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Up, Up & Away!

From Sunny Isles Beach to COCONUT Grove, Miami luxury real estate sector has officially bounced back from the doldrums. Here’s what’s selling, who’s building and what’s next in the most desired realty market in America.

“You can’t speak about Miami generally. You have to speak about each individual neighborhood.” –David Martin

The Innovator

The year 2000 was an auspicious time for David Martin and his father Pedro to co-found Terra Group. The 9/11 attacks a year later are still something that the younger Martin brings up when he describes his projects; he speaks of a “cleansing mentality” that happened as a result of that horrible day, and when he talks of development, he does so in a personal way, as a humanist. When he says that people don’t want to have more, but, rather, want to be more, he comes ready with examples.

Case in point: the Grove at Grand Bay, slated for completion in the first quarter of 2015. From a team that includes starchitect Bjarke Ingels and landscape visionary Raymond Jungles, Martin speaks of the project as “a home in the sky” that represents commitment rather than transience. “Coconut Grove is the best neighborhood in South Florida, with the best schools, the best parks, and an active intellectual and creative community,” he says. “This is a user market. People move here and live here for a long period of time.” Instead of creating hundreds of units on the 3-acre lot, Terra is keeping the project low-density, with 12-and-a-half-foot ceilings, 12-foot-deep balconies and two 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot residences per floor.

The hotly anticipated GLASS, going up in South Beach’s South of Fifth neighborhood, is another example of low-density living, with only 10 floors and one unit per floor. As the first residential building designed by architect Rene Gonzalez, it is also the last tower that will be erected in SoFi, due to zoning restrictions. Buyers at GLASS have the option to work directly with Gonzalez on their residences—“The other developers thought I was crazy, but that’s what you can do in a low-density project,” says Martin. And even though he doesn’t anticipate that these owners will spend the whole year in GLASS, he circles back to the community aspect: “There are very few parts of Miami Beach where you feel like you can live in a neighborhood, but you can in South of Fifth.”

“You can’t speak about Miami generally,” Martin adds. “You have to speak about each individual neighborhood.” And, to hear him tell it, every corner of the city is primed to offer new residents an ever-richer lifestyle. “Miami is the city of the future, and one reason I’m so bullish about the Miami of tomorrow is that we’re underserved from a retail standpoint, which is amazing,” he adds. “New entertainment and shopping experiences are now going to be created that will enhance the reasons why you want to live in this city.”

The Reformer

Back when he was a postgrad, Buenos Aires-born, Cordoba-educated Edgardo Defortuna was supposed to be in Miami for three months to perfect his English. “They’re still waiting for me to come back,” he says. Instead of returning to Argentina, Defortuna has built one of South Florida’s most important developments and real estate empires: Fortune International Realty. Widely credited with leading the gentrification of Midtown, Fortune also put its inimitable stamp on Sunny Isles Beach with its Jade towers, and now Defortuna is placing his bets on Downtown, with NINE at Mary Brickell Village.

“Downtown has been in middle of a transformation for the last four years and it’s attracting a young crowd,” he explains. “NINE at Mary Brickell Village, in less than four months, is more than 50 percent sold. And we’re marketing a new project for Related called Brickell Heights that will have an unbelievable Equinox facility. Brickell is finally becoming the ‘Manhattan of the South’ that The Miami Herald said was coming 20 years ago.”

For Jade Signature, certainly Fortune’s most high-profile project, the firm has collaborated with a peerless team: architects Herzog and de Meuron, interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon and landscape designer Raymond Jungles. One coup in particular, the hiring of Rochon—the hotel designer responsible for the iconic Four Seasons Hotel George V Paris—was meant to send a signal: that the tower would draw from the best of hospitality design. “My wife and I like him very much, so much so that we hired him to do the interiors of our own home,” says Defortuna. “To interview designers for Jade Signature we traveled to Milan, New York and all over the world, but we thought, ‘Why not give our buyers the same lifestyle that we experience?’”

When asked to describe demographic trends among Miami real estate buyers in such a hot luxury market, Defortuna’s response is swift: “In one word: the world. The quality buyer who would vacation in Miami but owns in New York now wants to own in Miami. They all want to own in Miami.”

The Idealist

“I believe as an agent that it is a must to concentrate on a niche market that you can serve with excellence,” says Marie-Charlotte Piro, who, with her husband, William Harbour (a former New Yorker), is one of the principals of MC2 Realty. Targeting an underserved, overlooked but growing market—the French—is how Piro has turned her boutique firm into such a burgeoning success.

“I’ve been in this business for 15 years, but until 2009 and 2010, I was pretty much catering to the South American market,” says Piro, who was born and raised near Biarritz. But as the euro became stronger, and as France became less hospitable to wealthy homeowners (more heavily taxed, more frequently audited), she began to see a stronger French buyer, “not unlike the Venezuelan buyer seven years ago.” A whole class of affluent French tax exiles were expressing a desire to settle in the United States. Until last year, Piro’s sales focused on second homes and investment properties; now she is working with a highly creative, entrepreneurial class who wants to live in Miami full time. “In America, people delight in success,” she says, “but in France it’s very different.” The wave of emigration was such that Piro founded Fédération des Professionnels de L’Immobilier de Miami, a nonprofit that pairs French-speaking realtors in South Florida with French-speaking buyers from around the world. Piro says that understanding French culture as much as speaking the language has enabled her to “form long-term trust relationships.”

But if her market is international, her commitment is local. “We are also very involved in the improvement and promotion of the Morningside historic district,” Piro says, noting that she lives in Morningside. “I am an active board member of the Morningside Civic Association and chair of the security committee as well as a frequent contributor to the Morningside-Life Facebook page.” Piro has embarked on a range of other community-enhancing initiatives. “I think that all top real estate producers should make it a point to give back to their farming areas, support new infrastructures, help the disadvantaged and support local education,” she adds. “At MC2 Realty, we donate a part of our local commissions to support the Miami Children Hospital’s Outpatient Center.”

Piro’s interest in cross-pollination even reaches into the animal kingdom: “I am also getting involved in a wonderful new project called Bees and Butterflies,” she says, “where we are planning to use the rooftops of some Brickell and Downtown mid-rises as urban pollination gardens to allow bees and butterflies to migrate from the south to the north part of Miami and keep on pollinating our flowers and fruit trees.”

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