Developer Tibor Hollo Helped Build Miami

An epic condo bust can't burst his bubble.

But it was in 1968 when his dream of a high-rise residential city took its biggest step forward. That year, he began a three-year effort to buy six city blocks of waterfront property next to the Venetian Causeway, a mostly blighted section that included a Rambler dealership, an old movie theater, and overgrown parking lots. Today, that area is known as the Omni/performing arts neighborhood.

"This was an area of slum and blight," says Phil Yaffa, who spent 18 years as a top official in Hollo's company. "But he saw through that and realized that the future in this city was in a dense vertical concentration within the downtown area."

At the time, downtown Miami boasted some hotels, big department stores, and office buildings but few residential areas. Hollo had a plan for his land by the bay: transform it into a place where people could live, work, and play. But to make it reality, he had to persuade city leaders to close streets in the area, change zoning laws, and offer huge tax breaks. It wasn't an easy sell in the still-suburb-crazy late '60s and early '70s.

"I told them I wanted to make a multi-use building, where people can work, recreate, and live," Hollo says. "The city had no such things. You built an office building or a store or an apartment. It just wasn't in the vocabulary."

Hollo found a vital ally in 1973, when Maurice Ferre, son of a Puerto Rican developer, was elected mayor of Miami. Ferre says he bought into Hollo's vision after their earliest meetings.

"In those days, unlike today, overgrowth was not a factor," Ferre says. "There was just the opposite; there was no growth."

With Ferre's backing, Hollo persuaded the City Commission to close two city blocks so he could build the Omni Mall and willed the commission into backing an 810-condo tower with a full marina.

Hollo could be as tough behind the scenes as he was charming in public. According to a Miami Herald story, Hollo wanted 1,000 units and threatened to abandon the whole project if the city, which wanted to green-light only 500, didn't cave. When a reporter asked what he'd do if the commission stood firm, he said: "I'll go fishing."

Another major critic was Trinity Episcopal Church, which was surrounded by his massive project and didn't want a busy marina added to the nearby waterfront. But after a several-year battle over marina permits, Hollo won.

"Whatever Tibor wanted, Tibor Hollo got," Minnette Massey, an attorney representing the cathedral, complained to the Herald at the time.

But Ferre says he never had any regrets about supporting Hollo. "I always thought he was an honest and righteous guy, and there was no bullshit about him," says Ferre, who left the mayor's office in 1985. "He was a real charmer, but he wasn't a bullshitter, and there's a big difference. He had the courage to build this project, which was completely out of scale of what Miami was in those days."

For all his courage, there's no doubt that Hollo has often been ahead of his time — or, to put it another way, has lacked timing — on some of his most ambitious projects. By the time his huge Venetia condominium hit the market in the late 1980s, South Florida was on the down end of one of its worst boom-and-bust cycles since the 1920s.

The South American economy, which had driven mountains of investment in Miami, had completely collapsed. And by late 1988, two years after entering the market, Hollo had sold only 57 of the Venetia/Grand's 810 units, according to the Herald — a shockingly dismal 7 percent.

"He was a little premature," says Matthew Schwartz, who was head of the Downtown Development Authority in the late '80s and early '90s. "I think financially he had a difficult few years because he was too far ahead of times."

"It was devastating. It was a terrible, terrible time," Yaffa recalls. "We worked seven days a week, 12-hour days, trying to do everything we could to generate sufficient sales and to successfully complete this building."

Hollo eventually reached an agreement with his bank, working out a three-way deal to transfer most of the building's ownership to a new group and reaping little of the financial benefit as the Venetia, along with the neighboring Grand, eventually turned into the successful complex it is today. But he also kept his business intact and lived to develop another day.

"My bank, which was a wonderful bank, saw me really struggling and said... 'Why don't we make a deal?' " Hollo says. "It was a really tough time, but it taught me to be conservative. I can do one building at a time. Why do I need ten? I can buy my wife a glass of wine and go out to dinner; life is good, and one is enough."

Despite those trying times, Hollo says he never lost faith in his core beliefs. Americans would eventually move back to their city centers. They would want to live and work in multi-use buildings with beautiful views and easy access to cultural events. It was just a matter of timing.

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