Craig Robins and Jackie Soffer On Love, Art and Miami – Commercial Observer
Every industry has its power couples. The music industry has Beyonce and Jay Z. Among business titans, billionaire Barry Diller and fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg come to mind.
For the real estate industry, at least in South Florida, it’s Craig Robins and Jackie Soffer. The two — each in their own right — are giants of Miami’s booming retail landscape, stewards of very different types of properties.
He, the founder and CEO of Dacra, the driving force behind the Miami Design District, the city’s luxury shopping mecca. Lined with modern outdoor sculptures, the 18-block development is where the world’s most esteemed fashion houses shell out millions to wow shoppers. Chanel is said to have dropped $40 million for the buildout of its store, and Louis Vuitton set up a 20,000-square-foot outdoor exhibit last year.
She, the chairman and CEO of Turnberry Associates, owner of the Aventura Mall, which her father, Donal Soffer, developed in the 1980s. Despite the demise of such indoor, suburban-style shopping centers over the past decade, the 2.8 million-square-foot Aventura Mall attracts about 25 million shoppers a year. It’s where Bath and Body Works and Balenciaga coexist, and where Apple tapped world-renowned architect Norman Foster to design its store.
The pair, who wed in 2015, have left their mark on Miami beyond just the shops they lease, helping to put Miami on the map as a leading destination for contemporary art. Robins lobbied for Art Basel, an art show in Switzerland, to set up shop in the Magic City, which is returning the first week of December for its 19th edition. The developer also co-founded Design Miami, a prominent fair for rare contemporary furniture. Soffer, too, has long been a patron of the arts. For over 15 years, the Aventura Mall has featured iconic artworks such as Robert Indiana’s Love sculpture.
Their Miami Beach home is a reflection of their shared passion. The white walls and furniture leave the art to shine. From Soffer’s collection, a Louise Bourgeois sculpture of two black rods with circular tops stands by the corridor connecting the living room, kitchen and dining room. A painting by Henry Taylor of three women standing in front of a pool, which Robins bought, gazes over the living room.
Commercial Observer sat down with the couple by an oval-shaped table designed by the late Zaha Hadid — the legendary architect was a friend — to discuss how they balance each other’s competing businesses, Miami’s COVID-fueled boom and, of course, art.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Commercial Observer: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you meet?
Craig Robins: She sued me. I was clearly winning, so she wanted to meet — we had never met before — and we settled.
What was the lawsuit about?
Jackie Soffer: It was a business lawsuit [over a private plane], but it wasn’t really me that filed a lawsuit. I was partners with my brother. We have mutual friends. It got to a point where they said, “You should meet and see each other’s side.” I really wasn’t involved.
So the first time I met him was basically in mediation. He showed up with stacks of papers to show me that I was wrong. We started off with a battle, but we don’t really fight now. So we got the fighting over at the beginning. That was in 2009.
Robins: She ran into mutual friends and started saying, “How can you be friends with Craig Robins? He’s a horrible person” and going on. She was defending her brother’s ridiculous lawsuit. I thought she seemed really loyal. I’d like to meet her.
Did you start dating immediately after that?
Robins: Within a very short period of time.
Soffer: You invited me to lunch under the guise of “We’re going to talk about how we’re going to get out of this lawsuit.” We still hadn’t settled, right?
After lunch, he said, “I have a surprise for you.” The restaurant is connected to this high school. The next thing you know, we were in the back hallways at the school. He looked at me and said, “OK, we’re now going to judge a project. I gave the senior high school students a project to take a parcel of land that I have in the Design District. We need a certain amount of square footage of retail, office, and event space. Give me what you think would be the best use layout for this project.”
And I left thinking that was a pretty cool date.
Did it dawn on you that you were starting to date someone who’s also a very prominent retail landlord?
Soffer: The Design District at that point wasn’t quite a retail destination.
Robins: At first, I was really a South Beach developer and participated in that renaissance. By the mid-’90s, South Beach was pretty established, a very cool place. We were the largest property holders in the historic district.
But what I didn’t like about South Beach were two things. One, it was like a party place. And the second thing was, even though we were the largest property holder, we couldn’t really control the direction [of the area] because we had a small percentage of the total. Other people could do things to exploit the growth and the excitement as opposed to adding to it.
I secretly started buying property in the Design District, which was practically defunct. Rents were going for $5 a foot a year. And people thought that it was a really rough area and I couldn’t make anything work there. That was kind of my business, to go to places that were down and out and try to transform them. South Beach was the first, the Design District was the second.
The first thing we did was to bring back the furniture. We got like 50 percent of the total market share in this 2009 period. And, so, probably like a year or so before I met Jackie, I realized I could mix retail into it. At the beginning, we had like four or five stores; the most known was Christian Louboutin.
Now you’re some of the biggest retail landlords in Miami. How do you not view one another as competition?
Robins: Some tenants will have to decide between the Design District and Aventura Mall, but it’s minimal.
We’ve mainly been very supportive. And we have to go to the genesis of what happened. There’s a mall in Miami called The Bal Harbour Shops. They had a radius clause, so they wouldn’t allow anybody to have a store outside of Bal Harbor. For years, Jackie struggled against that and couldn’t get those luxury brands for the most part.
As the Design District was emerging and I was getting these cool brands, I couldn’t get the big luxury brands. When I formed the partnership with L Catterton [a private equity firm backed by luxury giant LVMH], part of it, they wanted to have a second store. That enabled Jackie and I to collaborate. The brands being able to have two stores, instead of just one, was empowering to both of us.
Soffer: And I recognize what my property is and I also recognize what his property is. So if it’s a nighttime restaurant that caters to, say, the elite in New York, that’s more for his property than for ours.
Do you ever bounce ideas off one another?
Soffer: All the time. Every Saturday, we walk around the District and I’ll say to him, “You really need to add a restaurant in this location.”
Robins: We both make suggestions to each other. We don’t always implement those suggestions. Or we might have a different opinion. Or the needs of our properties are different. But it’s very healthy discourse.
Soffer: We’ve never had one fight over business, I would say. Never.
Really? Because that was going to be my next question.
Soffer: It’s only symbiotic. … I tend to spend more time in the Design District than he does coming up in Aventura because it’s closer.
Robins: It’s more fun.
Soffer: He likes me to focus on what’s important to him.
Robins: In case you haven’t noticed — I like to tease her.
Soffer: I enjoy being in the Design District. I enjoy watching the changes. It’s pretty incredible watching what’s happened there. I’m really proud of it. I’ve contributed to it. And I’m also proud of him for everything that he’s done. Nobody ever thought that he could do it.
Robins: We’ve influenced each other. We start off with a common vision, and then we leave each other. Jackie did this incredible new section. There’s this Carsten Höller slide. The Haas Brothers did this incredible sculpture. It’s like a much different experience than I’ve ever had at a mall — but that was on the back of Jackie always having an incredible public art program.
So that program started even before you met Craig? Is that right?
Soffer: I started that in ’06. It wasn’t my idea. I was influenced by a close friend of ours, Norman Braman. He’s a philanthropist, businessman, and a great art collector. He would say, “People should experience art whether they know and understand what they’re experiencing. But most people don’t take the time to go to museums.” Frequentship to museums is very low, comparatively speaking. We have 25 million people that come annually to our property. So he basically said, “You have the duty to bring art to people. You are the town center.”
Before, I didn’t really know that much about the art world. Then I met Craig and he took it to a whole other level. He exposed me, just through owning Design Miami and traveling through Europe. When he opened the first phase of the Design District and I saw the Buckminster Fuller Fly’s Eye Dome — it’s the blue dome — I thought, “Oh, I’ve got to have some iconic pieces.”
Miami’s Art Basel is about to start. Can you talk about how the art show came to Miami Beach?
Robins: I’d been going to Art Basel for years. And, secondly, because I was doing everything in the Design District, I would go to this show called Salone. It was the only place in the world that I’d ever experienced where a whole city was celebrating culture for a period of time. All of Milan has exhibitions, events and activations. It’s not just the fair.
I became friendly with Sam Keller, who was then the director of Art Basel. And we started to talk about the possibility of Art Basel coming to Miami Beach. So, as part of it, we would do Salone at the Design District during Art Basel. I wouldn’t say it was all because of me because there were other people.
The thing that was really important to me was to take that sex appeal of Miami and combine it with this traditional event. It became this thing that was very different than Art Basel in Basel, where you go to the art fair. It became this Miami thing, which some people say is too over the top.
I’ve always treated the Design District as a cultural destination, a place for people to do business. And that’s a very different way of looking at a place. It’s an outdoor museum of art, architecture and design.
Besides Art Basel, what was the impetus for starting Design Miami?
Robins: I’ve always taken a contrarian position. In South Beach, everybody thought the Art Deco buildings should be torn down and you should build this garbage that you see everywhere. And a small group of us and some people from out of Miami said no.
With furniture, people didn’t really have access to design. There are these decorator centers, where you weren’t allowed to walk in unless you were with a licensed decorator. The first idea behind Design District design was to demystify design.
Then, because I’m an art collector, I realized that design, especially contemporary design, is not collectible like art. There were a few galleries in the world, but people didn’t really value it. Design Miami raised the awareness of design to a larger audience that design is correctable like art. That’s not to say that people didn’t know about antiques before, but they wouldn’t have perceived this Zaha Hadid table as a collectible. When something is mass produced, then it’s done in a way that limits creativity. But when something’s limited edition and it’s treated more like a sculpture, then more can go into it.
This home is decked out in art. How do you go about buying art?
Soffer: Craig is much more experienced in the world art world than I am. When it comes to the art, he has a team that changes the art out every so often in this house. I open up my mouth when something is offensive to me. We agree on, I would say 80, 90 percent. But then there’s a percentage that I perceive to be either too sexually explicit or violent and I don’t really want it in my home.
Robins: I appreciate art that sometimes is tough. But we each collect and help each other collect. Sometimes we’ll buy things together. But it tends to be more design.
Soffer: I didn’t really know much about design until I met Greg. I’ve learned a lot and I love that… You didn’t know much about retail until you met me. You’ve got to admit?
Robins: That’s true.
Both of you grew up in Miami Beach. What do you make of Miami’s transformation into a tech and finance hub?
Soffer: In the ’80s, it was all about “Miami Vice.” There was obviously a drug scene here and it was more of a less sophisticated lifestyle than we have right now. And then when Art Basel came to Miami, it attracted — slowly — top architects, top designers, top restaurants, developers, that brought a different level of quality to the community.
Robins: I agree with all that. Jackie is correct. Art Basel made us known as more of a cultural destination, and gave us more substance.
Miami has always been more a city of the future. It didn’t have these incredible institutions that you see in other, older cities in the United States, but it was growing faster. And then COVID came. It accelerated everything in a very dramatic way. It catapulted an enormous number of people to move here. It did bring a whole more substantial tech dimension, which I think is another incredible element to our community.
Now that the COVID thing has slowed, we’re at this much higher level, and I think that’s very stabilized. It’s growing at a more normal pace because we don’t have this crazy injection. I think this is the horizon of the next period for Miami.
And now we’ve got to create the infrastructure to accommodate that growth. We need more schools. We need better housing, more affordable housing.
Inflation persists; interest rates keep going up. Many experts say we’ll be in a recession next year. What are you seeing in your properties? Are you seeing a slowdown?
Soffer: No. I was there on Sunday — it was a rainy day, so that makes a difference — it was almost to the point where there’s too many people. It was crazy busy. There are just so many more people here. We were significantly up from pre-COVID. Maybe our comp sales aren’t as dramatically above from the year before, but they’re still mopping up.
Robins: I would echo everything that Jackie said. The growth was insane. In the Design District, we had a very strong year in 2019. With COVID and closure for three months, we did 100 percent more sales in ’20 than in ’19, which means huge growth. In 2021, our sales grew 125 percent. When you’ve doubled your sales, your fear is “Can I hold on to that?”
But our traffic is up 40 percent — now. A lot of people weren’t rushing to South Florida this summer. They’re going to Europe. They’re spending the fall in New York and Chicago. Despite that, there’s still growth.
Then I think there’s another layer, which is the overall economy. We are going to be affected by the overall economy. But it seems that we are being much less affected than other places — right now. It’s very hard to predict how that will manifest.
Soffer: I’m partners with the LeFrak family in developing a smaller community, a 174-acre property called Sole Mia. It’s master-planned for almost 5,000 units. We’ve been working on it since 2014.
Our first residential rental building opened in 2019. We had an absorption plan for like a year and a half, and that was absorbed in six months. The second project was a 200-unit, midrise building. We also thought it would be 12 months, and absorbed in like four. It opened in December 2021. We’ve planned our first condominium project, which is called One Park Tower. We opened our sales center about a month ago. We’re selling units and we’re taking reservations right now. So they’re moving quickly.
I mean, it’s kind of shocking with the market. Maybe if it was a year ago from now we’d be selling or we wouldn’t be taking reservations a lot quicker than we are, but the pace is so great.
The Aventura Mall remains one of the few successful suburban-style malls in the country. What’s the secret sauce?
Soffer: We’re partners with Simon Property Group but we’re family-owned and -operated. I oversee the property and live and breathe it. We offer a lot of different experiences, whether it’s a movie theater, whether it’s a farmers market every weekend. We do activities, like now we have the “Stranger Things” pop-up. Now that Instagram and TikTok have become so important, people really enjoy some of the locations we have, where they can do photo shoots, take pictures of themselves. I have been very conscious about bringing the national retailers, but also having good, strong locals in the property. There’s something about bringing the community in.
Robins: Much of the retail in the United States was very boring. It wasn’t that creative. Some of that had to die off.
There’s also another thing that’s happening where the best places are growing and becoming more powerful and more vibrant. That’s what Jackie’s done. She’s there every day, walking around, looking around and thinking, “How can I add to this experience?” You have to treat [the mall] like it’s a living organism. You need to feed it and make sure it gets exercise.
Julia Echikson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.