From The Ashram To The Boardroom: How Tony Cho Became Miami's Real Estate Renaissance Man
Drive through Miami eyeballing commercial real estate spaces, and you will see signs for all the big, corporate brokerages: CBRE, Cushman & Wakefield, JLL. Always jockeying among them is another name: Tony Cho.
Cho founded his own real estate company, Metro 1, in 2005, when he was still in his 20s. He has grown it into one of Miami's most successful firms and branched into development himself. His team has a combined experience of over $2.5B in transaction volume and currently, $1.8B in the development pipeline.
Yet the successful capitalist came from an unlikely place: a commune. Instead of cutting his teeth on Wall Street, Cho developed his business sense in Miami Beach nightclubs.
These influences might explain why Metro 1 has an independent, progressive flavor compared to other, all-about-the-numbers Miami brokerages, and why Cho’s development projects reflect concerns about cultural preservation, the environment and gentrification.
“I’ve always believed in having the best of both worlds,” Cho said. “We live in a materialistic, capitalist world. But I have the intention of doing good social impact with everything I have done. I often refer to myself as a community developer, not just a developer. I’m building a conscious community through the built environment.”
Cho was adopted by his grandmother, a Jewish woman who left Coney Island in 1976 to found the interfaith Kashi ashram near Vero Beach, then reinvented herself as a guru, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, whose admirers include Ram Dass, Julia Roberts and Arlo Guthrie. Though Kashi faced accusations that it was a cult, Cho says it was a “loving, accepting hippie commune," where he was home-schooled with scores of other children. Residents often slept on floors and cooked and ate together.
Ma Jaya, who died in 2012, was a “was a major caregiver,” Cho said. “She brought the AIDS quilt to Florida. She would take us to county homes where people with AIDS were left to die. When I was 3 or 4, I saw raw death and dying — the reality of the world.”
Cho is currently working to publish her autobiography.
He left the ashram to pursue a business degree at Northwestern University, where a student exchange program took him to Argentina. From there, he moved to Miami and enrolled at Florida International University. In the late 1990s, he became a nightlife promoter for trendy Miami Beach clubs Groove Jet and Tantra, then VIP director at Crobar.
“That’s how I met my first clients,” Cho said.
Looking beyond the velvet ropes of clubland to the white-hot real estate market, he began doing residential sales in 2000, beginning with a Fisher Island condo that went for $1.6M. With a high-interest loan from a loan shark, he bought a condo on Biscayne Boulevard for $66K. The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts was getting built in downtown Miami (it would open in 2006), and he predicted the area was due for a resurgence. He sold the condo a year later for almost triple the price.
“That was my 'a-ha' moment about arts and culture as drivers impacting real estate development,” Cho said. More successful deals followed, and in 2005, Cho opened his own brokerage, Metro 1, focusing on underappreciated neighborhoods just outside of downtown, like Buena Vista, MiMo and Little Haiti/Lemon City.
Cho was especially active in Wynwood, where as a member of the Wynwood Business Improvement District, he lobbied for zoning changes that would allow the industrial neighborhood to incorporate mixed-use buildings up to 12 stories and eliminate parking requirements for buildings with units smaller than 650 SF.
Having secured that, he is now working with Related Group on a micro-condo concept, Wynwood 29, proposed as two towers at Northwest First Avenue and 28th Street, with 182 units that average 590 SF. That will ramp up when Related finishes two other projects underway in the neighborhood.
Cho, who will be a panelist at Bisnow’s upcoming Evolution of Wynwood event June 20, also bought two buildings in Wynwood in 2014 for $1.68M and sold them in 2016 for $6.1M.
He currently owns the Wynwood Gateway project at 2825 NW Second Ave. (the site of a Ducati dealership) and the Addison House at 3600 North Miami Ave. A highly publicized plan for a 14K SF urban park has been put on hold.
“There was no way I could encumber it with a nonprofit,” Cho said. "I gave back the funds that had been donated.”
He is currently exploring other civic and green-space projects, he said.
A little farther north, in Little Haiti, Cho bought a former trailer park and, in partnership with Silicon Valley investor Bob Zangrello, Plaza Equity Partners and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy LaLiberte, is building the Magic City Innovation District. Cho said 22 buildings will be adaptively repurposed to house entertainment offerings that will draw thousands of people, mixed in with tech companies that will anchor a thriving commercial district.
“As opposed to a traditional campus like Google or Amazon, which are for one big company, Magic City will have accelerators and coworking spaces,” Cho said.
For that, he is currently going through the entitlement process, perusing designs and doing community outreach to stakeholders — especially the Caribbean community, which is struggling with gentrification as long-standing Haitian businesses get replaced by art galleries and yoga studios.
Cho has said that in assembling land for Magic City, he was careful not to buy residential properties — only dilapidated warehouses — so as not to displace families.
“How can we lift up all the stakeholders?” he asked. “Obviously there are some speculators we can’t control, but we can be thoughtful and intentional. We make an effort to hire local Haitian businesses.”
He said some of Magic City’s tenants and entertainment components could be revealed within a year or two, maybe earlier. He hopes to be building an “Innovation Tower” that will house tech-based businesses. The whole project will take 10 years to build.
Cho is also developing a mixed-use project in Brickell near the Underline, and an eco-retreat on the St. Sebastian River, steps away from the Kashi ashram. The 80-acre ashram is still home to dozens of residents and permaculture and yoga programs, and Cho is a board member.
He also runs a family office of investments, and at the brokerage, he’s been on a hiring spree: He is seeking a managing director, an investment sales broker and leasing agents.
Of course, in Miami, the threat of climate change looms over the market. Cho said he doesn’t think the data is clear enough yet to predict specific impacts, but “there’s an opportunity for us to be a model and innovate in the space of sea-level rise and environmental concerns. Everything is like a blank canvas."
He said the real estate community needs to be accountable, but there also must be a happy medium with the opposition.
“The anti-development crowd needs to get more practical," he said. "That anti-development sentiment is misplaced and often uninformed. Property values are going up and dirt is shrinking. The population is increasing. So how do we address that?”
The answer, he said, lies in concentrated urban cores, good public transit and green space. He said a special environmental community tax could be a creative way to subsidize the investment needed.
“I don’t believe everybody should be paving over the Everglades,” he said. In fact, he thinks of parks nearby his properties as amenities. “The only way to protect nature and green space is to go dense in the urban core.”
Ultimately, he is optimistic. And his unconventional background could help lead him to outside-the-box solutions. At the very least, Cho will be open to them when they come to South Florida.
“There will be new solutions on that resiliency side that we’re just now scratching the surface of,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m not leaving Miami.”