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Sim City Miami: From Clicks to Bricks

And they like everyone else think Uptown Miami is the perfect place to build them.

The streets of the Miami Design District are literally alive with pedestrian traffic on a Thursday night in April, Floors & Closets and the Raul Carrasco showroom are holding openings, the FIU School of Architecture is unveiling its senior projects, Editopia has a trade show and the AIGA Fashion Show fundraiser is underway.

Many of the people end up at the hot event of the night, a cocktail party for Blue, a new condominium scheduled to rise a few blocks away on a sliver of land where the Julia Tuttle Causeway hits the Miami side of Biscayne Bay. The party is replete with chic urban types, dressed in black and gray, sipping martinis and nibbling on sushi. Mingling among them are a bevy of nearly totally naked women (they are wearing only bikini bottoms) who are painted blue from head to foot.

The A-list guests include the likes of developer Marty Margulies, Arquitectonica principals Bernardo Fort-Brescia and Laurinda Spear, advertising mavens Elaine Silverstein and Rick Barrow, condo sales gurus Craig Studnicky and Phil Spiegel-man, BridgeHouse CEO Amy Turkel and the master of the Design District, Craig Robins. But the guests of honor are two lanky gentlemen who names are legendary in the world of computing and the Internet: Jim Clark and Tom "T.J." Jermoluk.

Clark is the founder of Silicon Graphics, the company that launched the 3-D animation revolution (think all those Dinosaurs on Jurassic Park) way back in the 1980s; Jermoluk ran the company. Thirteen years later Clark helped found Netscape Communications, which commercialized the browser system that helped create the modern World Wide Web (Netscape was sold to AOL in 1999 for $10 billion).

Clark and Jermoluk are here to tout Blue, the sinewy Arquitectonica-designed building that will rise between the two legs -eastbound and westbound - of I-195 as it turns into the Tuttle. Call it coming down to earth, or the ultimate clicks-to-bricks: Blue is the opening salvo in what Clark and Jermoluk promise will be a long campaign to create a new city in the urban "palette" of Miami, as their mission statement reads.

The two men, slender and tanned, have the rugged look of southern California surfers. They mingle easily with Miami's design and building elite, surprisingly laid-back and affable considering their enormous wealth and importance vis-a-vis the history of modern computers and the Internet. After a brief introduction, Jermoluk takes the microphone and begins to joke. "Jim Clark and I have been in business for 20 years, which is amazing since I'm only 28," he says, to which Clark chimes in "And I'm his younger brother." Well, even billionaires can't help being swayed by the culture of youth, especially with naked blue women parading through the crowd.

Jermoluk tells everybody that Blue will be their first project here, but that four or five more projects are coming right behind it. He then hands the microphone to Arquitectonica's Fort-Brescia, who tells the audience how excited his firm is with the design of the project, especially in such a landmark location. "Seldom do I have a site like this, which is a gateway between two cities!" he says. Then the boys from California pose with Fort-Brescia and the brick-and-mortar brains of their operation - local builder Paul Murphy; Jermoluk, clearly enjoying himself, hams it up. These two former Silicon Valley legends are now celebrities of sorts, and enjoying every minute of it.

From Silicon Valley to South Florida
So how did two Internet giants end up in South Florida, partnering with a quiet local builder? Actually, Jermoluk, having moved on from Silicon Graphics and a later stint running broadband Internet service/content provider Excite@Home, has been in New York for a couple of years now, working as a general partner of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers. Like a lot of New Yorkers, he feels at home here, maybe more so. "Miami to me is very reminiscent of where I grew up, in Hawaii," he says. "It's very multicultural. Also, Hawaii is the gateway to the Pacific," in much the same way Miami is the gateway to Latin America.

And Clark, though still an investor in a number of tech-related startups, has been spending most of his time lately on philanthropic and other pursuits. "I have plenty to do that's not about work," he says. With homes in several cities, he established his main base in Palm Beach a few years ago. He's happy to be doing something different somewhere else than California. "Silicon Valley is depressing right now," he says. "Miami is really one of the most dynamic places in the country."

In fact, it was Clark's move out of California that brought him together with Jermoluk and Murphy to form Hyperion Development Group, the company developing Blue. Murphy, the builder for Clark's gigantic Palm Beach spread (still in progress), approached Clark as a potential investor in a real estate project on the edgy Tuttle-hits-Miami site. An experienced South Florida builder, general contractor and real estate dealmaker with 25 years in the business here (including work with companies such as Lennar and The Related Group of Florida), Murphy had been eyeing the spot for more than four years. In fact, he helped the site's original owners assemble it and go through the permitting process.

Clark liked what he saw, and asked Jermoluk to check it out, and possibly invest as well. Jermoluk's assessment: "It actually looks really good. If I'm going to do it, let's do a lot of it." Ever since Silicon Graphics, the two men have been frequent investment partners. "He puts money in, and I end up watching it," says Jermoluk. The three felt that with Clark's cash (and to a lesser extent Jermoluk's), Murphy's South Florida building expertise, and Jermoluk's business, marketing and money-raising savvy, they could have a successful company, not just a successful project. Jermoluk found himself buying a condo in Miami Beach and preparing to move to South Florida full-time.

"Originally, it was supposed to be just Blue," Clark says with a sheepish grin. "Once T.J. got involved ... I wanted to do more." While Clark did appear at the sales kickoff party, he plans to remain in the background, saying "all throughout my life, I've been the kind of guy who doesn't like to actively manage because I'm not really good at it."

Jermoluk, though still responsible for four companies in which he was a founding investor, is spending most of his time running the business end of Hyperion. Murphy's only other project is to finish Clark's Palm Beach complex; after that, he'll be concentrating on Hyperion full-time. Both will need to focus to keep things on Clark's timetable. "Jim brings a sense of impatiency and urgency that moves things along," says Jermoluk. "You've got to be able to hold your own to keep up."

Design; From Clicks to Bricks
Jermoluk and Clark are the first to admit that they know little about real estate development or construction - "We're really backing Paul here as the builder," says Jermoluk - but they do know design. After all, the computer science majors' first company was Silicon Graphics, the maker of high-powered computer workstations - and a pioneer in the fields of 3-D rendering, animation and virtual reality. "Look at Silicon Graphics - the computer systems were all about design," Jermoluk says. As computer engineers, both are accustomed to constantly thinking about how their creations look to the user. "Even though our background is in the engineering disciplines, there are a lot of things where they cross over," he adds.

In fact, Clark has long designed sailboats as a hobby. For Jermoluk - who began running companies when Clark asked him to move from head of Silicon Graphics' engineering department to its CEO - developing Blue lets him return to his engineering roots, as he watches Murphy and the architects work out the details of making a functional building. "I love that part of it," he says. "You know, seeing how you get in there and lay out a floor ... or how you determine where all the pilings go, or how you decide how to hang the glass." But all three partner's favorite part of the building is probably the architecture. It's no coincidence that Blue was officially unveiled at a party in the Design District. The building is all about design. It will be visually stunning, constructed entirely of blue glass and curving in a crescent shape. From the air, the site should resemble Juan Miro's painting "Blue 2." The building forms the crescent shape in the painting; 12 recessed balconies on the structure will give it 12 black dots, and a red sculpture, either on the site or on the Department of Transportation-owned park next to it, will look just like the painting's red form. (The semi-naked blue models at the opening also had dabs of black and red to recapitulate "Blue 2").

"When we were designing the project, we were trying to think of a cool name for it, and we came up with Blue," Murphy explains. An Internet search for paintings with blue in their names turned up Miro's work (a series of three paintings). "Blue 2" vaguely resembled the site plan that Murphy, Jermoluk and Clark were kicking around. The inspiration to make the site look like the painting took hold, and Arquitectonica's Fort-Brescia got on board; it took just 90 days to complete the architectural plans.

The eye-catching modern design will be the first thing people see when entering Miami from Miami Beach via the Tuttle Causeway, giving the city the striking entrance it has long wished for. Jermoluk, Clark and Murphy hope it will give Miami-based Hyperion a grand entrance to the region's real estate scene, and a quick sell-out as well. "We felt that if we did something dramatic in terms of architecture, it would increase our price point and allow us to sell out quickly," Murphy says. So far, it has worked. Although that part of Miami remains unproven, 30 percent of the 330 units were under reservation before the official kick-off party. Prices topped $308 per square foot, "Which we needed, quite frankly, to justify the design," Murphy admits. (Hyperion is keeping unit prices in the $300,000 to $500,000 range by building units that average 1,100 square feet.)

The project's biggest challenge may be that its Biscayne Corridor location is still in the process of transformation. Craig Studnicky, executive vice president of ISG, Blue's exclusive sales company, says the main selling pitch is its cutting edge design and its unobstructed, panoramic views of Biscayne Bay. And, investors feel they're getting in on the ground floor. "This area of Miami is going through a major regentrification, attracting residents, particularly young residents, including some from Miami Beach," he says. "Brickell Avenue is getting a bit crowded, professionals are considering locating to this part of town to ease their commutes." The easy proximity to Miami International Airport, I-95 and the beach via I-195 is also crucial.

In For The Long Haul
Besides the splashy debut that Blue represents, Jermoluk, Clark and Murphy have something else in mind, too - the long-term future of Hyperion. "You could make a tremendous amount of profit on your first endeavor," Jermoluk says. "But if you set that tone ... people aren't going to be very loyal." Loyalty will be key for these newcomers to the South Florida market; they hope to be developing four to five projects by year-end. Although Hyperion will build elsewhere in the tri-county area, the partners are currently looking at several sites in the same Biscayne neighborhood as Blue.

What Hyperion and its high-tech execs plan to do is remake an area of Miami that their chief marketing quarterback, Rick Barrow, intends to re-brand as "Uptown." While they put on a serious, this-is-strictly-business, face for Hyperion, one gets the sense that this is a larger-than-life exercise for them, a sort of real world "Sim City," the popular computer game that lets users create and set into motion entire communities.

"There is a creativity to this. Miami is such a wonderful space right now, it's fun to do these kinds of projects," says Jermoluk. "I think it's going to move the center of Miami northward, for sure."

Indeed, few other developers in the area bring quite the same vision to the area, with the exception of developer Robins, and his remake of the nearby Miami Design District. There are also several loft projects in the area, such as Majestic Properties' Ice - on the bay a few blocks south of Blue - that are infused with a similarly futuristic, cutting-edge design.

Of course, Blue is just getting started, with groundbreaking planned for late this summer. No one can predict the success of a new real estate developer in town. But Hyperion has plenty going for it, not the least of which is funding. Clark and Jermoluk purchased the Blue land with their own cash, and the equity the two bring to the table - combined with their multiple business successes - means that lenders should be plenty eager to fund this project and others. "Jim and I obviously have long relationships with these banks from other projects, so we have some advantages in that," says Jermoluk.

That strong financial foundation, attractive to buyers, sellers and banks alike, already sets the company apart from the pack, says Barrow. "Nine out of 10 developers in the Miami market are trying to hang on from project to project [financially]. Hyperion will not be," he says, Plus, with marketing by Barrow, design by Arquitectonica, sales by ISG and building by Murphy, Clark and Jermoluk have basically assembled a dream team.

Still, there's no denying that the current venture is something very different for Clark and Jermoluk - even if they remain undaunted. "Every time I've made a major change in my life, whether moving from one field to another in academics or leaving one company and starting a new one, it has always been productive," says Clark. "Business is business, and you've got to have the fundamental things to be a good business. They all relate to general management, good financial structures, marketing, sales, and manufacturing or building. ... T.J. brings to the picture the ability to bring it all together ... and Paul is the expertise in the manufacturing side ... I'm not sure what I offer, actually."

We'll think of something.

 

 

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