Michael Comras has played a major role in the reshaping of South Florida. As a commercial real estate broker and developer, his name is synonymous with the resurgence of Lincoln Road and the creation of such areas as the Collins Avenue Fashion District. Comras has also been involved in Midtown Miami, Wynwood, the Design District, the Brickell area and other parts of Miami-Dade, and is even putting his mark on Broward County.
Comras, president and CEO of the Comras Company, is a native New Yorker who has spent the past two decades in South Florida, focusing on creating destinations.
“The essence of what I do is look at areas and see what merchandising we can do, what tenants work well next to each other, and create environments where people would like to go,” Comras said.
“The coolest thing is taking a negative and turning it into a positive,” he said. “It’s about creating a sense of place.”
We met with Comras in his Sunset Harbour, Miami Beach, headquarters — the former World Savings Bank branch that he purchased in 2009. The offices are set up as a contemporary workspace, with an open floor-plan that he said allows for better communication among the staff. We then emailed him these questions, to which he responded:
Q. How did you get your start in commercial real estate?
A. After graduating from the University of Miami in the early 1980s, I moved back to New York City to begin my real estate pursuits. Having grown up in a family of real estate entrepreneurs, I had watched the business evolve and was ready to begin. I went to work for a large commercial real estate company, honing my skills in leasing, financing, management and acquisitions. I felt that having a great base of knowledge in many aspects of real estate ownership and development would give me the skills necessary to understand how a real estate deal is put together.
Q. How did you make the transition to Miami?
A. In 1993, after 10 years of pounding the pavement in NYC and contemplating the birth of my daughter, I was looking to upgrade the quality of life for my family. I did not want to be pushing a stroller through Manhattan in the middle of the winter. I knew that during my 10-year absence, with Miami’s ethnic and cultural diversity, Miami had become much more interesting as a place for me to raise a family and to invest in real estate. I took a trip to South Beach, stayed at the Ritz Plaza Hotel for $79/night and started walking the area; I was impressed by the numbers and variety of tourists, and what was to me the obvious opportunities for new development. At the same time in Manhattan, I would watch how The Gap (a top fashion retailer at the time) would go into an emerging area, open a store and start a retail trend that would ultimately bring other great retailers to the area. I contacted them to see if they would consider South Beach. Very quickly thereafter, we were in construction of their flagship location at Seventh Street and Collins Avenue.
Q. What was your involvement with the evolution of the Collins Avenue Fashion District?
A. My instinct with The Gap proved correct, and I then began conceptualizing how this new retail area would evolve. I, along with other Miami Beach developers, worked quickly to shape the district. Soon after The Gap building, I proceeded with buildings for Polo, Sephora, Levi’s, Aldo, and with leases with MAC Cosmetics, Sunglass Hut and others. The “Collins Avenue Fashion District” was born.
Q. You are well known for your role in the resurgence of Lincoln Road. Please tell me about that.
A. With the success of the “Collins Avenue Fashion District,” in the year 2000, we began searching Lincoln Road for additional Gap and Banana Republic locations. Having had my office on Lincoln Road for many years, I quickly went to the “Road” and created a map. I felt that if I could situate these tenants properly, it would begin a trend similar to what had happened on Collins Avenue. Once we secured their locations, the area took off. We went on to acquire several properties and complete deals with Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, Apple, BCBG, Diesel and a host of other renowned retailers. Today, Lincoln Road is one of the top “high streets” in the world.
During this time, as Miami Beach and Lincoln Road were evolving, I sensed a growing demand for Class A office space to cater to major corporations interested in relocating to Miami Beach. To that end, I put together a joint venture with LNR Property Corp. and the Robins Companies to develop Lincoln Place and The Lincoln, both in a public/private partnership. The combined properties consist of approximately 230,000 square feet of office space, 110,000 square feet of retail space and 1,200 parking spaces. Lincoln Place became the headquarters of LNR, which ultimately occupied approximately 100,000 square feet, becoming one of the largest corporate relocations ever in Miami Beach.
Q. Please tell me how the Comras Company has evolved to today and how the company's revenues have grown.
A. Today the Comras Company has a team of brokers focused 100 percent on retail, fashion, restaurants and showrooms, representing landlords and tenants throughout the tri-county area. We are not just a Miami Beach firm anymore! Our area of focus runs from Pinecrest to Pembroke Pines, with a major concentration on emerging areas such as Wynwood, Midtown, the Design District and Brickell. You will continue to see our growth through the numerous listings and placement of our trademark blue and green leasing signs in high profile locations.
Q. In addition to retail, what other elements of creating a commercial district have you been involved in?
A. In Midtown, around 2008, as the 1,000 condo units were about to come on line, the market was crashing. The developer came and asked what we could do to activate the street level at the buildings. We responded by proposing the development of a “Restaurant Row,” which would be a collection of diverse restaurants located next to each other, as a way of creating a destination for food, drink and entertainment. Done properly, the outdoor seating would create a “sense of place” where people could hang out and see and be seen.
We quickly located Sugarcane, an offshoot of the popular Sushi Samba Restaurant. That was followed by a series of other restaurants — and the rest is history.
Q. How about beyond Midtown, in the Design District? Please tell me about your involvement there.
A. There has been an amazing evolution of the Design District with the entry of top, high-fashion retailers complementing the existing high-end home furnishing stores. In addition to owning some key properties, we have been responsible for bringing a number of tenants such as Design Within Reach and Boffi to the area. Today we are working with a development team to bring approximately 60,000 square feet of new showroom, retail and café space to a site located at Northeast 36th Street and Northeast First Ave. As the home furnishing and design showrooms continue to be repositioned in the area in order to make room for the high-end fashion stores, this project will be able to house eight to 10 showroom/retail tenants, have abundant on-site parking, tremendous visibility and access. The most exciting aspect of the project is its ability to “Connect the Districts.” As the project sits on the edge of Midtown and the Design District, there is no other project better positioned to create the linkage, in a pedestrian-oriented way, between the Design District and Midtown.
We have also been very active with leasing and sales in the Wynwood/Midtown/Edgewater areas, representing several landlords and tenants seeking the “right fit.” Our company sees continued growth in these areas and plans to remain at the forefront.
Q. What other areas of South Florida are you involved in today?
A. Today, we are redeveloping and leasing a 25,000-square-foot project in the heart of Pinecrest Village on the site of the former Gardner’s Market/True Value location. In South Miami, we will be leasing the 22,000-square-foot redevelopment of the former New Chinatown location (at South Dixie Highway and SW 73rd Street) into a mixed-use retail/office project. Both projects are slated for completion in 2015.
We also are active in Coconut Grove, where I have developed a few properties over the last 20 years. I believe the Grove is reemerging. With most of the office space now occupied by technology and creative companies and the new high-end residential being developed, the Grove is poised for a nice recovery.
In Broward County, we recently represented Duke Realty, a REIT, with the approximately 400,000-square- foot, open-air lifestyle center Shops at Pembroke Gardens. Through our value-add leasing efforts, we helped facilitate the sale of the asset for a purchase price of $480 per square foot. Currently, we are selling a six-acre development site at the entrance of Pembroke Gardens and will be handling the leasing.
Q. What's next for you?
A. Urban redevelopment is complex. Our mission is to look for areas that can benefit from change. What sets us apart is that we don't look at any property in isolation but, rather, how its development will impact the fabric of the neighborhood.
I continue to seek opportunities for adaptive reuse, as this is a way of preserving our environment. I remain very focused on putting together the “right” co-tenancy to provide the best merchandise mix. I find a great deal of fulfillment when I see how people positively react to our projects.