Hot Properties

I knew it was going to be a good day when I arrived at 7:30 in the morning to find several hundred people already waiting in line, and the doors weren't scheduled to open until 10:00," says Russell Galbut, managing director of South Florida's most prolific condo company. "It was an absolutely amazing day!"

At this slightly less frenetic juncture, Galbut is reflecting on the glory of Crescent Heights's most recent grand opening. Part yard sale, part gold rush, the February 20 event lured more than 1500 potential purchasers through the sliding-glass doors of the 334-unit Ocean Pavilion, on the 5600 block of Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. "We had a huge, huge, huge, huge turnout!" crows Galbut, erupting into verbal italics. "It was a thrill of a lifetime."

Only the sleepiest South Floridians weren't aware of the Ocean Pavilion's auspicious Crescent Heights debut. In the days prior to the sale, the company unleashed a torrent of advertising, from newspaper and radio ads to 30-second TV spots and 30-minute infomercials. Banners and signs ("CONDOS FROM $79,900"; "ONE GRAND OPENING $1000") beckoned from the building's pizza-orange faaade; American and Crescent Heights corporate flags wafted in the breeze; a small plane was sent aloft to announce the event from higher altitudes. Galbut says the bill for advertising totaled $480,000.

By early afternoon it was like a carnival. A mime in silver body paint provided live entertainment. A half-dozen television sets blared the current Crescent Heights infomercial through the lobby. Free Coca-Cola flowed for all. The parking lot was filled to capacity, so new arrivals pulled directly onto the sidewalk or simply stopped in the traffic lanes of Collins Avenue. Sales staffers shuttled packs of prospective buyers up and down the elevators to view the one- and two-bedroom apartments. And like ants to a picnic, TV news crews gathered to record the spectacle for posterity. "The ocean apparently still attracts buyers, buyers by the thousands!" Channel 10's Su Keenan prattled. Stumbling over her words, the WPLG-TV reporter was so overwhelmed by the moment that she geographically misplaced the Ocean Pavilion. "It certainly is an occasion that people are still excited about buying property," she opined, "and that's good news for all of South Beach."

By the end of that sun-blessed Sunday, Russell Galbut and his Crescent Heights cohorts had collected refundable $1000 deposits on every single apartment in the oceanfront edifice, a piece of property the company had purchased only a month earlier. Waiting lists for some units ran four deep. Galbut expects official sales to begin within a few weeks, after the State of Florida approves the conversion to condos.

"It was an absolutely amazing day!" reiterates the 41-year-old Galbut, putting a final exclamation point on his recollection. A husky man of medium height, he pushes a chair out from behind his fat crescent of a desk and plops himself down with a jolly, if slightly contrived, laugh. Dozens of framed objects A paintings, photographs, civic awards and commemorations, newspaper articles A rest on the floor, waiting to be mounted on the walls of his office off the Ocean Pavilion's lobby. Until a few days ago, Galbut's base of operations was the Decoplage, a Crescent Heights development at the east end of Lincoln Road. But as he has done in the past, Galbut has followed the company to its current hot spot. "I like to have more of a hands-on approach," he explains. "I don't want to take my foot off the gas pedal."

Indeed, this is a rare sedentary moment in the life of a man who seems to be in perpetual motion. Even while seated, Galbut is restless and tense, crossing and uncrossing his legs, leaning on one elbow against his desk, pushing forward with both elbows on his thighs, then pressing back into the cushion of his swivel chair.

As did the Miami Beach development pioneers who plied the art of land-selling as dream-making, Galbut and partners Bruce Menin (his cousin) and Sonny Kahn earn their daily bread with hype A and volume. Since 1989, when the company purchased its first building in South Florida, Crescent Heights has become a real estate juggernaut, snapping up inexpensive rental properties and hotels from South Beach to Hollywood and transforming them into inexpensive condominiums. Dangling the time-honored lure of sun and fun, trading on the current hipness of Miami Beach, and employing a massive international advertising machine, the three entrepreneurs have seduced thousands of buyers to their doorstep and shot to the top of local real estate rankings. Last year alone, according to the Miami-based Appraisal & Real Estate Economics Associates (AREEA), Crescent Heights sold 1018 units for a total of $83,205,600 A more than any other condominium developer in South Florida. (Ugo Columbo, the second-ranking developer, sold 120 units for a total of $59,522,500.) Among the top 40 condominium developers ranked by AREEA, Crescent Heights is the only conversion specialist; the rest are in the business of new construction. The Decoplage won South Florida Business Journal's 1993 Renovation and Rehabilitation Project of the Year Award; that building's 650 units sold out in a little more than a year, a remarkably short time by real estate standards. In January, at the grand opening of the Continental at 4000 Collins Ave., the Crescent Heights staff took reservations for all the units in a single day. (To borrow from Russell Galbut's hyperbole, the Continental's waiting list ranged several dozen deep.) Galbut says he expects both the Continental and the Ocean Pavilion to sell out officially within two months, after the state approves the conversions.

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Kirk Semple