Stephen H. Bittel, chairman of Terranova Corp., has reached new heights in the realm of commercial real estate since his firm’s $342million sale of a portfolio of six buildings on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach — one of the largest property deals in South Florida history. Terranova remains an owner and managing member of the properties, in a new partnership with Morgan Stanley Real Estate Investing. In total, Terranova Corp., which Bittel founded in 1980, owns and operates more than $1 billion of real estate in Florida, mostly in South Florida.
We sat down with Bittel in his Miami Beach offices to discuss his background and company, and then emailed him these questions to which he responded. (These are edited for space. For the full version, go to www.MiamiHerald.com.)
Q. You are a Miami native, yes?
A. I am as native as one could be, having been born at Jackson Memorial Hospital, the second of three children of my very active parents, Jordan and Judy Bittel who grew up on Miami Beach. My father always joked that when our families got down here, there were only Claude Pepper and the alligators. A product of the Miami Dade County Public School system from grades one through 12, I continued my education at Bowdoin College, with my sister, and son, later graduating from Bowdoin as well. While it’s a long way to Brunswick, Maine, we still feel uniquely close to the college.
Q. Did you originally intend to be a lawyer?
A. After Bowdoin, I spent a year in Europe, as a Watson Fellow, and applied to law school while abroad. As the son and grandson of attorneys, I grew up always planning to follow in their footsteps professionally, but by the time I began at the University of Miami School of Law, I was headed in another direction, working full time in commercial real estate during my first year of law school, and then starting what is now Terranova during the fall of my second year. While somehow I managed to graduate and pass the bar as a result of some remarkable study group partners who always reeled me back in to focus on our exams, working full time while simultaneously a full time law student might not be recommended for those requiring normal sleep.
Q. How did you start Terranova Corp.?
A. In the fall of my second year of law school, my then-employer suggested a change in my compensation from salary to all commission, that would enable me to earn much more. After thinking about it overnight, I agreed with them and left to begin what is now Terranova. While creating my own company had always been a dream, the idea had been to first get through law school. But alas, as in the John Steinbeck novel title, “the best laid plans of mice and men…”
So there I was, at the age of 24, engaged, with a mortgage, a full-time law student, and working on my own out of our first home. Retrospectively, it doesn’t seem like the best of business plans, but somehow, it worked. The hope was that I would continue to build upon relationships developed during my Watson Fellowship year in Europe and to attract capital from abroad to invest with me in South Florida commercial real estate. I found the Terranova name, Latin for new land or new world, in the back of a dictionary in the foreign words section, as we all used to have dictionaries back then.
Every European with a high school education or more had taken several years of Latin in school so they would know what the company was about, and every Spanish speaker would know as well, so I only had to explain it to the English speakers. Our first logo was a globe with the Terranova name created by a University of Miami graphic arts graduate student, and while we still have the same font, the globe has been downsized to incorporate it into the orange that is the most recognizable part of our logo today.
Q. What were your first investments?
A. Our first investments were “friends and family” syndications of two small unanchored strip shopping centers on Sunset Drive, magically just down the street from Sunset Corners, the wine and gourmet store started by my grandparents 60 years ago, and now owned and wonderfully operated by my older brother and first cousin. Next came a five-building office park on Coral Way, the Biscayne Plaza Shopping Center (with which we are still involved), and then an industrial park on Milam Dairy Road. All of these projects had other investors, but we retained the management and leasing on all of them, developing what has become our core competency in operations. In 1986 the combined effect of changes in the tax laws and new regulations governing the Savings and Loan industry plunged the overbuilt commercial real estate sector into a deep recession. Fortunately, the company, which by then had just over 30 team members, was competent and strong enough to race into what is now called the distressed business, to offer our services to insurance companies and banks which rapidly became involuntary owners of commercial real estate when their loans defaulted. We helped them get title and then did workouts all over the state including management, leasing and construction management, eventually restoring the value, and then taking the assets to market for sale.
Q. How did Terranova grow from there?
A. Our property base continued to grow, reaching a peak of over 8million square feet, with a team of over 100 members. We saved our profits and started buying again, this time partnering with high net worth families. We focused on supermarket/drug store anchored shopping centers in growing suburban markets in Miami Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, always looking for opportunities in growing neighborhoods that we believed would lead to increasing sales and growing rents.
Q. Why did you focus on strip shopping centers?
A. We loved this asset class because we believed that the chain store relationships could be developed and result in multiple leases with the same tenant, whether new to market like Starbucks when they first arrived in South Florida, or Publix, with which at one time we had 16 separate stores. It was the same with Walgreens, Winn Dixie, Payless Shoes, and you name the chain, we were doing business with them. Our size gave us incredible tenant access at the highest levels of the retail companies, and we could do more and more stores with substantially the same lease agreement. It was a special combination, and we used this access to build what we called our “yours, mine, and ours” portfolio, with some properties pure third-party assignments, some joint ventures with either high net worth families or institutions, and some were all ours.
Some of our notable properties with which we have been involved in different capacities over the last 30 years include Biscayne Plaza, Suniland, Kendall Mall, Flagler Park Plaza, all in Miami Dade; Westfork Plaza, Paraiso Plaza, Country Walk, Weston Lakes, and Sheridan Mall in Broward; and Boca Valley Plaza, Shadowwood Square, Jupiter Square in Palm Beach County. All told, we have worked on nearly 100 different open air shopping centers over the past 30 years throughout Florida, plus a large number of office and industrial properties.
Q. How did you become interested in urban retail?
A. In the mid 1990s, the residential land surrounding our shopping centers had been absorbed and substantially built up with housing. When the homes and apartments were first newly occupied, they were filled with growing young families that were the ultimate consumption unit. As the families grew, they consumed more and more. Our retail tenants experienced growing sales which quickly meant growing rents. As the communities aged, the children matured and moved out, leaving us smaller groups of consumers. Sales growth began to slow and we were concerned. At the same time, younger people relocating to South Florida started thinking about living in more urban areas like Miami Beach, Coral Gables and Brickell. For the first time in my life, our suburban communities were commencing an uncomfortable transition from endless suburban sprawl to real urban pockets of activity. Our first buy was an eight-building portfolio on Miracle Mile in Coral Gables over 10 years ago, which we still own today, now with our second institutional partner. Coral Gables has a walkable downtown core that is getting better and better with strong daytime population from a robust office market, great restaurants and growing residential. The city leadership has committed to a streetscape project to further upgrade the common areas of Miracle Mile which should make the future even better.
Q. What originally caused you to think of Lincoln Road?
A. We had chased deals on Lincoln Road since 2002, and had a great history of coming up short. We loved the street because it had a special combination of local customers and tenants, and international visitors and retailers. The café life in the center remains the engine that really drives the energy of the street. When the economy slowed down in 2007, we stopped buying and focused on our existing large portfolio. We had plenty of work to do and weathered the storm comfortably, focusing again on our core operational competency, and benefiting from low leverage and no property level recourse debt. Our team member count shrunk though some attrition, but we are proud of having zero layoffs, and only one person who took a salary adjustment — me, and I took no salary for several years.
With retail sales showing growth in December of 2009, we made the call that it was time to go all in on a bet on a recovering economy and thought there was no better place than Lincoln Road. Our first buy with an institutional partner was a three-building, $52million deal in December of 2010 that included the Sushi Samba restaurant on Pennsylvania and Lincoln, and the Starbucks building on Meridian and Lincoln — getting us two of the very best corners on Lincoln Road. At a price of $850 per square foot, people called from around the country to tell me I had gone crazy. They did not understand that the numbers were even worse, as one of the buildings was on Lincoln Lane, to the north of Lincoln Road and not as valuable as Lincoln Road. Our plan was simple then and not a lot different than in the past, as we thought we could move average rents of $65 per square foot to $130, and we planned to replace the Lincoln Lane building with a new three-story retail store.
Two years later, we bought three more buildings for $139million, all on Lincoln Road with the same partner, at what then seemed like a far less astonishing $2,300 per square foot. Once again we had a plan, as we bought with average rents of $130 per square foot, with the hope to get to a then market rate of $300 per square foot as leases expired. Since then we have received approvals from the Historic Preservation Board on Miami Beach to add additional square footage to two of our buildings. Together the two buys combine to approach almost thirty percent of the retail space on Lincoln Road.
Q. You and your partner Acadia Realty Trust just sold your six-property portfolio for $342million, one of the largest property sales in South Florida history. You retained ongoing ownership as a partner with Morgan Stanley Real Estate. What are your plans for the properties now?
A. We are laser-focused on executing our leasing and development plan, seeking out exciting new retailers from around the world to make the Lincoln Road dining and shopping experience one of the best in the world. As we find premier retailers and restaurateurs to join us, we will be ever-sensitive to maintaining the right possible mix of offerings to appeal to everyone who loves to spend time eating, shopping and watching people.… We start with a magical location on Miami Beach, a top destination for local area residents and tourists from around the world
We have played an important role joining the property owners up and down Lincoln Road into a property owners’ association that we hope will soon transition into a Business Improvement District like we have had for years in Coral Gables, where our executive vice president, Mindy McIlroy, has a leadership role. The City of Miami Beach has committed to a major upgrade of the common areas of Lincoln Road to be designed by a world-class design firm and paid for by special assessments that the property owners have been contributing to for many years. This coupled with a huge upgrade to the convention center and a new convention hotel, should propel the quality and quantity of Lincoln Road guests higher than we have ever known. The new leadership at the City of Miami Beach understands the unique and powerful role that Lincoln Road has played in the past, and will in the future.
Q. You have also been very active philanthropically and hold a number of positions in political and nonprofit organizations. Please tell me about that.
A. I am passionate about making our community and country better. We are committed to this as a family and company. Terranova was just the presenting sponsor for the National Parkinson’s Foundation Miami Moving Day. Team Terranova raised nearly $400,000 making us the highest first-year team in history and the top giving team ever. I am on the Board of Teach for America Miami because I believe that every child should have equal educational opportunity and that the inner city education gap has the potential to be the most destabilizing single issue facing our country. Our TFA Corps members, under the leadership of our exceptional Superintendent, and with unmatched commitment and enthusiasm, are teaching in the poorest neighborhoods and really moving the needle on educational achievement. I am an elected member of the Democratic National Committee because I believe that we are all about giving everyone in need a hand up and I am delighted to make the commitment it takes. Two of our children, now adults, served in the Peace Corps and my wife is a teacher in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools. All three of our wonderful adult children share our passion for helping others. What we lose in sleep, we make up in our constant effort to improve our community and country, and that energizes us to do more and more. We have been so incredibly fortunate and achieved a level of success we never dreamed possible, so giving back is amongst our very top priorities.
Q. What is next for you?
A. I want to do more. I will have plenty of time to rest in my 90s and after, but for now Terranova is focused on reinvesting in both super core and opportunistic commercial real estate. Personally, I want to make sure we have the leadership in place to continue the positive impact on Lincoln Road and Miracle Mile, as well as seek out new streets where we can grow a meaningful ownership position. Everyone asks what I am going to do after our recent Lincoln Road trade, and I answer the same every time: I want to do it again.
Personally, I have so many charitable and political goals ahead that there is little time for a breather. Investing in education in Miami is a top priority, as when we get education right, it fixes so many other issues in our community from homelessness, to crime, to health, to jobs. The growth of our community demands an educated populace and we have the right people in Miami to push this goal forward year after year, making our Miami community one of the greatest places to live in the world.
Stephen H. Bittel
Title: Chairman and founder, Terranova Corp., Miami Beach
Lives in: Coconut Grove
Education: Bachelor’s degree majoring in economics, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine; Law degree, University of Miami School of Law
Personal: Married, three adult children
Hobbies: real esate, politics, charity, food and wine, Miami Heat fan