Lissette Calderon’s Lessons On Miami and Conversions

The Neology Development CEO behind projects such as the Julia and the Neo Lofts builds what she calls “attainable luxury” for the young professionals set

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Earlier this year Lissette Calderon — the CEO of Neology Development Group, who is dubbed the “Queen of the Miami River” — opened up her third apartment building in Allapattah, the Julia.

The building — 323 units with bright orange cabanas, a crystal blue pool, and spiffy apartments with French-door refrigerators and floor-to-ceiling windows starting at $2,000 per month — is named after Julia Tuttle, the founder of Miami. And it is the kind of project that Allapattah needs: Upscale and affordable. Or, as Calderon puts it, “attainable luxury.”

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Allapattah is, in Calderon’s words, “the proverbial belly button” of Miami. “We have three mass transit stops running through the heart of Allapattah. You’ve got roads: you’ve got I-95; you’ve got 112, 836 — you’ve got all of that… We also have Downtown Miami and the Brickell employment corridor just east of us. Then just west of us is the Miami International Airport.” Oh, and don’t forget Wynwood to the west.

Plus, its labor force is not idle.

“From an employment standpoint, we have the second largest health district in the entire United States, only second to Houston. We are surrounded by this incredible employment base that’s all around us. There’s Jackson Memorial Hospital. Recently they had a $300 million capex improvement that they’re doing with the largest emergency room in the United States.”

So here are Calderon’s latest thoughts on Allapattah and conversions now that she has another notch on her development belt.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Commercial Observer: In 2004, you delivered your first building with the Neo Lofts. What was Miami development like when you started ?

Lissette Calderon: I think because I was 28 years old, there was a certain naiveness to me, that I could do it. I had worked for [Related Group’s Jorge Perez] at the time and I had this great idea of doing it on my own — but it really came about from what I needed. Here I was, this young professional — I had gone to Wharton, had a great job — but there was really nowhere affordable that I could live. I had to do one or two things: I could either go out to the suburbs, or I could do the very unsexy thing of live at home, which is what I chose to do at the time. So, I knew that there was a market for people like me that were young professionals, that wanted something within the urban core close to their places of employment, but at a price point that we could afford.

Neo Lofts was 199 units, and went on to be an incredible success. We sold out before we even broke ground. And I think we’ve taken that same concept of making sure that we are the best value proposition, that we’re still at an attainable price point. We specialize in this attainable luxury.

We really continued that playbook that we started with Neo Lofts. And what Neo Lofts did for the Miami River, our No. 17 project really did for Allapattah — that if we built something that was highly amenitized, highly desirable, at a price point that was a value proposition, it would be a great success. As of today, No. 17 really has been the catalyst for Allapattah’s residential renaissance. We opened that project back in 2021, and leased up in record time, and we just opened our project, the Julia, and, again, that has been highly accepted and highly successful from a pre-leasing standpoint.

Your father was in real estate, right?

My parents had me when they were very young. As an immigrant that really didn’t speak a lot of English and was only able to have a high school education, he built little single-family houses and fixed little houses. And that was the entrepreneurial spirit within him. And so we would always talk about how one day we would do it. Unfortunately, he passed away when I was in high school, but I still carry that with me.

Could you talk just a little bit about how you see the mixture of affordable and luxury?

You think about where the need is. People that live and work within Miami and the greater Miami area need somewhere to live. They need safe, affordable. That’s at the very premise of the needs of individuals. So, I feel that as someone that has gotten so much from this city that, as developers, we have a moral obligation to think about kind of how we give back and what we do. 

Number two, I think it just makes great business sense. I mean, there is a reason our buildings open up, you know, 40, 50 percent pre-leased — because there is a need for these units that are at an attainable price point but are still highly amenitized, very well done, very well finished, secure and so forth. So I think there’s just this unmet demand for, really, kind of this attainable luxury product.

How do you make the numbers pencil out?

I always say everything starts with our land basis. So, we make sure that when we buy our land, we buy rights. Our land basis is important. 

And then I think we’re very formulaic in our approach to how we build these. We were very confident in the rents of what our market can pay, and so we really work backward into what we need to build for in order for our market to be able to afford. 

We also enjoy a wonderful relationship with our general contractor. It really starts with that. We have a wonderful relationship with our architect too. And, really, the three of us together work toward what it is that we need to build and how we build it. It’s really mathematical in our approach, in terms of the efficiencies, in terms of our ratios, and then there’s a lot of things that we do in-house. So some of the margins that others may not recognize we’re able to recognize by bringing in a lot of the finishes and a lot of the trades in-house. 

We also have a general contractor division in-house. So, there’s a lot of owner items that we do ourselves. Again, all those little savings really kind of come together and we’re able to deliver the product that we do at the price points that we do.

How big is your firm?

I believe we’re over 50 people working for our company directly. 

One of the things that you’ve been very interested in is industrial conversion. Could you talk a little bit about your attraction to that? 

Well, we always say that we go where we’re wanted. So we don’t go into anywhere we’re displacing individuals. We really go into neighborhoods, areas and parcels in particular that are either abandoned or not being used to the highest of best use. So when you think about kind of where Julia was — it was an old, old storage facility. You think about where our 14 project is —  that one’s opening up later this year — that was a pawn shop and a parking lot. I think we can all agree we don’t need more pawn shops. So, I think that’s really been the allure.

I think because Allapattah in general is very industrial and has industrial roots that’s why you probably see us with a lot of industrial property. Also, Neo Lofts was a warehouse. Our Neo Vertika project also was a shipping warehouse. So, it just seems that some of the areas that we go into by design, because, before the areas have been reimagined and rethought, they usually have been warehouses. But I don’t think it’s that we only set out to look for industrial sites. It just ties to our approach to how we do business.

And, then, as we think about these prices and how do we make them work, one of the things I was speaking to earlier is we’re vertically integrated. So we have the general contracting side. That ties to the other side of the equation, which is the operational side of the business. We run our properties in house, we have Neology Management that runs our jobs, and we do everything from the beginning — all the pre-leasing and all the working with the development side of the business and making sure that the amenities are the ones that the market is looking for. We’re able to really think about how we run our projects more efficiently. And every dollar that we can save is one dollar that we can pass through in rents. It’s really kind of a soup to nuts approach in terms of our business model. 

I thought that maybe you were going to say something about how you were attracted to the SoHos of the world.

I was inspired. I mean, I lived on Houston and Mott in a loft. And I think that’s absolutely what inspired my love of urban living and loft living in New York City. I’ve always kind of spoken to how Soho was what inspired my love of loft living and that authenticity. I think I keep going back to that word, and that’s why I think I like  Allapattah and certain neighborhoods — because there’s just this authenticity. We’re not trying to pretend to be something that we’re not. You still have the warehouses, you still have the fruit packing, you know, kind of going on. You’ve got all these uses. 

And, whether it’s SoHo, or the Meatpacking District, and everything going on in Tribeca and the High Line, to me, New York is exemplary of so many things that are exciting. And so you always take kind of the best of that and try to sprinkle, you know, a Miami flair.