Every Saturday morning my son and I ride from Miami Beach to Bal Harbor and back. It’s a short 6-mile ride and we usually stop to take a dip in the ocean. Typically we spend about 2 hours or so biking and lounging on the beach on Saturday mornings. If any fellow commercial real estate parents would like to join us please email me @ firstname.lastname@example.org.
Need help understanding why I could walk into Scarlet’s with a fistful of fifties, yet I can’t take my son to my local playground. Covid-19 restrictions for adult entertainment venues were lifted a couple of weeks ago, yet my 7-year old son and I can’t go to playground because Miami Dade County leadership has decided that playgrounds are deemed unsafe and are therefore closed. How are indoor strip clubs safer than outdoor playgrounds? Please help me understand the logic here Mayor Carlos Gimenez. For our children’s (and parent’s) sanity let’s open up our playgrounds now please.
Biking, commercial real estate and coffee are 3 of my favorite things and I suspect there are other commercial real estate professionals in Miami that also have the same correct life priorities. Every Sunday morning I head out for a little bike ride and figured it would be great to squeeze in some CRE networking while riding.
My typical route is below. Pedals up at 7:15 am from Miami Shores and then head to the Rickenbacker Causeway to ride with some roadies down to Key Biscayne and then back to Virginia Key for some mountain biking. On our way back to Miami Shores we could hit Zak the Baker in Wynwood for a caffeine pit-stop. Feel free to join for the entire ride or for just a segment of the ride. Typically I end up riding between 40 to 50 miles. Let’s grind some gravel and work on some CRE deals together!
Henry Flagler arguably brought real estate development to South and Central Florida in the late 19th and early 20th century when he extended rail service from St. Augustine south to West Palm Beach and eventually to Miami and then Key West. When he arrived in Florida in 1885 he began construction of the 504-room Ponce De Leon Hotel in St. Augustine. Realizing the need for a sound transportation system to support his hotel ventures, Flagler purchased short line railroads in what would later become known as the Florida East Coast Railway. He quickly understood that rail spurred development and it allowed people and goods to travel from the Northeast to the Sunshine State. His hotel was an immediate success because of the rail connection he built.
After nearly half a century of interrupted passenger rail service, the choo-choo is making a comeback in Florida. The prospect for transit oriented development (TOD) has never been better for Florida and intercity and commuter rail service will likely have a dramatic impact on Florida’s future development much as new rail service did over a century ago in our state.
With pancake flat topography, a population of nearly 22 million people and a relatively high population density of 376 people per square mile, Florida is well suited for intercity passenger rail to succeed in our state. The 4 largest MSAs in Florida have populations of well over 1 million people and are far enough (but not too far) that driving isn’t always a viable and efficient option. In addition, we already have large pockets of population density living along Florida’s east coast, which also happen to live within close proximity of the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) corridor in South and Central Florida and to a lesser extent North Florida. If driving isn’t an option due to time and distance, our only other available option is air travel. Intercity passenger rail service can be competitive with commercial air travel if total air travel times are less than 3-4 hours. (Total air travel time includes: driving to the airport and arriving at least an hour before takeoff to give enough time to go through TSA, walk to the gate, taxiing to and from the gate, flight time, deplaning, walking to the airport exit and grabbing an Uber or taxi.)
Virgin Trains & Intercity Commuter Rail Expansion in Florida
Brightline, which plans to rebrand into Virgin Trains after its service resumes due to COVID-19, is a private company that has been operating intercity commuter rail service on the FEC rail line between Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach since January 2018. All Aboard Florida, which operates Brightline, is owned by an affiliate of Fortress Investment Group LLC, a global investment management firm which is publicly traded. As of November 2019, it is the only privately owned and operated intercity passenger railroad in the United States and currently has an annual ridership 885,000 (2019).
Other Routes & Destinations
Virgins Trains is aggressively looking to expand its current service to other cities. Expansion of service to Orlando International Airport is expected by early 2022. The Orlando station is located just south of the airport and has been substantially completed already, though unused for more than a year and now houses Virgin Trains staffers. Virgin Trains is currently building new tracks that will eventually connect the Orlando Airport Station to the FEC tracks on Florida’s East Coast. The 35-mile stretch of new rail corridor from Orlando International Airport to the Florida East Coast Railway near Cocoa in Brevard County will cost $4 billion and is being privately financed. The Virgin route will parallel S.R. 528 east to a new bridge over the St. Johns River, cross Interstate 95, go under S.R. 528 twice and then connect with Florida East Coast Railway at U.S. Highway 1. The section from the airport to near Cocoa requires 30 new bridges; the stretch from Cocoa to West Palm Beach will need 28 new bridges.
Pre-Covid-19, Virgin Trains predicted that within several years the annual passenger count would grow to more than 6 million passengers, with about half of those going to or coming from Orlando’s airport. The base, one-way fare for the three-hour run from Miami to Orlando, will be priced at between $60 and $100. Virgin Trains is aiming for the sweet spot of distances too far for driving and too near for flying.
Aventura, Boca Raton & Port Miami
In October 2019, Miami-Dade County Commissioners pledged $76 million to build Aventura station at the Aventura Mall in Aventura, Florida, between Miami and Fort Lauderdale. The Aventura station is expected to be completed in the Fall of 2020.
In December 2019, Boca Raton was officially chosen as an infill station site to be connected to Mizner Park via a pedestrian bridge. Virgin proposed constructing the station and rail infrastructure while the city would cover access and zoning requirements. The Boca Raton station is expected to be completed in late 2020.
In October 2019, Virgin trains USA also announced plans to start building a station in PortMiami in 2020.
Commuter Rail: Wynwood, Design District, 79th Street, North Miami and FIU North
In 2020, it was revealed that Virgin Trains was planning a commuter rail service to complement the higher-speed intercity line and is seeking $350 million to build five train platforms between Downtown Miami and Aventura. Trains would run between Miami Central and Aventura with five train platforms in Wynwood, the Design District, 79th Street, North Miami and FIU North.
Virgin Trains USA has expressed interest in adding a station on Florida’s Treasure Coast and another on the Space Coast between West Palm Beach and Orlando. In August 2018, the company asked cities in the area to submit proposals for station locations. Fort Pierce, which last had passenger train service on July 31, 1968, has expressed interest. The city of Stuart has also indicated that it will be negotiating for a potential station.
Virgin Trains USA has indicated that Stuart is the most likely location for a Treasure Coast station, and that Cocoa would make the most sense for a Space Coast station, both because of proximity to Port Canaveral’s cruise lines as well as for positioning for future expansion to Jacksonville.
Virgin Trains has been in negotiations with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to lease right-of-way along the Interstate 4 corridor. Virgin Trains was the only bidder to submit a proposal to construct an intercity rail line along Interstate 4, which has been designated for federally funded high-speed rail. This would be utilized for an extension of the line from Orlando International Airport to Downtown Tampa. Potential stops along this route are the SunRail Meadow Woods station, Walt Disney World, and Lakeland.
Rumors have also swirled about an eventual extension to Jacksonville, Florida. The existing tracks are currently used for freight and the existing right of way is already under ownership of Fortress Investment Group. An extension to Jacksonville would not be a hard lift for Virgins Trains.
The Future of Air Travel in the Era of Covid-19
“The easiest way to become a millionaire is to start out as a billionaire and then go into the airline business.” Sir Richard Branson, Founder Virgin Group
Few industries have been hit harder than the aviation industry. According to The Economist by April 2020 global passenger numbers had fallen by 94% year on year, to level last seen in 1978. The industry has lost well over $250bn in revenue in the last 6 months.
In May 2020 the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimated that passenger numbers would return to pre-pandemic levels by 2023; seems fair to say that without a vaccine this prediction looks wildly optimistic. More recently, IATA has also predicted that only 30 of the world’s 700 or so airlines would survive the crisis without government help. Carriers are already starting to fall like dominoes. Flybe, Europe’s largest regional airline, Virgin Australia and LATAM, Latin America’s largest carrier, all filed for bankruptcy in the last several months. Looks like this may just be the beginning of airline failures.
The End of Low-Cost Flights
With low cost carries going out of business and less competition, we will likely see consolidation in the airline industry. For obvious reasons this does not bode well for travelers and we will likely see rising ticket prices. As airlines look to cut costs and streamline operations we will likely see less direct flights as well, which in-turn, will make air travel a longer and more expensive experience. Virgin Trains may stand to benefit from this predicament if they are able to provide more regular service and a less crowded/socially-distanced travel experience then air travel.
Florida is already one of the fastest growing states in the country. With no state income tax, great weather year round and a relatively low cost of living, Florida, at the very least, will likely continue to grow at a similar pace. If anything, Covid-19 may even accelerate migration from the Northeast, Midwest and Latin America. We’re already seeing strong demand coming from these regions since our crisis began.
Mobility and Development in Florida
According to some of my sources in the 305, Virgin Trains will likely not restart service until the Orlando connection is complete. Covid19 has clearly impacted Virgin Trains service and a large number of Virgin Trains/Brightline staff were laid off when the company suspended service indefinitely back in March. Even with this huge setback, I’m optimistic about the future of rail travel in Florida. In addition to the significant investments that Virgin Trains has made, there are large contributions being made by cities, counties and even the State.
Virgin Trains will soon connect to the commuter TriRail service in South Florida via Miami Central Station and Virgin Trains will eventually connect with commuter SunRail service in Central Florida. Very quickly, we can see that a Florida rail network is possible if we can fill in a couple of crucial missing links which are now within reach.
Transit Oriented Development opportunities are ripe for the picking in Florida if cities can get their zoning right around train stations. Eliminating parking requirements, encouraging mixed-uses and increasing density around stations will lead to more attractive development opportunities for developers to build, healthy, walkable communities. Covid-19 may have slowed the broader urban renewal development patterns that urbanists have enjoyed during the past 15-20 years, but the mass-exodus to suburbs that we read about in the newspaper headlines will likely be short lived.
In the meantime we will need to learn to adapt and live with the virus until a vaccine is discovered or we reach herd immunity. Life will likely eventually return to some semblance of “normal”, but there will also be permanent changes for the better. In the long term Florida seems well positioned to benefit from the significant rail infrastructure investments that are being made in our state. Transit oriented development opportunities should logically follow.
Arden Karson, a graduate of Tufts University and Harvard Business School, is a lifelong resident of South Florida. She has an extensive background in sales and marketing, development, acquisition, asset management, leasing and financing of commercial and residential properties across all asset types.
Over the course of her career, Ms. Karson served in executive and leadership roles at CBRE, Related Group, Lennar/LNR, Bank of America and PWC. Arden is active with many industry organizations and has been recognized by the media as a Power Real Estate Leader and a Top Business Woman. Ms. Karson serves on the Board of Advisors of the Friends of the Underline, the University of Miami Masters in Real Estate + Urbanism program, the Michigan Ross Real Estate Fund Advisory Board and the Urban Land Institute.
I have known Arden for several years. She is energetic (to say the least), passionate and selfless. We first met while she was working at CBRE and as soon as she found out that I had started a real estate technology company, she immediately tried to figure out how she could help. We should all surround ourselves with people like Arden.
The Real Estate Jedi
A Conversation With Ms. Karson
Stoic Urbanist: What is a regular day for you?
Ms. Karson: I wake up around 6 am, grind my Starbucks coffee and then read the print versions of the Miami Herald and Wall Street Journal. On Sundays, I add the New York Times to the reading list. I then exercise, shower and start my day. The only difference during Covid-19 is that I am not commuting to work.
Typical day during Covid looks like:
Schedule 7-9 business development/catch up calls per day. My husband cannot believe how much I am on the phone.
Participate/listen to 3-4 webinars per week.
Work on KARSON & CO strategy including social media and marketing.
Respond to emails.
Read industry updates including online media which include SFBJ, the Real Deal, Miami Today and Bisnow.
I also spend a few hours per week mentoring the next generation of CRE talent.
Currently, I am very focused on developing a database of capital providers, so I am speaking with several contacts per day to understand their appetite for doing deals.
Late in the day, if the weather is nice, I will fast walk to the beach and back home for about an hour and make several phone calls during my stroll. After, I prep for dinner. Typically Jack and I cook together which is fun. We then sit down with our daughter to watch a show. Right now we are obsessed with Money Heist.
Stoic Urbanist: After three and a half years leading three South Florida CBRE offices (Miami, Fort Lauderdale & Boca Raton), you decided to step-down as Senior Managing Director a couple of months ago to launch KARSON & CO. What drove this decision and what opportunities will your firm focus on?
Ms. Karson: I spent a lot of time soul searching during the quarantine. I realized that I missed being involved in transactions and putting deals together as an intermediary and principal. I reached out to successful friends, colleagues and mentors who started wildly successful companies in the last down cycle for advice. I felt it was time to take my 25+ years of South Florida real estate experience and my national and global contacts, and put them to work to help build a real estate venture focused on South Florida.
I have a real passion for start-ups. I have been active in the entrepreneurial world throughout my professional career. Whether I was starting a new business within an established company, as I did when I worked at Lennar and Advenir, or founding my own start-up, Endlessly Organic, I find the energy electric. I also enjoy being involved with the local Miami start-up community and being a mentor to younger entrepreneurs. As you know, for Miami to continue to grow and thrive, we must recruit and retain talent. Having a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem is a key success diver.
One of my goals for KARSON & CO is to be at the top of the list when companies are looking to invest in commercial real estate in South Florida. As new capital enters the Miami market, my plan is for KARSON & CO to facilitate those transactions while leveraging the contacts I have cultivated throughout my career.
Stoic Urbanist: Looks like you’re an entrepreneur at heart. In 2011 you took a break from real estate and started Endlessly Organic. What inspired you to start this company?
Ms. Karson: As with most start-up ventures, I saw a need and identified a problem much in the same way you did when you launched Gridics. I was a member of an organic food co-op which was very unsophisticated and lacked customer service. My partner and dear friend, Cheryl Arnold, co-founded the company with me which we sold in 2016. Happy to say that the company is still thriving and I am once again collaborating with Cheryl as a tenant rep for her new produce company, Box Greens.
Stoic Urbanist: Seems like you like to keep things healthy. Besides eating healthy, what else do you do to stay in shape?
Ms. Karson: Every day I do something physical. Prior to Covid, I was a member of three gyms and I also used the gym in my building. I take every opportunity to stay active and regularly walk up 8 flights of stairs to get to my penthouse condo. I pace up and down my balcony while on calls. I have always been a runner and even ran in a few marathons and half marathons, but now it is more like fast walking. I also participate in Peloton and online boot camp classes regularly.
Stoic Urbanist: What was your first job and how old were you when you started? What valuable lessons did you learn from that job?
Ms. Karson: My first job was keeping the books for my recently divorced Mom. I balanced her checkbook and paid the bills. She paid me $25/month. My first real job outside the house was working in a clothing store in Dadeland mall when I was 16. That is where I developed my love of fashion and retail!
Stoic Urbanist: You were raised on Miami Beach. What do you love about the 305 and what is your biggest pet peeve about South Florida?
Ms. Karson: I love the diversity in South Florida including the mix of cultures and activities. There is so much to do and so much to experience. We have it all… except mountains LOL. I also love that we are so welcoming to newcomers. It is so easy to get involved in the community.
Wow, my biggest pet peeve…I am frustrated when new to market sponsors come to Miami and announce grandiose plans and never execute them.
Stoic Urbanist: Real estate runs deep in your family. What South Florida real estate projects was your family involved with?
Ms. Karson: My maternal grandfather was one of the original developers of Bay Harbor and I live here today. My paternal grandfather owned the third oldest restaurant on Miami Beach – Neil’s Delicatessen located on Alton and 16th.
Stoic Urbanist: What other city could you see yourself living in and why?
Ms. Karson: I love NYC-my children live there and I am cheering for the City to come roaring back.
Stoic Urbanist: What are some of the greatest challenges South Florida faces?
Ms. Karson: Our greatest challenge is overcoming the lack of cohesion within our governmental arena. Perception in the media is also a challenge. Also, Miami-Dade County is comprised of 34 cities and each city has its own zoning code which is challenging for a developer.
Stoic Urbanist: Seems like there will be good buying opportunities in the next 6-24 months. Which asset class will be most appealing to investors looking to place capital in South Florida and why?
Ms. Karson: The good buying opportunities are not quite here yet, but we will see some land, retail and hospitality projects soon. We are at least 9-12 months out from seeing opportunistic deals for these asset classes.
Stoic Urbanist: What would be your 3 main recommendations for graduate students aspiring to work in real estate?
Get a real estate license
Join a young professionals networking group (FORE, ULI, ICSC)
Be persistent and be prepared. Have a story. Everything matters.
Stoic Urbanist: What hobbies do you have?
Ms. Karson: Where to begin, I have quite a few…
I love food, especially cooking and entertaining.
I love the water.
I love art.
I love to read.
And believe it or not, one of my hobbies is to shop real estate – from open houses to new projects to driving neighborhoods. I love great design and I get a lot of inspiration that way. I miss being able to do that now.
Mentoring start-ups is also one of my hobbies; I find it very fulfilling.
Stoic Urbanist: You play a big role getting the Underline off the ground with Meg Daly. What attracted you to this project and what was your involvement?
Ms. Karson: One of the biggest attractions was the opportunity to work with Meg. I have known Meg since attending high school together at Ransom Everglades. She is a brilliant thinker, communicator, writer and leader. I love being surrounded by sharp people and every time I am with her; I learn something. In addition, this project touches all my interests (community, health and wellness, art, real estate, land planning, transportation, etc.)so I raised my hand. My involvement with the Underline is mostly as a strategic partner, fundraiser and consultant.
Stoic Urbanist: What is the last great book you read and what is your favorite book?
Ms. Karson: I just finished Educated, by Tara Westover and I really enjoyed it.
My favorite book is Oh, The Places You’ll Go. It is a quick read and it contains so many important messages. We are a big Dr Seuss family, and this is one of my favorites.
Stoic Urbanist: Which South Florida CRE professional do you have a lot of respect for and why?
Ms. Karson: Stuart Miller, Lennar CEO, is one of my mentors. I started my CRE career at Lennar and worked directly with Stuart. Stuart is super sharp and a renaissance man of sorts. He is a poet, artist and a leader! And he taught me how to use Photoshop too.
Stoic Urbanist: What’s your favorite Miami neighborhood and why?
Ms. Karson: I am a big fan of the Surfside, Bal Harbour and Bay Harbor neighborhood. The neighborhood is well maintained, walkable, has great restaurants, shopping (Bal Harbour Shoppes) and is close to the beach. What more can you ask for?
Stoic Urbanist: What’s Miami’s next up-and-coming neighborhood and why do you see potential?
Ms. Karson: Wynwood is really starting to hit its stride due in large part to the early commitment from the Goldman family, David Lombardi and others. The launching of Related’s residential communities are further solidifying its position as a livable 24/7 neighborhood.
Ms. Karson: Even during Covid there are more announcements about up and coming projects in Wynwood than in most other areas. I am currently working with the sponsor of Shepherd Eco Wynwood, an exciting mixed-use sustainable residential and hospitality development that will break ground within six months.
Stoic Urbanist: Favorite restaurant for a business lunch and what items on the menu would you recommend?
Ms. Karson: When I was working on Brickell I enjoyed Flemmings for a quick biz lunch. The décor and service are fantastic. The California Power Bowl is delicious.
Stoic Urbanist: Who’s your favorite South Florida politician and why?
Ms. Karson: I have two favorites:
Danny Gelber, Mayor of Miami Beach. We have been friends since high school and we attended Tufts together. He is a fabulous leader and public speaker.
Eileen Higgins, Miami Dade County Commissioner, Eileen is a big supporter of the Underline. I was on the NFTE board with her when she first moved to Miami and she is smart, focused and hard working. Eileen truly cares about people. She relocated from the Midwest and since arriving, she has immersed herself in our community. She has a vision and she is all about community service.
Stoic Urbanist: Tell us about your children. Are any of your kids following in your CRE footsteps?
Ms. Karson: Not yet. My oldest son Jared is buying an apt in NY right now, but I am not sure if that counts. Jared is also an entrepreneur and has a call center in Dominican Republic called Hire Horatio. Micah, my middle son, loves that I chose the name Karson & Co so that other family members can easily slip in. He works in private equity in NYC. I keep bugging my daughter, Lily, to get her real estate license, so let’s see. I am keeping my fingers crossed as I love working with my family.
Stoic Urbanist: Lastly, tell us something very few people know about you.
Ms. Karson: Funny, this question keeps popping up. I used to say that I founded Endlessly Organic; recently I shared my father’s accomplishments as world champion powerboat racer and the holder of the Miami to New York powerboat speed record for almost 20 years. So, digging deep, most people do not know that I used to ride horses during the summers at camp and participated in equestrian shows. Yes, I wore the formal uniform (jodhpurs, jacket and helmet). I really enjoyed the sport.