September 24, 2014
BY: MARTHA BRANNIGAN
Metro 1 Properties founder and CEO Tony Cho focuses on Miami’s hip urban neighborhoods like Wynwood.
PATRICK FARRELL/MIAMI HERALD STAFF
Tony Cho’s Metro 1 Properties has managed to instill a hip vibe in its business.
From the firm’s choice of headquarters in Wynwood to its focus on urban revitalization to the sneakers and jeans sported by many of its agents, Metro 1 shouts that it isn’t the typical commercial real estate firm.
When Cho, Metro 1’s president and CEO, started the company in an old Woolworth’s warehouse in Miami’s Wynwood district in 2005, the 36-year-old entrepreneur recalls, “I really wanted to do something that was not just brokerage, not just investment, but shaping neighborhoods.”
Nine years later, Metro 1 seems to be on the way.
Metro 1 focuses on urban neighborhoods with an eye toward adapting old structures for new uses. Leasing is a big part of its business, but the tenants tend to be independent local businesses that lend a sense of place to a neighborhood.
The firm was early in touting the potential of Wynwood, long before the gritty industrial neighborhood with its goldmine of warehouse space began to sizzle with revitalization projects. Art galleries blazed a trail into the funky spaces, followed by offices, restaurants and bars drawn to the hip ambiance. Much more is under way.
In its September issue, Vogue magazine named Wynwood one of 15 coolest neighborhoods in the world (No. 9, to be precise).
“Even four or five years ago, I was driving around Wynwood explaining how beautiful the potential was and people would think ‘You’re crazy,’ ” said Cho, who was born and raised in Indian River County and gravitated during his 20s to the South Beach night scene, where he became an events promoter and host and honed his considerable flare for PR.
He switched gears to real estate sales, first on the residential side, but quickly realized, he said, that he wanted to be part of urban revitalization and sustainability. (In 2011, the Southeast Florida/Caribbean Urban Land Institute named him Young Leader of the Year.)
Starting from scratch in 2005, Cho has built the company into a diverse business that includes brokerage, property management, and financing. He pays a lot of attention to branding and image. M1’s trademark says, “We shape neighborhoods.”
Metro 1’s management includes a mix of industry veterans and homegrown talent.
Alex Rey, who was a long-time banker in Miami, joined the company about a year ago to build its capital arm. For commercial deals, it’s often important to tap into relationships to help clients to arrange financing. That generates fees for the firm and helps close deals.
Tony Arellano, by contrast, pretty much grew up professionally at the firm, joining as an intern as he worked his way through college. Now Arellano is executive vice president of commercial.
Arellano said knowing exactly what’s happening with properties in the fast-changing urban neighborhoods that Metro 1 focuses on is vital. He says the firm works hard to keep up with off-market opportunities.
“In emerging, creative markets, there is not as much clarity,” Arellano said. “Emerging markets are more opaque, so you need to have the market knowledge.’’
Two years ago, Metro 1 expanded beyond commercial real estate to residential and now has 25 agents in residential real estate.
In addition to brokering resales of residential property, Metro 1 in 2013 got its first assignment as exclusive leasing and marketing agent for a rental loft project, the Filling Station. The project at 1657 North Miami Avenue, in the arts and entertainment district, includes 81 residential lofts and retail space.
“We pretty much helped them to brand it from soup to nuts,” Cho said. “It’s right in tune with the kind of projects we feel passionate about: urban infill, mixed use.”
This year, Metro 1 is on target to double last year’s sales to reach a goal of $300 million, Cho said. “We did $56 million in business in August, our biggest month,” he said.
Metro 1 has plans to expand its reach by opening an office in Fort Lauderdale. The company will keep the same focus on urban neighborhoods ripe for renewal. Cho said Metro 1 already has 15 listings in the Fort Lauderdale area.
A top priority, he said, is to launch a separate real estate development arm. He wants to become a principal in projects, rather than just an agent. Cho said he already has an interest in about 500,000 square feet of property in Miami, including some held in partnership and some by himself.
“Most of it is entitled for development,” he said.
His first redevelopment venture is the Gateway Complex, a multi-phase project that started with the refurbishing of a building at 2825 NW Second Avenue, completed in 2013. Ducati, the Italian motorcycle maker, leased space and opened a showroom at the site.
Boxelder Craft Beer Market is set to open Nov. 1 in the complex.
Other projects are in the works, including an urban park, whose design has been the subject of an international competition. Last week, Metro 1 unveiled the winning design: Wynwood Greenhouse, by a Miami team including artist Jim Drain, landscape architect Roberto Rovira and architect Nick Gelpi.
Cho has more on his mind than urban parks, however. One of his most ambitious undertakings to date has taken a sour turn.
Cho spent years helping New York business mogul Moishe Mana to assemble more than 25 acres of land in Wynwood. Mana says he has plans for a major cultural complex that will be “something that will really make this neighborhood cool: not highrises and shopping.”
Early this year, however, Mana and Cho had a falling out over four parcels owned by Miami-Dade County at Northwest 23rd Street and Second Avenue at the entrance of the assemblage.
In February, Mana sued Cho in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, alleging Cho breached his duties to him. The suit seeks compensation for what Mana calls a lost business opportunity from missing out on the four parcels. Cho in turn filed suit against Mana alleging defamation and tortious interference.
The county is considering leasing the four parcels for a Puerto Rican Community Center, and Mana found out that a business associate of Cho’s, Scott Alan Silver, reached an agreement with the South Florida Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce to cooperate in obtaining and developing the land — a move Mana sees as cutting him out.
Silver, an attorney and real estate investor, is Metro 1’s director of advisory services.
The Puerto Rican Chamber was designated in 2008 as a recipient of a $2.5 million grant for the community center under the county’s Building Better Communities general obligation bond program — subject to various requirements, including finding an appropriate site.
Cho and Silver, who also is a defendant in the suit, say the suit has no merit. They say that Mana hadn’t been interested in the county parcels, nor did they have any obligation to pursue the land for him.
“For two years, we never heard from Moishe” regarding the four parcels, Silver said.
According to Luis DeRosa, president of the Puerto Rican Chamber, the county is planning to issue a request for proposal to solicit interest from parties who wants to work with the chamber to develop the site with a Puerto Rican community center.
Cho said he is eager to resolve the dispute with Mana, which he called a “misunderstanding.’’
“At the end of the day, it’s a very sad situation, and I hope it’s resolved quickly,” Cho said. “And I wish Mr. Mana the best.”