Miami’s Backyard: Miami Architects Bet Big on Vegas

Miami-based developers and architects are betting big on the Las Vegas marketplace…and getting big returns as well

By Stephanie Wilson


 With such a high level of success still resounding from Turnberry’s entrance into the Vegas marketplace, MGM took note, and paired up with the development company for The Residences at MGM Grand Las Vegas.

The old gambling saying goes, “The house always wins,” and after assessing the burgeoning Las Vegas cityscape, it is apparent that Miami-based firms are betting on that to remain true.

Although in these cases, the house winning is not referring to the standard casino taking more money in than it has to pay out. No, this time it means that constructing homes (OK, luxury high-rise condos) in Vegas is pretty much a sure bet. It comes as no surprise-according to the census, the city’s population grew by 83 percent between 1990 and 2000, and estimates have 5,000 people continuing to move to the City of Sin every month. With such an exploding population base, real estate developers from around the country are rushing to get a piece of the market.

The same rings true for developers from Miami, who are behind some of the largest-and most successful-residential projects in Las Vegas to date. Could it be the slump that has halted construction at near countless Miami venues? That is a good possibility. But whatever the reason, the Vegas marketplace is as hot as the desert in which it stands. The leader of the development pack in Vegas? Turnberry Associates, who, coincidentally or not, tends to lead the pack in South Florida as well. The firm, headed up by Chairman/CEO Jeffrey Soffer, was established 50 years ago when Don Soffer, Jeffrey’s father, arrived in South Florida to find an undeveloped swampland for which he had a vision of a planned community.

He constructed Turnberry Isle Resort & Club, an address that is still one of the most prestigious in all of South Florida. Turnberry took mansions and put them in the sky, creating luxury high-rise living. Based on Turnberry Isle’s success, they went to work on the construction of the Aventura Mall, a 2.4 million-square-foot retail center just minutes from Turnberry Isle. Their success in this market led to the creation of an entire city, a planned community that literally changed the way people live.

The young Jeffrey Soffer had only been with Turnberry Associates for 10 years when he decided to bring the “mansions in the sky” concept to Las Vegas. At the time, everyone thought he was crazy-when he announced his plans in 1998, high-rise living in Las Vegas was a distant concept. Jeffrey explains, “I visited Vegas for years, and was always amazed there were no luxury communities near the city’s greatest attractions. The timing was perfect to introduce [Turnberry’s] acclaimed lifestyle to Las Vegas.”

It was a move that is still causing a stir. Turnberry Associates snatched up a 15-acre plot right on the Strip, and named it Turnberry Place in honor of its Florida counterpart. First things first, they built a $3 million sales office to showcase a model suite and a scale model of the community in order to introduce Vegas to the lifestyle-living concept, the likes of which had never been attempted in Las Vegas.

The people of Vegas took note. Today, eight years after the project began, the fourth and final tower of the $650 million community is nearing completion. Turnberry Place sold out all of its 778 residences in 2004, but resale condominiums are beginning to hit the market, priced from $900,000 to $9 million for a penthouse, which comes complete with spectacular views of the Strip. As Bruce Weiner, Turnberry, Ltd. president and chief operating officer, says, “Those familiar with Turnberry’s accomplishments in Florida were just waiting for us to create a similar development out West.” Turnberry Place is much like Turnberry Isle in Florida, offering a private club, fine dining, and a spa on site. And just like Turnberry Isle’s nearby Aventura Mall, Vegas’ Turnberry Place will be accompanied by Town Square, an open-air Main Street-themed environment located on Las Vegas Boulevard just south of Mandalay Bay being developed by Turnberry and Centra Properties.

With such a high level of success still resounding from Turnberry’s entrance into the Vegas marketplace, MGM took note, and paired up with the development company for The Residences at MGM Grand Las Vegas. “Turnberry and MGM MIRAGE teamed up to create one of the most sought after residential opportunities in Las Vegas,” says Dan Riordan, director of sales for the project, which consist of three 40-story towers that are already completed. Living at the Residences at MGM Grand Las Vegas is the very first opportunity to “live where the action is” on the Strip, although Turnberry can’t claim the concept was theirs.

In fact, the concept of condo-hotels in the midst of Vegas was the brainchild of Ian Bruce Eichner of The Cosmopolitan, which is being erected just next door to MGM. Yet another developer with Miami ties making a go at it in Vegas, Eichner is responsible for the development of The Continuum at South Beach, a luxury high-rise in the coveted South of Fifth area. There is little debate that The Continuum sits on the most prime piece of real estate in all of South Beach; from its vantage point, residents are offered vistas of the cruise ships gliding through Government Cut and of Fisher Island beyond. Likewise, the space in Las Vegas that will house The Cosmopolitan is one of the most prime locales, and one of the last highly desired sites located just on the Strip, sandwiched between MGM Mirage’s CityCenter and The Bellagio Hotel and Casino.

The goal of The Cosmopolitan is to be, well, cosmopolitan. They are creating a vertical city, an urban destination amongst destination resorts. Eichner was attracted to Vegas because “it was a place that was evolving from being a gaming area to being a resort destination. Back ten years ago, Vegas was all about gaming, and not so much about high-end retail and expensive rooms, and the entertainment was so-so. When I arrived in Vegas five or six years ago, that paradigm was shifting. And now, fifty percent of every dollar comes from non-gaming. I was able to perceive this, and had an interest in creating a more complex, interactive urban-type of project that would be the first of its kind.”

And while MGM beat him to the punch, offering a chance to live on the Strip before The Cosmopolitan has been completed, The Cosmopolitan is still 85 percent sold out, with the remaining 15 percent being held back until 2009.

For this urban-style project, Eichner teamed up with the Miami-based architecture firm Arquitectonica, which is led by Bernardo Fort-Brescia and Laurinda Spear. In Miami alone, Arquitectonica is responsible for everything from the American Airlines Arena and the U.S. Federal Courthouse to residential projects like The Viceroy at Icon Brickell and The Regent South Beach. The résumé literally includes hundreds of others, an impressive list comprised of residential, cultural, institutional, retail, restaurants, and more. In recent years, it has been a goal of Bernardo Fort-Brescia, principal and founder of Arquitectonica, to urbanize the cityscape of Las Vegas. His first attempt was with Miami developer Jorge Pérez of The Related Group, who had partnered with George Clooney and Rande Gerber for Las Ramblas, which was set to create a city within the city of Las Vegas.

While the project is now halted, it is not as if Perez went bust. He reportedly sold the 25-acre parcel of land that was set to house the Barcelona-inspired Las Ramblas for $202 million after buying the plot for $90 million just one year before. He says, “There is always disappointment when you don’t build a project you announce. But is it better that we made a lot of money by selling the land rather than building and losing a lot of money? Of course it’s better!” Las Ramblas was not the first project unveiled by The Related Group that didn’t break ground in Sin City; Icon Las Vegas, a two-tower condo project, was also canceled, with The Related Group citing soaring construction costs as the reason both were called.

As he tried to portray with Las Ramblas, Fort-Brescia has a vision for a Vegas that “is not an indoor mall, but is a real city,” he explains. “I hope Las Vegas evolves into a place that relates to its environment, and the people can be living in a real city with sidewalks and outdoor dining and cafés, and public places to gather. That is what makes a city.”

Not to be confused with Las Ramblas, Las Palmas is yet another Vegas development by Arquitectonica, this one in conjunction with real estate mogul R. Donahue Peebles, chairman and chief executive officer of Miami-based Peebles Corporation.

Peebles, lauded for being the country’s largest African American real estate developer, boasts a $4 billion portfolio that includes The Residences at The Bath Club, and at one time included Miami Beach’s Royal Palm Hotel. In Vegas, Peebles is developing Las Palmas, a 13-acre development adjacent to Wynn Las Vegas. The unique development will not incorporate gaming aspects, a gamble on the part of the developer, who is sinking $1.6 billion to build Las Palmas’ three residential towers, and one hotel/residential tower. Peebles says he is developing the property in Vegas because “it’s America’s fastest growing city, a top entertainment destination, and an entrepreneurial market laden with opportunity.”

Fort-Brescia explains, “Las Palmas is more like an urban village. It creates its own environment, its own street, its own main square, with multiple buildings creating a focal point within the site. It’s like a little Manhattan.”

Maybe it is the Manhattanization of Las Vegas that garnered the attention of the Morgans Hotel Group, who in June announced plans to unveil Mondrian and Delano hotels at Echelon, an ambitious project being headed up by Boyd Gaming. Echelon will span 87 acres, and will include Hotel Echelon and Suites at Echelon, Shangri-La Las Vegas, and the highly anticipated Delano and Mondrian Las Vegas. With the overwhelming success of the Delano Hotel in Miami, and the anticipated Mondrian South Beach Hotel Residences, this project created a buzz as soon as it was announced. The design is being done by none other than Oppenheim Architecture + Design, whose firm’s offices are housed in Miami’s Design District. Chad Oppenheim, founder of the firm bearing his name, explains, “[Oppenheim Architecture + Design] was selected as the winner of an international competition where we competed against some of my biggest architectural heroes from around the world to design the Delano and Mondrian Hotels for Morgan’s Hotel Group-the revolutionary hotel company under which Ian Schrager pioneered the boutique hotel concept around the world. Working on this project is a dream come true, as I have always been a fan of all their hotels that [Philippe] Starck designed, and it is a tremendous honor to be designing their first ground up hotel as part of the Echelon project.”

With a $950 million price tag, The Delano and Mondrian Las Vegas will have 860 and 550 rooms, respectively. Designer Peit Boon will be tackling The Delano, creating a heavenly and ethereal environment, while Marcel Wanders, who is also responsible for the stunning designs at Mondrian South Beach, will ensure the Mondrian is surreal and playful. Oppenheim ensures that all the experiences interior and exterior will “blow your mind. The project will completely revolutionize Vegas.” And the project is big: each of the masterminds behind the design aspect-Oppenheim, Boone, and Wanders-top out over six feet tall. Oppenheim laughs, “There is over nineteen feet of intense design power on the project between us all! Never before has such a tall team of designers been assembled.”

Previously, Oppenheim also worked on the expansion of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Las Vegas with Peter Morton, the founder of The Hard Rock. And the Miami-Vegas connection doesn’t end there.

Also making a go at it in Vegas, RPC Holdings, Inc. (RPC), the company behind Miami’s highly successful Paramount Bay, Paramount Beach, and the forthcoming Paramount Park, has also turned their eyes to the Vegas marketplace. Dan Kodsi, president of RPC, says, “After countless visits to Las Vegas for business and leisure, we felt that the current hotels were definitely meeting the needs and expectations of the masses, but we also felt something was missing, and a certain segment of the visitor market was underserved.” To fill this need, RPC purchased a 10.5-acre parcel of land that will become home to Paramount Las Vegas. “This is a first-class site directly across the street from the Bali Hai Golf Course and Mandalay Bay Convention Center,” Kodsi explains. Immediately adjacent to the private air terminal, future Paramount guests and owners will also enjoy immediate access to the full Vegas experience.

Paramount Las Vegas will be an 1800-plus unit hotel/condo that offers gaming, dining, and shopping alongside the requisite 75,000-square-foot casino. Offerings don’t stop there, as Paramount will also include two night clubs, a world-class spa, theater, and more than 80,000 square feet of pool and deck areas. But what sets the Paramount apart is the Paramount Passport, a lifestyle management concierge program unheard of in the Vegas marketplace. Guests can choose pre-set or customized itineraries that ensure a marvelous stay. And upon the next stay at any Paramount property worldwide, the guest’s preferred comforts will automatically be accommodated. And a chance to own at Paramount is not for just anyone. Kodsi explains, “While other Vegas properties are offering hundreds if not thousands of ownership opportunities at their property, Paramount strategically chose to only offer a limited supply at our resort. By keeping our ‘For Sale’ offering small, we are keeping the exclusivity that our target market desires while maintaining strong value-based on the one of a kind offering.”

Also making a go at it in Vegas, WSG Development Company, the Miami firm behind Sky Residence and Canyon Ranch Living, purchased a Vegas property years ago, but has held off on the development. Miami Beach native Eric Sheppard, owner and managing member of WSG, explains, “We own a big piece of property in Las Vegas right on the Strip. It’s a billion and a half dollar project.” That 9.14-acre parcel of land will be home to Lifestyle Las Vegas, a 1,648-unit resort/condominium. “I’m working with a couple different hotels to do the casino hotel,” Sheppard explains. The project, still in its development phase, will also include some 30,000 square feet of commercial space, another aspect that WSG is rather familiar with. Across the US, WSG has developed more than one million square feet of commercial and office space, so they are no strangers to the game, although this does mark the first Vegas property for the successful Miami company.

Canyon Ranch, having just launched their first residential component in Miami Beach in conjunction with WSG, is also making moves in Vegas, with Canyon Ranch SpaClub at The Las Vegas Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino. Just like the 83,000-square-foot Spa, Wellness, and Fitness Center on Miami Beach, the 69,000-square-foot SpaClub will focus around health and wellness, with 120 typical and not-so-typical spa offerings, including a three-story rock-climbing wall.

In addition, Fontainebleau, the godfather of Miami Beach hotels, is in on the fray, as they announced in June of this year they had secured $4 billion in financing for the development of Fontainebleau Las Vegas, a 63-story resort, condo-hotel, casino, and entertainment destination on the Strip.

It seems it might be easier to count Miami developers who don’t have ongoing projects in Vegas! The similarities between the cities, despite their geographical differences, have led to a plethora of projects that are redefining living in Las Vegas. It could be that, as Jorge Perez says, “Miami is a city of young people, not only young in age but young in ideas. And Las Vegas has a similar enthusiasm and vibe. Vegas feels like an Orlando for adults!” Fort-Brescia concurs. “Each city has its own attractions, but both cities are based on leisure,” he explains. “The projects in Las Vegas require one to be imaginative, and both Miami and Las Vegas are places that encourage creativity.” For these reasons and more, luxurious Las Vegas living is now being constructed, Miami-style.