absolutely no interest in the business of his office. He would've given away his services for free if not for Greenbaum's mother, who ran the books.
His parents wanted Greenbaum to become a doctor too, but he chose Wall Street instead, working as an analyst and then a trader. He went to law school—“to keep my Jewish mother happy”—and in his spare time, opened a chain of restaurants. He built a software company, Foundation Source, in his wife's dorm room while she was in med school. He raised $30 million in seed money to grow it, and now the company has 200 employees.
Greenbaum moved to Florida in 2003 and took up real estate, buying apartment buildings, converting them to condos, and then selling them off. Luckily for him, he stopped buying in 2005, so he didn't take as big of a hit in the downturn.
Nowadays his company specializes in historic buildings, like those in his Delray project. He also owns once-cherished properties in places like Louisville and Cleveland, working to restore them into mixed-use, return-to-downtown developments. “It's much cheaper to knock them down or gut them, but that's not what we do,” he says.
Through it all, he's been called both a protector of history or a liar with plans to bring in the wrecking ball. But Greenbaum says those three autistic children—among his six kids—have taught him not to judge people the same way.
“You, to start off, have a different understanding and compassion for everyone,” he says. “You no longer look at people and think you understand them, because you don't know what people are going through. You don't know what's happening to them at home.”
Glenn E. Gromann
President of Center Realty Associates, Boca Raton
One of Glenn E. Gromann's favorite things to talk about is names. He likes to go back through his life, one job to the next, rattling off the famous people once or twice removed. There are names you may or may not recognize: former-judge-turned-Fox-analyst Andrew Napolitano, lawyer Donald Scarinci, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, and former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. And there are a dozen more. “My paths have crossed with many interesting people, which will make your story very interesting, more interesting than if you write about me,” he jokes.
Truth is, Gromann is one of those people who maybe should be a little famous. He says he owns a half-billion in real estate, mostly in Palm Beach County, but his name has very rarely made the papers. (It's worth noting that this number can't be checked, since Gromann owns most of his property through corporations set up for each project, as is customary in the development world.)
It's not that he runs under the radar, exactly, although that's how it used to be. Back at the beginning, back in New Jersey, he says he got his start in the business just barely in his teens, running backhoes for his father's construction company. His father built mansions in the affluent town of Holmdel, New Jersey, while they lived in Hazlet, a more blue-collar community next door. “I actually did the work,” Gromann recalls. “I dug more foundations than you could shake a stick at.”
As Holmdel took off, so did the family business. By the time he reached high school, Gromann and his brother drove to school in Corvettes, before Gromann sold his for a “Magnum P.I.” Ferrari.
His foray into Florida began on a lark, during a vacation to Golden Beach in 1987. It wasn't like New Jersey, where you had to work for years and know the right people and grease the right palms, Gromann remembers. In Florida, anybody could become a builder. “I looked around and said, ‘What was I ever doing in New Jersey?'” he recalls.
He started buying houses and flipping them. He used the cash he made to buy office buildings, fix them up, and then finance them. Those new loans would then pay for his next project. He settled in Boca and found a routine—lunch at the Boca Resort, dinner at The Palm in Bal Harbour. “All these wealthy people did the same thing, and I was running with them.” His most well-known project remains Milan at Town Center, which, in 2006, was the first top-end office building in Boca in two decades.
Things turned south during the downturn, and not just because he took a hit on the value of his property. In 2011, the Federal Trade Commission filed suit against Gromann, claiming his law firm and a company connected to him offered fraudulent mortgage relief services to distressed homeowners. It earned Gromann more headlines than he's gotten for any of his projects, especially when he refused requests to step down from the Downtown Boca Raton Advisory Committee.
In the end, the company at the center of the suit agreed to pay a $750,000 fine, without anyone admitting wrongdoing. “The bottom line was I did absolutely nothing. I was completely exonerated,” he says. The main takeaway, as he remembers it, was learning how callous the government can be. “If I had a day to explain how this worked—men with guns busting into offices and taking away computers—you'd think you were in Nazi Germany.”
Gromann's specialty now is buying up commercial properties. He looks for buildings with large pieces of land connected to them, where he can add a second development. He says often the owners of commercial properties have no idea they're sitting on enough land to double the density.
He has also been connected to a couple big projects lately—the All Aboard Florida rail line and the new spring training baseball stadium coming to Palm Beach County. Gromann says he has gotten involved because of all those people he knows.
“I have the ability to call Mark [Foley] up on his cell phone and get things done,” Gromann says of the former congressman. “That's why people want me on their projects.”
President of Merrimac Ventures, founder of Ramesh Properties, Fort Lauderdale
The timing couldn't have been worse for the Motwani family when they bought the Merrimac Hotel on Fort Lauderdale Beach in 1986. The city soon began a war against the craziness of spring break, and that meant a big hit to the Merrimac's business. “We bought into a market where spring break was our only clientele, and they cut us off at the knees,” remembers Dev Motwani, the younger of two brothers.
Afterward, the neighborhood suffered, with crime and prostitution seemingly everywhere. At the Merrimac, the Motwanis lived in adjoining hotel rooms connected to the lobby. Whenever it got busy, Motwani would come home from school to find his bedroom rented out, his stuff boxed up in his brother's room. When he was 14, Motwani's father died at 47 years old. “There's a million things you need to figure out when you're a freshman in high school, and suddenly I had to figure out how to go on without a father.”
One of them was to decide that the family business was something he wanted to leave behind. After college at Duke University, he took a job at Credit Suisse in New York, working on structured equity derivatives and figuring his career in banking had just begun. Then came the real estate boom, and suddenly the land the family owned on Fort Lauderdale Beach became the target for development. After finishing a graduate degree at Columbia, Motwani moved back and helped negotiate a complicated land deal called a 1031 exchange for the former Trump property, which is now becoming the Conrad Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort and Residences.
But he made perhaps his best move in 2011, when he picked up the nearly empty Las Olas Riverfront property for $16.7 million. It's worth perhaps five times that price now. Motwani and his Canadian investor could make a killing if they flipped it, or perhaps if he simply fixed it up and rented the storefronts. Instead, he's been holding on to it, empty and shabby, the escalators no longer running and blocked off.
That strategy of acquiring and holding on to properties has also earned Motwani his biggest criticism. The family's hotels on the beach and now the Riverfront are some of the city's most prized land, and yet they've sat underutilized and in some cases rundown, for years. Motwani doesn't entertain the idea that he's letting the city suffer while he looks at profits.
“The reality is, it's a complicated project, and outsiders don't understand the business,” Motwani says of the Riverfront property. “Someone who doesn't know real estate might say, ‘Why doesn't he develop it now?' But we want something that utilizes that space to its fullest potential.”
This year, work began on The Gale Boutique Hotel and Residences, the Conrad, and a Four Seasons hotel and residences on the family's former property. Motwani promises movement soon on the Riverfront property.
It had always been his father's vision to replace the old Merrimac Hotel with something grand. Now that it's done, Motwani says he's figuring out his own goal: what he wants to be known for around town.
“I want to do transformative development that changes this market,” he says. “I want to do the kind of development that makes businesses want to relocate here because of it and people to move here to be close to it.”
Stand by, he promises.