Developer Tibor Hollo Helped Build Miami

An epic condo bust can't burst his bubble.

Even with a new, even more troubled era dawning in South Florida, that faith hasn't faded.

Hop onto a raft and motor through Biscayne Bay early some morning, just after the sunrise warms orange and pink into the slate sky, and head north along Miami Beach's shore just past Mount Sinai Medical Center. More than likely, Tibor Hollo will be there, slicing through the choppy water with the same methodical stroke that has carried him through the bay for 55 years.

Hollo enjoys a view of Bayfront Park from his office.
Michael McElroy
Hollo enjoys a view of Bayfront Park from his office.
He's renting condos in his latest project, the Opera Tower.
Michael McElroy
He's renting condos in his latest project, the Opera Tower.

His path hugs the shoreline, parallel to the wooden docks, the million-dollar yachts, and the multimillionaires' mansions, his tanned and trim frame eventually circling back to the same home he built on North Bay Drive in the late 1950s. Hollo's daily morning swims, as much as anything, convince him that South Florida's dark days will never linger.

"We have more usable water here than any city in America," Hollo says. "I love all this water that's so warm year-round. I did some project in San Francisco, and it's surrounded by water, but it's not the same. I can't swim there!"

But to many critics, there's a cost that has come with his vision. Early opponents of Hollo's Venetia/Grand complex complained that the bay-front high-rise acted as a wall between the city and its waterfront.

Some detractors have questioned the artistry in his buildings, with one architect initially deriding the Venetia/Grand as an "elephant standing on a Ping-Pong table."

"With the Grand, the Marriott, the Venetia, it's pretty generic stuff, not very distinctive," says Paul George, a historian with the Historical Museum of Southern Florida.

Hollo has also had his tussles through the years. His style tends toward charm and deference in public, but he usually wins battles in private — such as when he overcame public outcry and many civic leaders' opposition to build the Venetia complex.

Just last year, Hollo took a rare strong stand publicly, suing Lechuga, the real estate blogger, for $25 million for falsely reporting he'd gone bankrupt in the 1980s. The two settled, and Lechuga posted a public apology to Hollo on his site last month.

"A developer has to be a cheerleader, a visionary, and a gunslinger. If you don't have all three, it's not going to happen," says Peter Zalewski, founder and owner of Condo Vultures, a firm that buys distressed condos for a discount and resells to investors. "Tibor, without a doubt, is all three of those things."

But as his predictions of a generation that would abandon the suburbs for downtown high-rises have come to pass, and as his decades of development have refined his style, Hollo's critics have mostly fallen by the wayside.

Regardless of how South Florida got to this low point, Hollo says the real estate market will recover, probably in two years, but possibly not until 2011. He says that, eventually, the city's scores of empty condos will be full of people. And when that happens, he's betting that the market for downtown office space will be squeezed. And that's where his final project comes in, his lasting legacy to the city: 1 Bayfront Plaza.

On the very site at Biscayne Boulevard and Flagler Street where Hollo's comfortable if unremarkable office tower sits, he wants to construct a 1,010-foot, twisting, windblown sail of a building. He has already plunged $35 million into studies, permits, and architectural plans for what would be his masterwork.

Those who know Hollo best say it's not the money or the prestige of such a massive project — the final cost is expected to reach $1.8 billion — that has excited the developer.

"If it was up to Tibor, he would be driving a 20-year-old car and living in a modest home," Yaffa says. "I don't know if money ever motivated him as much as his sincere love of this business and the challenges and problems it presents and opportunity for him to meet those challenges."

This is also the same guy who donated bay-front land to the city and then refused to let the park be named after him. Hollo says his primary motivation, in fact, is gratitude with a healthy dose of civic one-upsmanship.

"Miami, for as far as it's come, does not have a signature building," Hollo says. "That's what 1 Bayfront Plaza can be. This city has given me an awful lot, and I want to give it an icon, to leave a legacy for this city."

But it's also simpler than that. Leaning back behind his desk, lost in a thick-knit brown sweater, Hollo says there's one motivation everyone overlooks: He's building South Florida's tallest tower because he knows it will work.

"It's going to be the end of 2012 or the beginning of 2013 before construction begins," Hollo says. Construction will take about three years, so the building isn't likely to open before around 2016. "That's seven years. Christ, if this market isn't back on track seven years from now, you and I may as well both go shine apples for a living."

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