Building Success: Miami Law Grads Make Lasting Marks as Developers

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Jeff BerkowitzIf Miami Law alumnus Jeff Berkowitz has his way, he’ll give South Florida its “Eiffel Tower.”

He calls it SkyRise Miami—a swirling, stylized spire offering breathtaking 40-mile views of the region from three observation decks, convention and entertainment spaces, and gut-goosing free-fall and bungee-jumping thrill attractions that let riders plunge from as much as 65 stories up, at up to 95 mph.

“I probably should have my head examined,” he said. “The challenges are mind-boggling.

“We have unique engineering, planning, and construction issues. We have site logistic issues... Typically, large companies wouldn’t gamble what I’ve already gambled to get to the point where we are. I’ve spent many, many millions of dollars already.”

There have been lawsuits and bureaucratic roadblocks. Still, he said, he’s confident he’ll succeed—thanks, at least in part, to his legal training.

“I view SkyRise as kind of a legacy project and as a career capper. It’s a one-of-a-kind project. No one has ever done it,” he said. “And I am convinced that there is no one else on earth who can pull this off.”

Jeff Berkowitz, the SkyRise developer, J.D. ’74, is responsible for game-changing commercial retail developments across Miami-Dade County. His projects include Dadeland Station, Kendallgate, Kendall Village Center, Kendall Station, Aventura Commons, Gables Station, and Fifth & Alton on Miami Beach.

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“I’m very proud of Fifth & Alton,” Berkowitz said. “It’s extremely successful. And it was probably a seven—or eight-year undertaking.”

The project, a multistory retail center at the corner of the MacArthur Causeway entrance to Miami Beach faced years of resistance and naysaying, only to go on to win multiple awards for its vision, engineering, and construction and design excellence. Covering an entire block, the $80 million project includes 180,000 square feet of retail space on three levels and a six-level, 1,080-space parking garage. Tenants include Best Buy, Ross Dress for Less, T.J. Maxx, Staples, Petco, Vitamin Shoppe, and Publix.

Dadeland Station involved a joint-development effort between Berkowitz Development Group and Metro-Dade Transit Authority and converted a surplus county-owned surface parking lot into a 350,000-square-foot retail center generating income for the county.

Berkowitz creatively re-envisioned the relatively small 7.5-acre tract by stacking “big box” retailers including Best Buy, Target, and Sports Authority to create what the developer calls “an urban translation of the suburban mall.” Strategically located at the crossroads of major thoroughfares, and connected with the Dadeland North Metrorail Station, the center was designed to provide convenient access while addressing urban fill-in concerns.

“I’m proud of Dadeland Station,” Berkowitz said, “which has become the gold standard for vertical development in the rest of the United States and as a site it is extremely successful. And that was public-private with Miami-Dade Transit. None of the retailers there considered going vertical and so we had to convince them to try with us, and they have been enormously successful. And it has been widely copied throughout the United States.”

It wasn’t what he had in mind while he was on the law review at

Miami Law. He opened his own general practice as soon as he graduated.

“It was whatever walked through the door,” he said. “It was, in retrospect, a mistake.”

Four years later, he went into a joint venture on a shopping center with one of his clients. He continued to practice law until 1986, but as time went on he spent more and more of his time developing.

That legal experience, he said, has proven invaluable.

“When you deal with governments, the safest thing for a governmental employee to do is to say ‘no,’ he said. “You hear ‘no’ a lot. And if we had accepted ‘no’ in every instance I wouldn’t have a single project. So practicing law and my legal background, number one, gave me a view and perseverance and the tools and the skills to challenge and overturn a bad decision.

“It has enabled us to pioneer project types and to undertake extremely complex private-public partnerships and vertical developments, things that would be easier to proceed on a cookie-cutter basis with something that is typical. We’ve never done anything that is typical.”

That’s even more apparent with SkyRise. Designed by the internationally recognized architectural firm Arquitectonica, the entertainment and amusement center is shaped like a free-form hairpin—100 stories tall. The 1,000-foot-tall building, located at Bayside Marketplace at the water’s edge in downtown Miami, is designed to house a 500-seat ballroom, a restaurant, private club and a nightclub nestled near its summit.

The signature attractions, however, are the thrill rides.

The SkyRise Drop gives 12 riders at a time the free-falling sensation of skydiving. Planned as the longest and fastest drop ride in the world, the riders will be lifted nearly 650 feet up the building’s north face, then released. Magnetic brakes will slow them as they near the bottom.

The Sky Plunge is described as being like base-jumping, with a “sophisticated bungee-like safety system.” The jumpers are to be attached to a wire to control descent as they plummet some 570 feet through the building’s open interior, at close to 55 mph.

For the less adventurous, Berkowitz is including a “Flying Theater” to carry 72 riders on a hang-glider motion-simulator similar to Soarin’ at Disney World. They’ll actually be dangling close to 40-feet above the ground and surrounded by sounds, wind, and even smells on a filmed flying tour of South Florida.

“I’m obviously an incurable optimist, but I think it’s going to be a very profitable enterprise,” Berkowitz said. “I have complete faith in my ability to pull all the pieces that are necessary together to make the jigsaw puzzle fit and to change the landscape of Miami and to give back something very significant to a community that has been very kind these last 40 years.”

And, in the process, create a monument to the lasting impact of Miami Law.

Don SinexDon Sinex, J.D. ’76, enrolled with that in mind.

“I really looked to the law school education as an education, more than as a career path. It always dawned on me that if you know or have a grounded fundamental understanding of the law it can only be beneficial in a business career,” he said. “The law is a great profession, and you can be very content and satisfied in many, many ways, including financially, if you choose that career, but your education, your knowledge, and what you are able to do with it far exceeds the realm of a courtroom or even a corporate boardroom.”

Sinex grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, and got his undergraduate degree in economics at the University of Delaware. Then he headed south— not to get away from the cold, but because of Miami Law, and the reputation of its then-incoming dean, Soia Mentschikoff.

“When I began to understand who she was and what kind of process she was going to bring to the school, that got very exciting,” he said. “But the nitty-gritty was they were able to provide me with financial aid that other options didn’t, so that pushed me in the right direction.”

Sinex studied Real Estate and Taxation Law, made law review and Order of the Coif. Then he went on to get an M.B.A. at Harvard Business School and into a career in real estate investment in which he has acquired more than $6.5 billion in assets.

“When I went to law school I wasn’t precluding practicing law.” Still, he said, he realized that “You don’t have to be a lawyer when you get a law education. It can be beneficial in so many aspects of life. And if you want to be a lawyer you’ve trained to become one so you can always go that route as well… Being an options player, I wanted to keep my options open.”

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He summer interned with a corporate law firm in Pittsburgh, applied to the honors program at the Department of Justice, and even interviewed with some law firms in New York.

“I was sort of keeping that option alive, but my real interest was really headed toward the business world.”

After getting his master’s, he went to work with JMB Realty Corp. He stayed there almost two decades, rising to executive vice president and managing director, helping it grow into one of the largest commercial real estate investment companies in the country. In 1997, he founded Devonwood Investors, LLC, a real estate advisory and private investment firm, working primarily in the New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston markets.

Fox News Channel’s headquarters sit in one of his company’s buildings on the Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan.

“We paid $330 million in the 1980s,” he said, “and that building is probably worth $2.2 or $2.3 billion.”

It’s an example of one of the underlying principles he learned at JMB: “You make your money when you buy, not when you sell,” he said. “And inside of that quote is a bunch of different facets: What are you buying? And why are you buying it? Is it a good piece of real estate? Does it fit the need within that market? If those questions are answered in the affirmative and you have a plan to execute it then you do make your money when you buy; you manifest that overtly when you sell it later on in life, if you sell.”

His latest acquisition is the Burlington Town Center, a shopping mall in Burlington, Vermont, barely 40 miles from the Canadian border. When he first learned about the property, he was—to put it politely— underwhelmed. “I thought it was a piece of … junk,” he said.

It was old, with an unwelcoming, awkward interior layout, and its owners were asking much more than he thought it was worth.

Then, one crisp spring morning in 2013, he happened to visit it by chance, and he saw possibilities. He felt, he said, “It was grossly underutilized in what appeared to be a healthy little city.”

He acquired it for $25 million, $10 million below the original asking price, and has announced a $200 million remodeling that includes three new buildings, nearly 250 apartments, and a new hotel with convention space for 5,000.

“I’m juggling operating it and still continuing to lease it,” he said. “And I’m juggling where I’m going to begin to slice it open, tear it apart, bring up the new part, stitch it together. Then tear apart the balance of the project, and bring up the new part and stitch the second phase of the new part to the first phase.”

All the while, he will keep it open for business.

The thought of ongoing construction hasn’t kept new tenants away. L.L. Bean opened its first store in Vermont at the mall in November, and Sinex said another 60,000-square-foot department store will be joining them.

“The real nature of this thing is it’s a single-story, single-purpose facility that is at a key location in this healthy little town where there are market demands for greater use,” he said. “So change it from single-purpose, single-story to multiple purpose, multiple stories.”

Executing his vision, he said, involves everything he learned at Miami Law.

“When you look at a project like Burlington it integrates the entire first-year, second-year, and third-year curriculum. You are dealing with all of these things. You are dealing with title issues and land issues. You’re dealing with contracts in every sense of the word, construction contracts, insurance issues. Then you get into the operational side, and you have service contract issues, and then you have, of course, the leasing. Then you get into the financing of it and the tax planning aspects of it.

“You’re touched by just about everything in your curriculum. So if a student was to say, ‘Where can I use more of my legal education than in any other place?’ I would suggest that commercial real estate development might be such a place. Besides litigating or besides practicing some expertise, I don’t know where you get such a cross-section of what you learned as a student in law school as you would in this field.”

 

Stephen H. BittelTerranova Corp. chairman Stephen H. Bittel, J.D. ’82, a Miami native, planned on being a lawyer in his hometown. Instead, he’s reshaping it.

“I always thought I was going to be a lawyer because my grandfather was, and my dad was, and my dad and I were and remain very close,” Bittel said. “My dad taught at the law school. He was a professor there while I was in law school. I even took his real estate investment planning class. The grade was pre-negotiated in advance. To get permission from the dean to take the class we had to pre-agree I was getting a C.”

Before that, though, Bittel headed far north, to Bowdoin College, a liberal arts college nearly as old as the nation, in Brunswick, Maine. Its graduates include Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne, human sexuality researcher Alfred Kinsey and North Pole explorer Robert Peary, among others.

After college, he spent a year in Europe on a Watson Fellowship, working on a research project aimed at understanding “the motivations behind European investments in the United States.”

It took him to the Netherlands, Germany, France, Switzerland, and Italy to meet with private bankers and investors, and it led him away from the law.

“Really my whole life I always presumed that I was going to be a lawyer in practice and eventually practice with my dad. And that year in Europe I really came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to practice law.”

His direction took more shape as he recalled the conversations among his parents’ friends he had listened to growing up.

“I remember so many times at the dinner table,” he said, “my parents would have friends over—lawyers or professors or doctors—and they all talked lovingly about their real estate investments. And I always thought if that is where they made their real money then they would do so much better if they did it full time instead of as a hobby.

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“So I started law school never intending to practice,” he said. And he dove into what would become his career even as he started his studies at Miami Law, working full time in commercial real estate, and then leaving that company to start his own.

“I violated all the rules,” he said. “I bought my first home before law school started. But it was two blocks from the law school so I could walk. I got engaged in March of my first year. We were married during spring break of my second year. Terranova was started in the fall of my second year. I graduated with seven employees.”

The company started out focusing on strip plazas, beginning with two small shopping centers on Sunset Drive. The passion for retail centers continued from there, with properties including Biscayne Plaza, Suniland, Kendall Mall, and Flagler Park Plaza in Miami-Dade; Westfork Plaza, Paraiso Plaza, Country Walk, Weston Lakes, and Sheridan Mall in Broward; and Boca Valley Plaza, Shadowwood Square, and Jupiter Square in Palm Beach County.

“Clearly,” he said, “the study of law has enabled our company to have a more acute risk management strategy, where we try to be cognizant of what the pitfalls in every transaction are, to either try to insure that risk or manage around them.”

So, even though he never intended to practice law, he said, his knowledge of the law helped substantially.

“The language that businessmen use to communicate with each other in transactions of size are heavily driven by attorneys who speak in their own special language,” Bittel said. “And my ability to understand that language has enabled me to crash through a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo to get to the essence of the transaction.

“It also has made me not view litigation fearfully, as most businesses do.”

As suburban areas became built out, and younger families moved to the urban core, Terranova moved with them. They began with an eight-building group on Miracle Mile that it still owns. Now he’s turning his sights to transforming Lincoln Road.

“We knocked down our first building on Lincoln Lane and Meridian,” he said. “And we’ve already received historic board approval to do the same thing on the west side of Meridian, also on Lincoln Lane— knock down a single-story building, come back with three stories. So these are real development opportunities to add special new projects to that area and expand Lincoln Road from a single street to a whole district—from Lincoln Road all the way north to 17th Street.”

He’s hardly alone in re-imagining the possibilities of a piece of property.

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