Palette Magazine

Vagabond owner Avra Jain takes Miami back to the future

Avra Jain in the pool area.
Avra Jain in the pool area. Photo: Christina Mendenhall

Once a champion tennis player, Avra Jain gave that up long ago, first to work on Wall Street and then to break down walls throughout South Florida.

For 17 years, Jain has bought and sold property in Miami, renovating landmarks and becoming one of the most prominent developers in town.

She started with nothing, the twin daughter of an immigrant from India who picked peaches in Sacramento to put himself through college.

“My father went to school for engineering and worked for the state of California,” Jain says. He would work during the day and my mom would take care of us. I have an identical twin sister. And my mom would work at night as an operator. A telephone operator. It’s hard to believe how much has changed in our lifetime.”

Dr. Ravinder Jain eventually became “a very celebrated author and one of the foremost [authorities] in environmental engineering, a fellow at Cambridge University,” his daughter says.

Mother Barbara Montgomery, who traced her family tree to northern Europe and the Mayflower, also earned a PhD. Along the way, the Jains lived in Lubbock, Texas, and Champaign, Illinois.

Twins Avra and Anna, a doubles team in high school, put themselves through college on tennis scholarships.

“I turned 50 and was like ‘OK, I’m going to go back and play tennis,’” Jain says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so much fun.’ Of course I start swinging and serving away and of course I hurt myself, thinking I was like that 20-year-old again. The body just isn’t that anymore. I realized I have to get in shape to play. Soon. And I will be back out there. I’m 54. I’m thinking, when I turn 55 I’ll give it another go.”



 

The Looking Glass

The Jain sisters still look so much alike their friends often mistake them for one another.

“We were that identical. We have baby pictures. We look at the baby pictures and I can’t tell you,” Jain says. “Even now, if I walk out of the room and she walks in and puts on the same clothes, you probably wouldn’t know. Still, to this day. I’ll be walking in Bal Harbour, walking down the hall and somebody walks up to me and gives me a big hug. It’s Vera Wang. And I’m like ‘No, I’m not who you think I am. I’ll tell my sister Anna you say hello.’”

Yes, designer Vera Wang — Anna Jain Bakst is president of accessories and footwear of Michael Kors (USA).

Avra’s career took a different path. She earned an industrial engineering degree from Purdue University in Indiana.

“I realized about engineering: I liked it as a curriculum. Math and science were a strength for me. It wasn’t a career I thought I could be passionate about. So I moved to New York,” she says. “I took a bartending job at TGI Fridays, a coveted job at least at my age. I learned how to make a very good bloody mary.

“I was very interested in Wall Street — the idea of Wall Street. I really wasn’t quite sure what it was. I read Stigum’s Money Market book, so I could learn the vocabulary. I knew the math, but I needed to know the vocabulary. I got through that in a long weekend and took an interview that next week and I got the job.”

Jain worked in finance for about 15 years.

“Once I got in and saw the opportunities, I found a path. And that path led me eventually to the trading side,” Jain says. “I played in that world for about 12, 13 years. I loved it. It was very sporting. My tennis background, my competitive sports background, probably is what allowed me to do as well as I did as quickly as I did. It was really more about having the right temperament.”

In the late 1990s, Jain also became involved in real estate, renovating properties including Cobblestone Lofts, a 100,000-square-foot loft conversion in Tribeca.

At the same time, Jain began spending more and more playtime in Miami. She moved to South Florida in December 1999, to be with her then-girlfriend, Susanne Bak Mortensen.

“We were doing the New York-Miami thing and I said, ‘Gosh, I’d rather live in Miami than New York,” Jain says. “The lifestyle was too good.”

With business partners, Jain invested — and made millions — buying, selling and renovating properties along the Biscayne Boulevard corridor near downtown Miami.

A year ago, she snapped up Miami River Inn for $8.6 million, and it’s currently under renovation.



 

Back To The Future

In 2006, Miami declared a 27-block stretch of Biscayne Boulevard a MiMo (Miami Modern architecture) historic district. In Miami’s Upper East Side, from Morningside to Belle Meade, this district consists mostly of mid-20th century motels, which were wildly popular among middle-class tourists who drove into town in the 1950s and ‘60s.

At the heart of district: The Vagabond, designed by architect Robert Swartburg and built in 1953.

Jain bought the 45-room Vagabond in 2012 for $2 million.

“I looked at it and I was like, ‘This is a beautiful piece of property. This needs to be saved.’ The Vagabond was up for demolition. I looked at it first as a real-estate design project. I knew it was important to the community. I didn’t realize how important it was,” Jain says. “I do a lot of adaptive reuse. I buy warehouses and turn them into offices. The difference between just a building and The Vagabond is that The Vagabond housed memories. I would get notes, postcards, people thanking me, ‘I remember when I was there.’”

Jain spent about $6 million renovating The Vagabond, but with some creative deal-making she got back $3 million by selling the hotel’s air rights to another developer.

She hired Stephane Dupoux to design The Vagabond’s interiors and young chef Alex Chang to run the hotel’s Jetsons-style restaurant.

“It spoke to who we are as a young business,” Jain says. “It’s casual, fun dining. A lot of the neighborhood is here to support. The restaurant couldn’t just rely on the hotel. It needed to stand on its own.”

Jain calls her company, the Vagabond Group, “mothership” of her empire, which now includes 10 Biscayne Boulevard properties including the once-sleazy Royal Motel next to The Vagabond.

“When you walked into the [Royal] lobby, the sign said, ‘No refunds after five minutes.’ We still have that sign,” Jain says. “That’s what we were buying. Imagine somebody suggesting that you should do a five-star boutique hotel next to ‘No refunds after five minutes.’ This was really out of the box.”



 

Where The Heart Is

Jain is a board member of the MiMo Biscayne Association.

“Her vision plus experience plus determination and tenacity really catapulted or energized the redevelopment of the MiMo district with The Vagabond Hotel,” said investor Shane Graber of Graber Realty Group, president of the association. “That’s led to a huge resurgence in commercial development along Biscayne Boulevard by others. For instance, Trina Turk and Mr Turk opening — soon at 7200 Biscayne — is a huge boon for the area and one that Avra helped make happen.”

Graber describes Jain: “Direct, energetic, feisty, passionate, tough love and a big hug. Say it like it is and get it done. She’s an inspiration to men and women, gay and straight, young and old, who choose to live their lives and be true to their values.”

Jain says she dated a few men in college, but never lived her life in the closet.

“I have had a positive experience as a gay woman, not having experienced the slammed doors. I think part of it is who we choose to surround ourselves with or who we choose to do business with. I did it on my own,” she says.

Jain has been partnered for eight years with Dalia Lagoa, originally of Puerto Rico, who retired from investment banking at age 45 and now oversees operations for the Vagabond Group.

“We met in Miami,” Jain says, calling Lagoa “a superstar in her own right.” They live in Palm Bay Tower a few blocks from the Vagabond.

“I’m very passionate about what I do. It’s not work for me. It’s what I want to do,” Jain says. “[Dalia] even said to me, ‘Avra, I can’t ever imagine you not doing this.’ She’s been more help than I can ever imagine.”

Jain says she usually works 12 hours a day, six days a week. The seventh day she spends with daughter Alexandra, 11, who lives in Miami Beach with Jain’s ex.

“The laws have changed now, but when we had Alexandra, her other mom, Susanne, actually was the surrogate. And Susanne actually carried my baby. It was my egg and we got a physical match on Susanne — a Danish donor. Susanne was the birth mother. The way the laws were back then, when you give up your eggs, you give up your rights,” says Jain, who under Florida law at the time was unable to legally adopt her own biological child.

“Having my daughter is my everything,” Jain says. “It changed my world. It changes why I do what I do. There’s not a day where I’m not thinking about her or missing her or looking forward to seeing her. So much of what I do now is for her.”

Friend and attorney Elizabeth Schwartz calls Jain “a genuine powerhouse, raising a vibrant neighborhood and raising a wonderful daughter.”

“She’s got a gentle demeanor, is very easy to talk to and, perhaps rarest of all, she listens,” says Schwartz, one of Florida’s best-known LGBT family attorneys who helped end Florida’s gay adoption ban in 2010. “Avra’s genuinely in love with Miami and committed to being a part of a strong, vibrant community. She and Dalia are an amazing team and we’re blessed with their visionary presence on the Boulevard.”

Jain says she prefers calling herself a gay woman, not a lesbian.

“I like to use the word ‘gay.’ I like us all being one happy family. You know what I like about gay? It’s a happy word. It’s positive. I think that’s why we’re gay. We wanted to be happy. That’s the word I identify with the most,” she says. “You do a lot of soul searching. What has helped me is accepting the fact I am gay and the soul searching that went along with it. That awareness, that process, has helped me be successful.”

THE VAGABOND HOTEL

Opened in 1953, The Vagabond Motel was part of an era that included Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack, showgirls and impromptu performances on the lounge stage. Families would leave behind the frigid northern winters to enjoy the warm Miami weather that was perfectly complemented by the property’s chill vibe.

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