South Beach, Wynwood developer Tony Goldman dies at 68

Tony Goldman was a visionary developer and preservationist who saw bright futures for blighted neighborhoods.

His company, Goldman Properties, transformed Miami Beach from a moth-eaten retirement enclave and narcotics war zone into a celebrity playground, and Wynwood from a gritty warehouse district and homeless encampment into a vibrant arts center where monthly gallery walks draw thousands.

He saved many of Miami Beach’s decaying Art Deco gems, and invited artists to use his Wynwood buildings as canvases. He salvaged sketchy areas of New York City and Philadelphia that anchored major urban revitalization.

“Ocean Drive went from being relatively non-existent to one of the major destinations of the world,” said Craig Robins, a Goldman protegé who redeveloped Miami’s Design District. “Tony was the central person in getting South Beach going.”

In 2010, when Goldman won the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s highest honor, the Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award, Trust president Stephanie Meeks said, “At its core, preservation is about recognizing the value of historic buildings and neighborhoods, and restoring life to places that define and enrich our communities. That is what Tony Goldman does, and nobody does it better.”

Four years ago, following a diagnosis of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, Goldman underwent a double lung transplant. Afterward, “his health was an issue, but he never let it get in the way,” said his wife, Janet Ehrlich Goldman. The Vietnam War-era veteran of the U.S. Army died of heart failure Tuesday at a hospital in New York, the city where he launched his real-estate empire with a single Upper West Side brownstone in the 1960s. He was 68.

Born to a single mother on Dec. 6, 1943, in Wilmington, Del., he was adopted at birth by Tillie and Charles Goldman of New York City, who named him Richard Anthony Goldman and raised him in comfort on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with a brother and a sister.

In his 50s, he reconnected with his biological parents, Shirley and Ray Meyers, who married after Ray returned from World War II. They, their daughter and two sons, became a welcome part of Goldman’s life, said Janet Goldman.

Goldman’s childhood inspired his passion for saving old buildings, said his daughter, Jessica Goldman Srebnick, who succeeds her father as Goldman Properties’ CEO.

“He never felt like he had his own roots. Historic preservation is about preserving roots. He didn’t know his own history so preserving history was very important.”

During a meeting Wednesday, Miami Beach commissioners honored Goldman with a moment of silence.

Mayor Matti Bower noted that he “came here during the time when Miami Beach was really down and out, and he put his money into this community. He bought [Art Deco preservationist] Barbara Capitman’s vision, had the vision to invest here, made Ocean Drive what it is today. He believed there was money in preservation and he made it happen here.”

David Wallack, owner of Mango’s Tropical Cafe, at 900 Ocean Drive, called Goldman “a leader of leaders. ... He walked [Ocean Drive] and then led us in walking that street and turning around, not just seeing the ocean, but seeing the buildings once again.”

From that came “color and music, entertainment, food and all the wonderful things that we enjoy as our prosperity,” he said. “That is what Tony brought: Prosperity.”

In 1986, Goldman told The Miami Herald that he considered himself lucky to have grown up in a wealthy family but, even as a teenager, realized he needed to make it on his own.

“If you take your family’s money, you’ll always be a slave to it,” he said.

At 15, he started working at his father’s New Jersey coat factory, where he “got a basic understanding of the working man there,” he said. “I learned that washing dishes is just as important as running the company if it’s Saturday night and the dishwasher isn’t working.”

He studied drama at Boston’s Emerson College, where he met Janet. They married in 1966, divorced in 1977, and remarried “at sunrise on Christmas morning in 1986,” said daughter Jessica.

Goldman learned the real-estate business from an uncle in New York and went out on his own in 1968.

“I was a teacher making $200 a week,” Janet Goldman recalled. “Tony was making $175. ... We worked hard, and we built everything together.”

She said that her husband, who loved to cook and sing, was “very competitive,” had “moxie and drive,” and felt that his only failure had been the failure of his body.

“Even so, he persevered and never complained, never gave into fear, and always did whatever it took to do the right thing,” his wife said. “That is what inspired everybody around him — he handled things with such grace and dignity. He kept saying to me: ‘I want to be remembered as a mensch.’ ”

In the 1980s he made a real estate move that would make him famous, buying 18 rundown properties in New York’s South of Houston neighborhood: now SoHo, the trendy residential loft district. Goldman saw the historic cast-iron façades through the layers of grime and decay and understood that some day, New Yorkers would pay top dollar to live there.

“He came in when it was a dump,” said Marvin Shanken, a Goldman golfing buddy and head of the Manhattan company that publishes Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado magazines. “He revived it with restaurants, and a jazz club and so forth. He brought vitality to an area where people basically were afraid to walk at night.”

Flush with cash, Goldman came to a similar conclusion about Miami Beach during a visit in 1985. He’d already invested in Coconut Grove, and began buying one Art Deco property a month for 18 months along Ocean Drive.

“I go into an area five to seven years before it happens,” Goldman said in 1986. “I like the smell of a property, and I like to be able to afford it. Advance real estate is undervalued. Miami Beach is undervalued.”

He explained that he’d gone into SoHo “when it was still raw. It had architectural integrity, a small scale and the community was obsessed with preservation. I see a vast similarity” to SoHo.

At the time of the interview, Goldman had just bought the Park Central and Imperial hotels and the Heathcote Apartments, all in the 600 block of Ocean Drive, for $3 million.

“I was looking for an alternative to New York. The buying there is too tough,” Goldman said. “As soon as I turned the corner at Fifth Street and Ocean Drive, that was it. I surrendered.”

He said he wasn’t concerned about the area’s demographics.

“It’s spicy. It brings life to the old and wisdom to the young. But you have to give people a place to come, a clean, reasonably priced product. And that’s my expertise.”

Goldman Properties recently launched a joint venture with the Archon Group to buy 17 historic properties in Boston's Fort Point Channel area, to be marketed as the Boston Wharf District. Goldman also developed projects in Philadelphia and in near Wall Street, but his biggest challenge came in Miami’s scruffy warehouse district, Wynwood. As prices rose, Goldman and son Joey began buying up properties in Wynwood, which was attracting artists but remained deserted and forbidding at night.

“For me, it was its grid system,” Goldman said in a 2009 Herald story. “I love the fact that the buildings are up to the street line. The setback thing is a suburban thing — it doesn’t do it for me.”

The Goldmans opened the first full-service restaurant that year — an upscale pizzeria called Joey’s — and unveiled a permanent art installation called “Wynwood Walls,” three sprawling courtyards decorated by some of the country’s top graffiti artists.

“Wynwood Walls was very special to him and real catalyst for the neighborhood,” said Goldman’s son-in-law, Scott Srebnick.

"That is Tony’s masterpiece,” said Marlo Courtney managing director at Goldman Properties. “It’s our graffiti park, open for the world to see.”

Still, the real-estate crash slashed the value of the Goldmans’ holdings and thrust the company into what Goldman described three years ago as the “most scary” downturn he had ever seen.

David Lombardi, another leading Wynwood landholder, recalled the pressure both faced as the market soured.

“I’d have a tough day. He’d say, ‘Don’t be deterred,’ ” Lombardi said. “He told me, ‘This gentrification ain’t for the faint of heart.’ ”

In addition to his wife and children, Goldman is survived by a brother, Mark Goldman, of Buffalo, and a sister, Pam Meyers Skerker, of Glastonbury, Conn., and four grandchildren.

Services will be noon on Friday at Temple Emanu-El, 1701 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach. Private burial follows.

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