Miami Developer Lissette Calderon on ‘Attainable Luxury’ and the Meaning of Life
Her Neology Life Development Group pioneered residential construction along the Miami River
On her 28th birthday, Lissette Calderon broke ground on her first development, a high-rise condominium on the banks of the Miami River.
It was a gift to herself, and to the city where she was born and raised.
The child of Cuban immigrants, Calderon left Miami for college, and returned with three degrees from the Wharton School of Business, some Wall Street experience, and a desire to shape the city she knew and loved.
Calderon’s first project, called Neo Lofts, was designed for young professionals like herself, who wanted an urban lifestyle without the price tag or pretentiousness of a Brickell condo. She chose intentionally to build along the Miami River, farther west than other developers thought to consider. But Calderon could see what they couldn’t.
Now, 20 years and thousands of condo and rental units later, Calderon feels that her vision was vindicated. The Miami River is active, a slew of commercial and residential projects are being built along its waterways, and development is pushing farther west.
Calderon has now set her sights on Allapattah, a largely industrial and working-class neighborhood in the center of the city of Miami, bordered by the airport, the Health District, and, to the south, that Miami River.
Her company, Neology Life Development Group, has three projects in Allapattah, at various stages of completion. Neology delivered No. 17 Residences, a 192-unit multifamily building, in April. It recently broke ground on The Julia after closing on financing from Trez Capital, and its third project, Allapattah 14, is expected to break ground within the next several months.
Commercial Observer spoke with Calderon in October about her development philosophy, why she’s so bullish on Allapattah, and what it’s like mothering three teenage daughters.
The conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Commercial Observer: Give us a short intro on yourself and your company.
Lissette Calderone: I was born and raised in Miami — actually on the banks of the Miami River; public school graduate. I went on to Wharton School of Business, where I graduated with a triple major in finance, multinational management and real estate; then went on to New York, was an investment banker for a while; and then came back down to Miami, which is home, to pursue my passion of real estate development.
I actually got my start in real estate with Jorge Pérez [founder, chairman and CEO] of the Related Group, where I was the first woman he hired.
I have since gone on to really redevelop, reimagine and transform the Miami River. That was about 20 years ago, when I went off on my own and started the Neo brand and everything associated with attainable luxury and so forth. We started as a condo developer, and we did about 1,500 units. Then, in about 2017, we pivoted to the multifamily side, and have gone on to do about 1,200 units that we’ve developed, with about another 500 in the pipeline and continued plans for expansion and growth, both regionally and nationally.
What is the meaning of the name of the company?
Neo, because it means new, different, and it was important that “life” was in the name, because it’s really about being a lifestyle brand. We see ourselves as much more than a commodity. When people come to our communities, to our buildings, we want them to feel that their residence is not just the four walls that they reside in, but an entire community of amenities and of people and of collaboration.
The Neo brand really came to be in [the wake of] 9/11. I was in the midst of really thinking about my first project, which was Neo Lofts and I remember sitting there and thinking, “If the world changed tomorrow, what would I have wanted more?” It’s really the sense of community, the sense of knowing people, of knowing my neighbors. And that’s where the love of lifestyle came about.
Tell me more about the first project, Neo Lofts.
That project broke ground in May of 2002, exactly on my 28th birthday.
In 2002, after having been at Related, I went off on my own and I started Neo Lofts. Here I was, an Ivy League graduate that had a fantastic job and there really was no attainable housing for me within the urban core. I lived with mom because that was what I could afford. I said there had to be other people like me that were young professionals that were being priced out of the market.
I love to travel and I love to read, and when you combine the two you realize that riverfront living is at the heart of almost every great metropolis, whether it’s London or Paris or New York. I mean Mesopotamia was between the two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. And here I am, I came back to Miami and I realized that we’ve got this incredible Miami River, and it’s completely neglected and blighted and no one’s really thinking about it as the next waterfront alternative. At the time, waterfront really meant bayfront, oceanfront. Out in New York, I lived in a really cool loft with two roommates, in what was an authentic loft — high ceilings and lots of light and glass.
Miami being a newer city didn’t have that authentic loft experience. I thought, if I created the loft living and gave it a Miami flair and put it in a waterfront location that I defined to be the river, it would be extremely successful.
One of the things we did, I created the first “bark park” [dog park]. I realized that many people like me who were single, but wanted to live in the urban core, or worked in the urban core, did have dogs, and some of us have very big dogs. I had a 150-pound mastiff. He was a stray and I was in love with him. And so it was in his honor.
How has the Miami River changed since then?
It’s incredible because 20 years ago we said that the Miami River was going to be a place where people would want to live, work and entertain. And 20 years later, it’s humbling to see that come to life.
Skipping ahead to now, you’re currently focused on Allapattah. Why Allapattah?
In 2017, I turned my attention to Allapattah because that was the last authentic neighborhood that I saw remaining in Miami that really afforded an opportunity to bring that reimagination and the ability to reimagine and write the next chapter, like we did for the Miami River. It’s one of the original neighborhoods within the city of Miami. It was there as early as the late 1800s; there were businesses and homes there in the area. Other areas within the city of Miami started getting redevelopment, but [Allapattah] just stayed within its industrial roots and some single-family housing. But nothing exciting had really been done.
And, so, I started acquiring some properties very quietly in 2017, and we just delivered our first project.
Other than its history, what makes Allapattah ripe for development?
First of all, you have mass transit that runs right through it. So you’ve got the Metro Rail that goes right through the heart of Allapattah with three, four different stops. But most interesting is that the Health District is within Allapattah. And this is the second-largest Health District after Houston. You’ve got over 46,000 people who work within the Health District every single day, and there really was not a lot of housing inventory for them, if they wanted to live close to their places of employment. So it felt like that was just an incredible opportunity for attainable lifestyle-driven housing.
You’ve also got the central business district which is not too far. You’ve got 220,000 jobs. And then what everybody forgets is that immediately west of Allapattah is the airport, which is almost another 40,000 jobs, great jobs. Compound it with everything that is going on culturally in terms of entertainment around it, and it really just made a lot of sense.
Your latest Allapattah project is in an opportunity zone. How much has that made a difference to either where you’re developing, and how much has it played into how the project has gotten financed?
Our next project is Allapattah 14 — that’s the one that’s going to break ground in the coming months. That one was done specifically because it is within an opportunity zone. Part of that capital structure was very much because it was in an opportunity zone. We were already building within certain areas, we were already committed to Allapattah. Because, at the end of the day, whether it’s in an opportunity zone or not, the numbers are the numbers and they need to pencil out.
You describe your product as “attainable.” With rents skyrocketing in Miami, how are you thinking about how that affects the city of Miami and how affordability plays into making a city successful?
Miami, like every other major city in the United States, has an affordability issue. And that really boils down to supply and demand. I think it’s up to us developers, really, to create that supply for the attainable price points.
When the public sector and the private sector work together, there are solutions that can be done to really bring housing that meets the needs of not just secondary, third and fourth homeowners and very high-end relocators, but people that really live and work within the city.
The city of Miami, for example, has programs where you’re afforded additional densities, [including] whether there’s parking reductions. It takes a progressive city really thinking about, and having a commitment to solving, the affordability issue; and then working hand in hand with developers and really bringing that attainable housing to their residents.
Do you still have any condo inventory?
We do not have any inventory other than condo inventory that I kept for myself. I kept my original Neo Lofts penthouse from the first project I built.
Do you live there?
No. I just love it.
You don’t want to let it go?
I want it and hopefully my kids will love it as much as I do, and they’ll sit on that same balcony.
So you have kids?
I’ve got three girls, aged 14, 15 and 16.
They make residential development look easy.
Right now, if they so much as step into each other’s room, or look at each other, or borrow a shirt — it’s all the drama in the world. I keep reminding them, “One day you guys are going to be best friends, great maids of honor, I promise you.’” And they give me the look of death.
I just laugh because I get it; being a teenage girl in and of itself in the age of social media has to be hard. Three of them together in the same house at all times — probably much harder.
Do you have siblings as well?
I do. I have a younger brother and he is part of the company. He’s on the general construction side, so he runs the construction side of the business. So I get to see him almost every day. It’s the same thing — we fought like cats and dogs as kids and we’re best friends now.
So not a lot of separation between family life and work life then.
I think when you love what you do — that’s something that I would say is probably an underlying current within the organization. We all recognize that we spend far more time here in the office or with the company than we do with our own respective families. So, in many ways, this is almost our family and everybody really loves what they do and then we just have fun doing it.
I’m blessed that I absolutely love what I do, and I can’t think of anything else that I ever want to do. To me it doesn’t really ever feel like work, so I catch myself even on vacation you know within real estate and looking at things. I have one daughter in particular that really loves the business as well, and so I go house hunting and I go shop apartments and see how other cities do it.
I’m sure you get asked a lot what it’s like being a woman and a person of color in development, as you are still very much in the minority. I’d like to leave that question open to you because I’m talking to you as a developer, about development. If being a woman and person of color is related to that, and it’s important to how you become the person you are, feel free to answer.
It’s funny because [people] always ask me what is it like being a woman developer? And my usual response is, “I’m not really sure.” I’m a real estate developer that happens to be a woman of Hispanic descent. I don’t see myself any different than anybody else that’s out there, I don’t see myself as any less talented, or any less worthy. That said, of course, I can’t wait for the day that this question doesn’t even come up because when I walk into a room, I [won’t] be the only one that looks like me, whether I’m the only female or, in other parts of the country, one of the only Hispanic women in the room.
That said, Miami is truly a unique place. I mean, when I look at Neo Lofts, to me that building stands as a testament to the American dream. What other city allows the granddaughter of a housekeeper, who was a maid at the Sheraton not too far down the street, daughter of immigrants, who’s a first-generation college grad, who is a woman of Hispanic descent, who’s 28 years old, to go and successfully build her own high-rise? And I say, only a city such as Miami.
More than being a woman, or more than being Hispanic, what has really had great influence on me, is, I think, being the child of immigrants, which is that hunger and that desire to make all their sacrifice worth it. I had this incredible pressure — that they sacrificed so much to give me the opportunity to be in this amazing country. And so I always felt that if I didn’t do my best, and I didn’t go on to become everything that they aspired for me, that their sacrifice would be in vain. So I think that maybe plays a role in my development and how I live my life every day — that you leave the world a better place than you found it.
Your latest project is called The Julia. What’s the story behind that?
Miami is one of the only cities, if not the only large city, in the United States that was founded by a woman. And that’s Julia Tuttle, the mother of Miami. I thought it was really right for this development, because Julia Tuttle is the founder of Miami so she was a woman that really forged her own path; and then it’s being built by a woman in development that is continuing her vision 100 years later.
I hope it stands as a reminder to every little girl with big dreams that she can forge her own path, and shatter whatever glass ceilings she wants to shatter, with some hard work, grit, tenacity and just the pursuit of that.
Since you’re raising three daughters, how do you think things have changed between your generation and the world your kids are living in?
I think the more people like us, meaning women, see each other in positions of leadership, the more it becomes the norm. Now you’ve got multiple women on the Supreme Court; within the White House there’s a female vice president; Miami-Dade has its first female mayor; when in real estate development, they’re talking about who the developers are, there’s a woman up there with them…
I hope it gives them the hope that they too can do it as well. That’s not to say there are[n’t] strides to be made. It’s up to my generation to help the next generation. I’m hoping my generation makes a very conscious effort. I’m hoping as the mother of three young girls that I, along with my colleagues, are leading by example, and giving them something to look up to.
At the root of what we do is, I always call it conscientious capitalism. Of course we’re here to make money, but we’re also here to leave the world a better place. We really go into neighborhoods and really improve upon that. We just don’t create a building — we create an entire community and an entire neighborhood.
Chava Gourarie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.