Miami's Condo King Changed City's Skyline There are few American cities that have changed more in the past decade than Miami. Just a few years ago, downtown Miami was a daytime-only destination. Today, thousands of people live there and thousands more are on the way, and it's largely because of Jorge Perez.
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Miami's Condo King Changed City's Skyline

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Miami's Condo King Changed City's Skyline

Miami's Condo King Changed City's Skyline

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The real estate downturn has not stopped the man who reshaped Miami. If you've been there at all in recent years, you've seen a forest of construction cranes. Downtown Miami has turned from a daytime destination to a place where thousands of people live. Even now, thousands more are expected, and it's largely because of one man.

NPR's Greg Allen has this profile of the developer whose helped to reshape the city.

GREG ALLEN: Jorge Perez is more than just a Miami developer. He's Number 271 on Forbes' list of the 400 richest Americans. His company, The Related Group, is involved in projects throughout Florida and Latin America.

But it is in Miami where he's had his biggest impact. Within several blocks downtown, Perez has five big high-rise projects either under construction or recently completed. And they're all residential condominiums.

Mr. JORGE PEREZ (Real Estate Developer): We try to do the urban buildings -buildings that have restaurants and shops, and they're on the street - and make walking a much more pleasurable experience like it is in Paris or New York or London.

ALLEN: Perez looks every bit the part of the billionaire developer. He's in his late 50s, impeccably dressed, with a close-cropped beard. He's just released a book that details his business philosophy and career path - starting as a bureaucrat with Miami's planning department, eventually becoming one of the nation's most prolific and successful developers.

While he's built apartments, offices and retail complexes, Perez admits to being fascinated by high-rise condos - in part, he says, it's because they make economic sense. But there's also another more personal reason.

Mr. PEREZ: It gave us an opportunity to create greater buildings, more architecturally beautiful buildings with great interiors, gave me a chance to work with some of the world's best architects and designers. So that was very, very important to me.

ALLEN: I'm talking to Perez at the newest of his Miami condo projects. It's called 500 Brickell, and it's in the middle of the city's construction boom. Looking at all the activity, you can almost forget about the problems in the nation's housing market. They're problems that have hit Miami's new condos hard. Many buyers faced with closing on a unit that may not be worth what they paid for it are defaulting on their contracts and walking away from $50,000 deposits. Closings at 500 Brickell are just getting underway. Sales manager Jesse Otley says he's not worried about defaults because at a half million dollars for a two-bedroom condo, he believes even in this market, buyers are getting good value. To emphasize his point, he takes me on a tour of the building.

Mr. JESSE OTLEY (Sales Manager, The Related Group): Here we are on the eleventh floor amenities deck, teak-covered floor, a contemporary, very cool feel to the pool bar area. Then we've got the infinity pool, absolutely beautiful pool that joins the two buildings together.

ALLEN: The building boom in Miami began just a few years ago, and Jorge Perez is one of the people responsible. After a decade of building high rise condos on Miami Beach and other resort areas, in 2004 he tried something new. He tore down an aging hotel in downtown Miami and put up a new style, a high-rise urban condominium. It sold out immediately, and many other developers soon followed. Today, much of Miami's waterfront along Biscayne Bay is one big construction site. But here and there, you can see a new type of city emerging, a place that doesn't shut down at sunset, where people work and live. At the University of Miami, where Jorge Perez's name is on one of the school's architecture buildings, Dean of Architecture Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk agrees that too many condos were built too quickly. But in the long run, she believes, the building boom will only be good for Miami.

Ms. ELIZABETH PLATER-ZYBERK (Dean of Architecture, University of Miami): We build some pretty good buildings, because there was a certain amount of competition, and so design was considered important by the developers and some pretty good architects have built a lot of these buildings. That's a legacy that will remain for the benefit of the city.

ALLEN: But in the meantime, with the collapse of the real estate market in south Florida, foreclosures are rampant in many of Miami's established and recently completed condominiums. Not all developers are expected to emerge unscathed. But those with deep pockets, like Jorge Perez, can afford to hold on to their unsold condos and rent them out until the market improves. He's had his setbacks. In Miami, his plans for a three-tower complex in Coconut Grove were recently put on hold by a court ruling that they'd been improperly approved. But Perez says he prefers to take the long view and focus on the new city that he's helping to build.

Mr. PEREZ: You know, somebody will say well don't you feel responsible that you contributed to the glut? And I said no. I feel responsible that I contributed to making Miami a true, great, urban center. If the outcome of that is I drop some money in doing it, then so be it. That's not the important part. The important part is that we really are creating a great city.

ALLEN: But even Jorge Perez thinks Miami has all the high rise condos it needs at present. With the housing downturn in the U.S., he's focusing on Latin America. He's partnering with companies in Colombia and Argentina and working on a string of projects in Mexico where he's building - you guessed it -condos.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

INSKEEP: If you do want to buy some land in Florida cheap, we recently reported on the real estate glut in Florida's west coast, where one agent is offering foreclosure tours. And you can find those stories by traveling to

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