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Richard LeFrak On Peers Moving To Miami And Watching His 184-Acre Megaproject Hit Critical Mass

This year marks a decade since the LeFrak family, which for the past century has amassed one of the largest portfolios of New York-area real estate, made its splashy entrance in Florida with the purchase of more than 180 acres in North Miami.

Ten years after Richard LeFrak, the CEO and third-generation leader of the family business, bought the smelly former landfill on Biscayne Boulevard, he is seeing his grand vision for the site come to fruition — and enjoying watching his old pals from New York follow him to the Sunshine State in ever greater numbers.

"As far as my peers that are coming down here, I think it is great,” LeFrak told Bisnow in an interview last week. “The competition brings business. They are all going to try to do great stuff.  I am very excited for all of them to come."

Richard LeFrak, the chairman and CEO of LeFrak, speaks at the groundbreaking of a University of Miami medical center at SoLé Mia in North Miami in September 2022.

LeFrak was speaking from the groundbreaking earlier this month of the latest piece of the 184-acre SoLé Mia project, a 363K SF outpatient health and wellness center from the University of Miami. LeFrak and his partner, Jackie Soffer, have built and opened a 7-acre lagoon and two residential towers at SoLé Mia and just launched leasing at their third.

He said he can finally "see the puzzle pieces coming together" for the project a decade after purchasing the swath of land near Florida International University's north campus. 

That the development is hitting its stride just as the region is teeming with other developers who got their start in New York isn't lost on the 77-year-old billionaire.

“It is a party! I just got a good parking space. I got here early,” LeFrak told Bisnow. “I told them all, many of them, because they call me about it, I said, ‘Hey, when I came here, I was a tourist in a real estate business. I was a tourist and I paid my dues.' I did. I bought this land in 2012. There was nothing here. No roads, no nothing.”

He hopes the health center — which will have 110 exam rooms, 10 operating rooms, 33 cancer treatment rooms and a garden when it opens in 2025 and eventually connect via bridge to an on-site hotel — redefines the way Miamians think of the area. 

Right now, he said, when he tells people where his project is, he leads with, "You know the Costco?" The wholesale anchor sits between SoLé Mia and Biscayne Boulevard.

"I am hoping in 2025 when the medical center opens, instead of people saying [SoLé Mia is] the place behind the Costco, they will say, 'You mean where the medical center is?'" LeFrak said. 

University of Miami officials, along with developers Richard LeFrak and Jackie Soffer, celebrate the groundbreaking of the future University of Miami health and wellness center at SoLé Mia.

The facility will be UM's largest ambulatory health center, surpassing its facility in Coral Gables. It allows LeFrak and Soffer to incorporate wellness into the project, something renters and buyers alike are increasingly seeking. For the health system, it allows it to serve a new customer base.

“I think they demographically saw a huge hole in the market up here,” LeFrak said. “Think about it. All the people that live in Sunny Isles, Surfside, Bal Harbour, and then all the adjacent communities here. ... How much healthcare is up here? There is definitely not a lot."

SoLé Mia was once merely a glimmer in LeFrak's eye, but now the development is crawling before it will soon walk and run, he said. He compared it to other massive projects his family has built, including LeFrak City in Queens and Newport in Jersey City.

"All of these projects have one thing in common: They all need to reach critical mass before the public can kind of see it," he said. "When I came here and I saw this land and I saw this location, I said we can make something great here. I didn’t know what it will be, but we can make something great here. But until enough of the puzzle pieces are in place, most people just don’t see it. They don’t connect the dots, and they can’t imagine what is going to happen."

He said he thinks the next phases will benefit from the financial companies making their way down to Miami — like Citadel, whose CEO, Ken Griffin, has amassed a billion-dollar property empire in the region and is developing a large headquarters in Brickell.

LeFrak said he has spoken to Griffin about the move, which follows in the footsteps of Starwood and Elliott Management's relocations to the region. He imagines that Citadel workers will fill some of the 5,000 apartments SoLé Mia will offer at full build-out.

"[Griffin] told me, ‘I am fully committed to Miami,’” LeFrak said. “I said, 'Well I am building this big project not too far away from where you are putting your headquarters, and I am sure some of your people will want to live there,' and he said that is great.”

There are already headlines about the migrants from New York making their way back to the Big Apple after having enough of Miami. LeFrak said he isn't concerned because the flow of capital is too strong for it not to eventually lead to improvements in infrastructure, schools and services.

"Look, it’s not for everybody. A lot of people are trying [Miami], and I would say the vast majority will stay. They will not go back," LeFrak said. "There are reasons for people to go back, and part of those reasons deal with shortfalls in the education, infrastructure. ... But I believe that all of those problems, because of the prosperity in Florida, will be addressed in one way or another."