Business Monday

Developer Ugo Colombo brings European flair to Miami skyline

Developer Ugo Colombo, CMC Group, at the sales center for his project Brickell Flatiron in Miami on Friday, June 12, 2015.
Developer Ugo Colombo, CMC Group, at the sales center for his project Brickell Flatiron in Miami on Friday, June 12, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

For Ugo Colombo, the design is in the details.

The Italian-born developer oversees nearly every inch of his projects, from the intricate mosaics at the Collection, a luxury car dealership in Coral Gables, to the porthole-shaped windows that adorn Grovenor House, a 32-story condo tower with a nautical theme in Coconut Grove.

Architect Luis Revuelta has designed towers for Colombo’s CMC Group for 25 years. On the company’s first development, a 40-story Brickell condo called Bristol Tower built in 1993, Colombo insisted on importing Venetian stucco, Italian kitchen fixtures and Azurelite glass, Revuelta said.

“He was willing to spend the money,” Revuelta said.

It was a marked departure from the threadbare, smaller condo projects that had come before. The new style helped launch a real estate revolution fueled by wealthy buyers and managed largely by foreign developers like Colombo that culminated in today’s opulent, ultra-luxury towers.

“When Ugo Colombo built Bristol Tower, he basically began the run of bringing new condos to Brickell Avenue,” said Peter Zalewski, a local condo market analyst. “Everyone was in a pessimistic mood in the early ’90s because the Venezuelan currency went sideways.”

CMC Group was only able to get financing thanks to a Japanese bank. No locals were willing to back the project.

“There was a lot of skepticism of him when he was building,” Zalewski said. “But he got a Super Bowl ring, if you will, once it was delivered. He’s got that knack for high quality and flair without being gaudy and overwhelming.”

Now Colombo has two new projects in the works, one in Brickell and the other in Coral Gables.

The downtown project, a 64-story glass skyscraper called Brickell Flatiron, is in a more advanced stage of planning, with about 40 percent of units under contract and construction scheduled to start by year’s end. Vladislav Doronin, a Russian developer often compared to Donald Trump, is a partner on the tower, which is located on a triangular spit of land where South Miami Avenue meets Southeast First Avenue.

The name echoes Manhattan’s famous Flatiron building — and the similarities will go well beyond shape.

In Brickell, Miami’s financial district, “you can live without driving now,” Colombo said. “You’ll have the metro station across from the lobby. You have 20 restaurants within walking distance.”

“The lifestyle is becoming very much like New York,” Colombo continued. “With the difference being that you can be at the beach in minutes.”

Brickell Flatiron will have 35,000 square feet of ground-floor restaurant and retail space, 548 condos with wide, curving terraces, and a top floor devoted to amenities including a gym, pool and spa.

Units start at $465,000 and are selling for an average of $700 per square foot. (New construction in Brickell averages about $620 per square foot.) The apartments range from 730-square-foot one-bedrooms to 6,200-square-foot penthouses.

Revuelta has been tapped to design the tower, and artist Julian Schnabel, who planned the flamingo-pink sales center that stands on the lot today, will design the building’s lobby and other common spaces.

The extravagant sales center gives a clue to Flatiron’s style with high-quality custom furniture, a lively color scheme dominated by bright pinks and blues, and art by Schnabel on the walls.

Colombo says he is taking a hands-on approach to the tower’s design — he can’t do it any other way.

“In order to really pay attention to what I’m doing, I need to work out a floor plan and personally look at what side each door swings and be happy with the column placement and how the whole building flows and functions,” he said.

“The standard has to be something that I would want to live in,” Colombo added before seeming to lose his train of thought.

He’s distracted from the conversation by a small panel peeling away from a cabinet just where it meets the floor in the sales center’s model kitchen. “They still haven’t fixed that thing!” Colombo exclaims. “The bottom of that cabinet. Anyway.”

An avid race-car driver, Colombo said the sport helped teach him the value of absolute focus.

“If you go into a turn too fast, you’re going to crash,” he said. “And even if you don’t crash, going into a turn too fast compromises your exit, which is going to cost you time. You have to manage risk. If you push, you pay the consequences. It can be as drastic as crashing or as little as losing half a second.”

At 52, Colombo says his racing days are behind him. He totaled his Ferrari 458 Challenge in a crash on the track before a Formula One event in Montreal last summer .

“It happened right in front of my wife,” Colombo said. “She was not happy.”

“It wasn’t my fault,” he added. “Someone clipped me from behind.”

As a developer, managing risk has always been a priority for Colombo, who was born to a Milanese family that made its fortune in chemicals.

His parents, he said, are cautious with money. “They come from an Italian mentality,” he said. “No debt.”

Colombo came to South Florida in the early 1980s to study at the University of Miami. The city appealed to his Latin roots, he said. Names like Coconut Grove sounded wonderfully exotic. “Why would you want to go to New York?” he asked.

The young Colombo began managing condo units, eventually purchasing them by the bundle out of receivership from the federal government. He soon turned his eye to development and found Miami’s design sense sorely lacking.

“Everything was boxy and small,” he said. “There was no security, no private elevators, there was no concept of luxury. In Europe, everyone lived in an apartment. But here the concept was that luxury was a house. An apartment was just a small box.”

First with Bristol Tower, then with an 18-acre development in Aventura called Porto Vita —a partnership with the Soffer family — and finally the 52-story Santa Maria in Brickell, Colombo made his mark on Miami.

But he resisted the urge to expand too quickly.

During the heady days of the boom, associates urged him to build two towers at the same time on the site of the old DuPont Plaza Hotel.

“People were making arguments that building both buildings would be more efficient and cut down on overhead and management costs,” Colombo said. “But I knew that if something went wrong, it would be difficult to carry the financial burden of building both at the same time.”

The end result? CMC Group was able to finish the $428.5 million Epic Hotel & Residences in 2008 and ride out the financial crisis. Banking on a recovery, the company held onto a 1.25-acre parcel next door — where the second tower would have gone — and flipped it to an Argentine grocery-store magnate for $125 million last year, a record price for a parcel of that size south of Washington, D.C.

CMC is also marketing a .8-acre parcel it owns at 830 SE First Ave., which was once envisioned as a companion project to Brickell Flatiron.

“Ugo putting something on the market, given his track record, is significant,” said Zalewski. “It’s a clear sign that this cycle is slowing down.”

Colombo says he doesn’t want to spread himself too thin.

“If I do too much, I would have to rely too much on other people and it wouldn’t be the same feeling of involvement that I can have by doing one or two things at a time,” he said.

Next in the pipeline for the company is a low-density, luxury residential project in Coral Gables that will include 126 condos and townhomes averaging 2,500 square feet.

Called the Collection Residences, the project is located across the street from the Collection, a luxury car dealership and office tower that Colombo redeveloped in 2002.

The new residential project is one of the first luxury high-end condos planned for the Gables in this cycle. Hotel-type amenities and services are planned, as well as space for retail and cafés. Arquitectonica will design the building. Massimo Iosa Ghini, an award-winning architect based in Italy, will design the interiors.

Shoma Group is partnering with Colombo on the project. Masoud Shojaee, president of Shoma, said he expects the project will be more attractive to local buyers than Brickell or Miami Beach properties.

“People living in a big house in Pinecrest, Boca Raton, the kids are gone and they want to move to apartments,” Shojaee said. “But with the size of these units, they don’t feel like they’re being squeezed into a small apartment.”

Pricing details are still being worked out.

The residences, located at 250 Bird Road, are down the street from luxury mall Merrick Park in a once-industrial area that is now walkable and close to nightlife and Coral Gables’ urban core.

When Colombo acquired the car dealership in 1994 after owner Armando Fernandez — a former racing partner on the powerboat circuit — was arrested on drug charges, it brought in about $50 million in sales. Last year, it took in more than $500 million, said president and co-owner Ken Gorin. Brands on offer include Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin and McLaren.

The showroom is divided into seven different boutiques. Standing in one, it’s impossible to see the wares of another.

“Ugo sees things from a different light,” Gorin said. “He’s my perfect demographic. He looks at things as a consumer.”

“And we share some of the same tendencies,” he added. “I can notice a license-plate screw that’s not straight. I don’t look for it. It finds me.”

Colombo’s other projects have also stood the test of time: They have some of the highest resale values in Miami.

Santa Maria ($857 per square foot), Grovenor House ($815 per square foot), Epic ($657 per square foot) and Bristol Tower ($546 per square foot) all outsell comparable buildings from the same time period.

“He’s an experienced, high-quality builder,” said Jack McCabe, a housing market analyst based in Deerfield Beach. “It makes sense that people who invest in his properties would make a premium.”

Like many developers, Colombo has had his days in court.

One lawsuit saw the Bristol Tower condo association sue Colombo over leaks at the $14 million penthouse he lived in and then sold to rapper and producer Pharrell Williams in 2007. (Colombo was sued as a homeowner, not a developer).

In another case, Colombo won a $2 million judgment against Design District developer Craig Robins in a seven-year dispute over costs for a shared Challenger 604 private jet. Robins has appealed.

But his attention is always fully on his projects, Colombo said.

A competitor, the developer Alan Ojeda, agreed.

“He invests so much time personally,” Ojeda said. “We all pay attention to detail, but with Ugo it’s an exquisite attention to detail, a real passion.”

CMC Group

Business: Founded in 1986, CMC Group is a boutique luxury developer with a reputation for using high quality materials and focusing on innovative design. The company has built some of Miami’s most well-known residential developments, including Bristol Tower (Brickell/1993), Porto Vita (Aventura/1995), Santa Maria (Brickell/1997), Grovenor House (Coconut Grove/2005), and the Epic Residences & Hotel (Miami/2008). Founder Ugo Colombo has a long-standing partnership with local architect Luis Revuelta, who has designed most of CMC’s projects. The company is full-service, meaning it handles its own financing, design, marketing and sales although it no longer does its own construction. “The world has changed,” Colombo said. “Technology has changed and for me as a small contractor to keep up with today’s technology becomes cost-prohibitive versus a general contractor who can spread it out over different jobs.” Colombo says that he eschews risk, preferring to focus on one or two projects at a time. In 2014, CMC sold 1.25 acres of land at the mouth of the Miami River for $125 million, a record for a parcel of that size south of Washington, D.C.

Founder: Ugo Colombo.

Headquarters: 701 Brickell Ave., Miami.

Employees: 55

Top executives: Arthur Murphy, chief operating officer. Esther Thurmon, controller. Tim Wensing, president of CMC’s construction division. Vanessa Grout, president of CMC’s real estate division.

Cost of major developments since 1993: $1.09 billion.

New luxury projects under development: Brickell Flatiron (Brickell). The Collection Residences (Coral Gables).

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