Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Business: Miami Condo King out to Trump Donald

Las Vegas's latest colossus will be a slice of Barcelona: that's the vision of a larger-than-life developer with movie star mates.
Julie Earle-Levine reports
February 18, 2006


JORGE Perez's excitement is palpable when he is talking about his Las Vegas project Las Ramblas. It's a colossal Barcelona-inspired $4 billion hotel condo and casino complex he is building with the actor George Clooney.Unlike Clooney, Perez -- who speaks animatedly, hands outstretched to show just how big this project is -- is not a household name in America. Yet.

Perez is the largest residential condominium developer in the country, a Miami version of New York real estate developer Donald Trump without the bad hair and aggressive self-promotional skills.

In Miami, Perez has already built 55,000 units and his $13 billion Related Group has plans to build another 15,000 units in South Florida and Las Vegas in the next four years. Atlanta is another target.

It is a lofty ambition to build a "first" anything in Vegas, a city that is thought to have seen it all and where a new hotel or condo tower seems to be built every other day (even Donald's ex-wife Ivana Trump is building her own 82-storey luxury residential building called Ivana Las Vegas). But Perez believes his Las Ramblas project really will be unique.

In an interview in his headquarters in Miami, Perez, 56, who was born in Argentina to Cuban parents, outlined his vision for Las Ramblas, and shared his passion for building and fast cars.
Las Ramblas, just off The Strip, will spread across 11 hectares and feature 11 towers, including a five-star hotel, condos and bungalows -- that's more than 4000 units in total -- a spa and health club, nightlife, dining, shopping and, of course, a casino.

It will also have an open-air pedestrian promenade modeled after Las Ramblas in Barcelona, even though this is glitzy Vegas and residents may well be dodging drunk tourists armed with super-size, brightly coloured cocktails in plastic cups.

The project is due to be completed early 2008.

Perez has based the project on his favourite city, Barcelona.

"Sitting in a cafe having tapas, seeing the trees, flower shops and bookstores in Barcelona is a wonderful experience we are going to recreate," he says.

To do this, he's bringing together his dream list of architects, designers and entertainers including ubiquitous designer Philippe Starck on the interiors, and architect Keith Hobbs of United Designers Europe.

George Clooney and Rande Gerber (the nightclub owner better known as Cindy Crawford's husband) are involved.

Clooney is also talking to his friend Brad Pitt about "designing" for the project.

Both superstars famously love Vegas, and then of course there was the movie, Ocean's Eleven, where Clooney and Pitt, aka Dapper Danny Ocean and Pitt as a card ace, staged an elaborate heist at Las Vegas's Bellagio casino.

Perez says Clooney and Gerber will be "extensively involved in multiple aspects" of Las Ramblas, which is due to start construction in mid-2006.

More specifically, as investors and residence owners, they will contribute to the design and direction of the project, including the hotel, restaurants and entertainment and "the look and feel of the casino".

Clooney has said the project will be a "first class experience, with a five star hotel, the coolest bars and clubs and an exceptional spa", reflecting his personal taste and interests. "We're clearly putting more than just our names to this project."

Perez says he is negotiating with an up-market brand for the hotel, and is pushing forward with reservations.
Perez is hoping the project will create the kind of frenzy he is used to seeing in Miami.
While the market has recently cooled in that city, Perez recalls buyers were scrambling to buy and "flip" (resell) properties.

Some of Related's 1000 unit condos in Miami sold out within 36 hours of being announced.
On talk of the real estate bubble in Miami, Perez says he is certain there will be a short-term correction, and that development is peaking.
"It is red hot. There is a crane on every corner."

But he is confident strong local and international demand will create another boom. "I think Latin Americans continue to see Miami as their capital, and I can't think of another city in America that is better poised for growth."

He has seen strong interest in Apogee, his latest high-end project with 66 of 67 units sold, mostly to domestic buyers. Their average price is $5.3 million.

Miami's potential is greater than Las Vegas, New York and Atlanta, some of the other favourite cities for developers to be in, he says.
In New York, Related developed the Time Warner Centre, and also developed and owns the W Union Square and the Mandarin Oriental.
Atlanta is another growth spot where Related is looking to make its mark. "We have a piece of land and are trying to zone it into a great urban city, building around 4000 apartments and bringing in great restaurants, architecture and design."

But it's not all about buildings for Perez, who started out as building affordable housing in Florida. He set up Related with New York developer Steve Ross in 1979, and last year, Related had $4.3 billion in revenue.

"What really makes me tick is not just building a building, but changing a city," he says. Can he really change Vegas? "Las Ramblas is all about getting away from the glitz, The Strip and the casinos, and creating a more elegant environment."
He sees visitors strolling a tree-lined promenade, ice cream cone in hand, dropping into Gucci and other luxury retail shops and dining at up-market restaurants and cafes.

Perez does love the high life and owns a 2002 Ferrari 360 Modena Spider and a 2002 Mercedes S500 AMG, but his favorite car is much like him -- a low-key, fast-moving and nimble yellow Mini Cooper convertible.

Perez is swiftly and aggressively changing America's skyline, city by city.