Developer Tibor Hollo Helped Build Miami

His thin, 81-year-old frame draped in a tan suit, his sharp eyes shaded by wraparound sunglasses, Tibor Hollo stands before a rusted fence bearing a spray-painted "No Trespassing" sign.

Beyond the chainlink, strewn with weed-choked bottles and crushed cans, two of the finest acres in Miami stretch to the edge of Biscayne Bay, where turquoise water laps against a concrete barrier and Fisher Island swims on the horizon.

Hollo has just given it all away.

He looks on quietly as Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff strides smiling to a shaded podium to announce the deal: For three years, the city gets the land for one dollar a year and the promise to maintain a public park there. Mayor Manny Diaz applauds and grins for the cameras.

After he watches the fanfare pass and firmly rejects an offer to name the place "Hollo Park," Tibor is blunt. "This is not the market to start a major project," he tells a reporter, his thick Hungarian accent transforming short i's into long e's. "At least someone will enjoy this place for a few years."

No moment better captures the Zeitgeist of the South Florida condo bust than this, the legendary developer handing over land that his competitors would have killed for a few months ago. It's now worthless, sunk by a burst bubble so profound that entire 30-story condo buildings rise dark above the bay and more than 25,000 units languish on the market.

As much as anywhere in the United States, this region is ground zero for the real estate meltdown that has decimated the global economy and sunk this nation into its worst recession in 80 years. More than 100,000 single-family homes, condos, and townhouses sit vacant in the greater Miami area; over half of them are new foreclosures filed in the past year. To put it into perspective, South Florida has seen more than $14.2 billion worth of property foreclosed in the past year alone — an all-time record.

But the numbers tell only part of the story. In places such as West Kendall and Homestead, whole blocks sit empty, spray-painted plywood slapped over windows and saw grass creeping over driveways. Squatters and prostitution rings have moved into vacant homes. Companies hired to clean out abandoned residences pile belongings in front yards, letting neighbors pick through remnants of someone else's life.

Signs of impending doom are everywhere, even in areas such as downtown Miami and South Beach, where huge banners offering cut-rate deals hang from high-rises. Condo boards have a hard time keeping vagrants out of the stairwells of half-empty buildings. Some landlords have become so desperate they've taken to renting out luxury units to porn film crews at daily rates just to keep the lights on.

Hollo has seen it all before. In fact, the building boom that preceded this bust would never have happened without the extraordinary vision of the Holocaust survivor who at age 29 moved to South Florida in the mid-1950s and told anyone who would listen that, someday, white-picket-fence suburbs would fade and towering downtown condos would be the norm in the Magic City. Without Hollo, it's doubtful the skyline that defines 21st-century Miami — for better or for worse — would exist.

Hollo knows local real estate as well as anyone — he has been through its booms and busts — and he is convinced the city will bounce back. Indeed, he's betting everything he's right and plunging millions of dollars into his next project: a thousand-foot tower downtown on Biscayne Boulevard. It would be the tallest ever built in the area.

This is where to find the architect of modern Miami: past a faded black marble waiting room, around some unremarkable cubicles, and tucked into a corner on the ninth floor of a drab 19-story tower just south of Flagler Street on Biscayne Boulevard. It's an easy building to miss, sandwiched between two office towers twice as tall, decades newer, and sheathed in sparkling glass. For 20 years — ever since he bought and renovated the building — Hollo has worked here. This morning, he sits behind a wide wooden desk, near piles of paper rising around his keyboard. For one of Miami's most successful entrepreneurs, it's a Spartan office; the closest thing to luxury is the long window with eye-popping, unobstructed vistas of Bayfront Park and the aquamarine bay dotted with sailboats. But Hollo tries not to dwell on the view.

"I had to move my desk so it was facing away from these windows," Hollo says. "When I faced the outside and I could see all the ships coming in and going out, I would daydream all day long."

When Hollo does look along the bay — north past the Omni/performing arts neighborhood, south to Brickell — he sees those daydreams made reality. From his first success, a small apartment tower with pointed concrete balconies just north of the Rickenbacker Causeway, to his latest project, the white cylindrical Opera Tower, Hollo has personally developed dozens of Miami projects and more than 55 million square feet of real estate. Under his gaze — and because of his faith in the city — downtown has transformed from a comatose 1950s office district into a burgeoning international hot spot of skyscraping glass monoliths.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink