PANAMA CITY, Panama — As a real estate agent shows off a model apartment — white leather sectional, stainless steel appliances, open concept, ocean views — in the 59-story Yacht Club Tower, and touts its fitness center and pool deck designed to mimic a ship floating on the sea, he makes a telling statement:
“We tried to emulate the Miami style in this building.”
Approaching this Central American capital from the air, the first thing a traveler notices is a skyline on steroids — gleaming towers jutting skyward like so many pickets on a fence. There’s even a Trump high-rise here — the sail-shaped 72-story Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower. And it’s not uncommon for those active in Miami real estate and development circles to try their luck in Panama or move back and forth between the markets.
Although Miami is nearly 1,200 miles from Panama City, the real estate markets of the two cities share certain similarities. Both went through booms and overbuilding and then had way too many empty condominiums. Wealthy Latin American buyers were a salvation in both cities when traditional segments of the market fell off.
“Now that things are starting to pick up in the States, they are picking up here too. Now that there’s not as much economic uncertainty in the United States, people feel more confident about Panama too,’’ said Morris Hafeitz, general manger of Emporium Developers. He used to work in Miami as a project manager for Odebrecht, the Brazilian conglomerate.
Now Hafeitz is trying to sell Allure at the Park, a 50-story building Emporium developed in Panama City’s Bella Vista neighborhood. The building is chock full of amenities — gym, teenage game room, adult lounge, toddler playroom, pool, squash court and even miniature golf on the roof — but one of its main selling points is that it overlooks a park and two low-rise historic buildings. “In the heart of the city without the hassles of the city,’’ said Hafeitz.
During the boom, many buildings in central Panama City went up practically on top of each other. “In the beginning of the boom there were no regulations on density,’’ said Mauricio Saba, a project manager at Zoom Development in Panama City and another Miami real estate alum. “I have a friend who said he could watch his neighbor’s TV from his balcony.’’
Margarita Sanclemente, a Miami real estate broker with offices in Panama City and New York, has seen it all — the boom, the irrational building and the slowdown — and has stuck with the Panamanian market.
She first ventured into Panama in 2005. The Panamanian real estate market, which had been sluggish for more than a decade, was undergoing a rebirth and Americans, lured by low prices and the low cost of living, were snapping up properties.
The sweet spot was the 1,000 to 1,500-square-foot apartment, sans maid’s quarters, which appealed to retirees from Canada and the United States, she said.
That was back when Americans still believed you couldn’t go wrong with real estate. “Some of the buyers didn’t even see the units. We sold them by phone,’’ Sanclemente said. Condo prices at new buildings such as Destiny averaged $98 to $120 per square foot. She herself bought a 1,000 square foot, one bedroom condo for $123,000 back in 2005.