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Billionaire Jeff Greene On His Pandemic Mistake And A 'Game-Changer' For West Palm Beach

Billionaire Jeff Greene is best known for making a fortune by betting against the housing market circa 2007, just before the financial crisis hit. These days, he's focused on transforming West Palm Beach, Florida.

Greene grew up in New England, but his parents moved to Palm Beach County in the late 1960s, and he visited often.

"I didn't really care for it very much, to tell you the truth," he said Wednesday at Bisnow's State of Palm Beach County event. "It was mostly older people and, you know, not much of an economy."

But after living in Los Angeles for 20 years and marrying in 2008, Greene moved to Miami, which he didn't like, then migrated north and found that the Palm Beach area had built up enough amenities to offer an amazing quality of life.

"So we love it here and I think that what's happened is, others around the country have kind of found our little secret."

Jeff Greene spoke at Bisnow's Palm Beach County State of the Market event. Cushman & Wakefield Director Tara England moderated the discussion.

After moving to the area, Greene bought several apartment complexes and vacant land and opened a private school, The Greene School. 

"Everyone was saying, 'Wow, you're such a genius. You did all this in the crash,'" Greene said. "Well, I have to tell you, up until about six or eight months ago I didn't feel like a genius, because rents were not moving at all."

Compared to Southern California, where rents rose constantly and effortlessly because supply is constrained due to zoning restrictions, West Palm Beach had tons of supply, but very few people who make good salaries. During the coronavirus pandemic, South Florida suddenly became a supply-constrained market, with an influx of residents. Rents in some places jumped 30% to 40% in a year, Greene said. 

"That's great if you're a landlord — you're finally able to make some returns," Greene said. "But I think it could cause some real problems for people who are on fixed incomes, people who have jobs that — like teachers at the Greene School get their 3% to 5% per year increases but can't afford rent increases."

"It's easy to get caught up in the easy money with coordinated fiscal and monetary stimulus around the world that's created this crazy amount of liquidity and has driven asset prices up," Greene said of the current development landscape. "But basically, we should all know that's just lucky that that's happened and really we're catching a huge wave here."

Greene is developing One West Palm, a 30-story twin-tower complex with residences, office space and a hotel. Its amenities include two indoor tennis courts; a 10K SF gym with indoor 25-meter pools — one for the hotel, one for the apartments; a movie theater; roof decks; and more. 

Greene halted the project for about eight months in 2020.

"The biggest mistake I made is: I panicked when the pandemic hit and I stopped the building because I just was thinking, 'What if we don't get a vaccine for a number of years?" he said. "Nobody really knew we'd have one this fast, and I was building a huge meeting space hotel, and a spec office space."

"Lo and behold, they're the perfect things to build right now, so we're back on track," he said. "We're going to be done next fall."

SageGlass's Carl Newhouse, AHS Residential's Alex Ballina, CP Group's John Osborne, Creative Choice Group's Dilip Bardot, NFP's Dustin Smith, Pebb Enterprises' Eric Hochman and Forest Development's Peter Baytarian.

Greene's holdings also include 18 acres in the Northwood neighborhood, where he is planning a project he thinks could transform the area. He did not offer details.

What's even more exciting to Greene is that this summer, he got a call from University of Florida President Kent Fuchs, who wanted to establish a graduate-school campus in West Palm Beach for about 1,000 students studying subjects like artificial intelligence and robotics. Fuchs had done something similar while provost at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York — he led the establishment of a satellite campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City.

Cushman & Wakefield Managing Director Anthony Librizzi and Director Tara England at Bisnow's Palm Beach County State of the Market event.

"Well, it just so happens I have some land that I had set aside for the purpose of a public thing like this," Greene told Fuchs.

He offered to donate it if the city and county would pitch in some adjacent property to create a 15-acre campus.

"I figured, they'll call me, and in a few years would follow up," Greene said. "Well, the next week, the city had a vote and then the next week the county got a vote."

Greene sees this project potentially having a large knock-on effect for the area. 

"Can you imagine if even 20 or 30% of those student graduates stay here and build tech businesses, and then the amount of the companies that'd come to recruit these kids? West Palm Beach will become a college town in addition to everything else," he said. "So to me, that's the game-changer I'm most excited about. I love making money and doing deals, but to me, if this happens, it'll be one of the most satisfying things I will have done in my life."