April 6, 2021
David Martin Leads Terra in Communities Across the Region
By: Jesse Scheckner

David Martin wants to build better neighborhoods. His firm, Terra, has developed more than 5 million square feet of residential, commercial and mixed-use projects. Another 3 million or so square feet are on the way, adding up to more than $8 billion portfolio of assets.

In the 20 years since he co-founded Terra with his father, Pedro Martin, the company’s aim has shifted from a traditional development approach to one focused on neighborhood strategies – assessing what needs there are in a given area and then filling those voids with smart, design-driven products that serve as catalysts for broader community improvements.

Terra has gone to submarkets like Doral, Miami Beach, Pembroke Pines and more than a dozen other areas and found needs for industrial in one pocket of a city and for single-family dwellings, grocery, retail, workforce residential and other projects elsewhere.

In Coconut Grove, where the firm is now headquartered, Mr. Martin and his team saw an opportunity to build and sell residences to empty nesters looking for safe, walkable urban housing with localized services.

“That thesis proved out,” he said. “We delivered several successful residential projects that created a new community of more purchasing power in a commercial district.”

The firm recently broke ground on Grove Central, which will feature a 23-story residential tower with 402 multi-family, workforce and co-living units, a 1,250-space public parking garage and 170,000 square feet of retail.

The project is being built next to the Coconut Grove Metrorail station and will include improvements to the station and links to the Underline linear park, Metrobus and the City of Miami’s trolley network.

Other similar and starkly different projects are also now in the works. The through-line among them all, he said, is a win-win formula in which Terra invests in neighborhoods and the payoff benefits both the firm and the community.

“Our goal is to see how we can tack capitalism to solve some of a neighborhood’s needs,” he said. “We try to bring a community together to accomplish progress and change in a responsible manner.”

Mr. Martin spoke with Miami Today reporter Jesse Scheckner. 

Q: Are you celebrating Terra’s 20th year in business?

A: Every year we assess how the drivers of different asset classes are changing. We adapt. We spend a lot of quality time with the professionals who work for Terra, engaging and helping them with their personal and business needs. We always look to build a positive culture and try to mentor, train and advise our team members. We don’t celebrate as much. We just continue to look to improve and have a happy and productive working environment. This year, we moved into a new headquarter office – a pretty significant accomplishment and celebration, to be able to have our own building where we can work smarter, more efficiently and communicate better.

Our company always looks to appreciate our people’s hard work. At the same time, we continue to the next hurdles and celebrate [that] we accomplish different things within our portfolio. It’s a more organic type of celebration. We have no formal party planned.

Q: You started working in development with your father. How active is he still in the business?

A: He’s as active as he’d like to be. The organization is structured to operate under my leadership. He participates in board meetings, some executive meetings and provides good feedback and guidance toward solutions, new ideas and research. He may have less responsibility, but that’s not saying he isn’t active or in the know of what’s happening within the organization.

Q: How would you describe your responsibilities as Terra CEO?

A: Leadership is a critical piece of the responsibility. I develop theses and strategies around neighborhoods and disruption by technologies. I make sure we’re heading in the right direction with the proper strategic thesis. No. 2 is providing clear direction for the firm, energizing people in a positive, productive manner on critical decision-making and executing projects and assets we manage and work on. I have a team of executives that report to me. I’m somewhat of an individual who leads by example and through transparent, open communication. The responsibility is also on the strategic thinking and direction of the company. I monitor and support our executives, project managers and teams to accomplish the company’s objectives.

Q: How many people work for Terra, and where?

A: We work in around 16 municipalities across Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. We have over 80 employees. The majority are in the headquarter office in Coconut Grove.

Q: Where in Miami-Dade County do you see coming development opportunities – and what types?

A: Two-thirds of the county is Everglades National Park. Our leaders have had a history of conservation from an ecological and environmental standpoint. The urbanization and urban nodes within all the county’s districts and neighborhoods create opportunities just by these neighborhoods defining themselves and what their DNA is. As that occurs, you see where there’s restrictive zoning or over-zoning. We love working in mature, established neighborhoods and seeing how we can catalyze them. Generally, we look at every neighborhood as a potential opportunity. There isn’t a city or neighborhood that couldn’t use beautification, infrastructure improvements and new housing stock. Because we play with all the food groups of real estate asset classes, we have flexibility. We understand trends you may find in one market may be perceived as a next frontier, but we look at all neighborhoods in trying to develop mini-plans, reinterpreting some of these neighborhoods, their qualities and how to improve them. There’s been a huge evolution in Coconut Grove. Twenty years ago, people would not have said Coconut Grove was going to be the next place for development. But certain decisions were made and certain property owners aligned interests to come up with a common theme, a vision that received buy-in from the community. That’s one of the most critical pieces of what we do – how can the community embrace a change and see an improvement to the quality of their lives. When we find that formula, it works and allows for positive change.

Q: What are the merits of condo versus rental developments today?

A: There are merits to both. We’re developing some high-end, design-driven rental communities that will be priced extremely high from an occupancy price perspective. Historically, communities have wanted a large percentage of homeownership. The theme was homeowners treat the neighborhood differently, feel they have more roots and care about its future more than the renter. On the flip side, with the amount of migration in our cities and with what occurred in the financial crisis, younger generations are rethinking their balance sheet, thinking about affordability and long-term obligations. In this world of remote work and e-commerce, logistics, fulfillment and the shared economy, more people want to come to our city and experience different neighborhoods. As these neighborhoods evolve, people may want to live a year or two on Miami Beach, then a year or two in Coconut Grove, a year or two in Coral Gables, Midtown, South Miami, Doral or Aventura. With that experimentation, whether it’s job- or neighborhood-related, those individuals don’t want to own a home yet. A good rental product not only serves the workforce but the new entrants in a manner that’s important. Having an appropriate mix of for-sale and for-rent residential products and a variety of housing typologies, from single-family to townhome to garden to midrise and high-rise, is important in having a healthy, sustainable neighborhood.

Q: Are you feeling in your work any materials shortages or price changes affecting the economics of development – steel costs, for instance?

A: We’ve seen a lot of fluctuation of materials over the last 20 years – oil-based products, impacts having to do with the pandemic as it relates to the supply change. These things evolve. We just need to adapt and predict as much as we can. There’s a question as it relates to steel, where these commodities can fluctuate from one month to the next. It’s difficult to grab a snapshot and say steel’s going through the roof when, six months from now, there’s a possibility it can go back down. We monitor and try to time the best we can our purchasing to capture the most efficient pricing model. Our projects can take anywhere from two to five years. We try to make smart decisions about what to buy and when, when to stockpile or not. We purchased a lot of rebars last year when we sensed there would be a pricing adjustment. We’ve managed through the fluctuations pretty successfully.

Q: You have several projects in the works. Tell me about a few of them.

A: We’re working on CentroCity. We’re repositioning around 38 acres in the heart of Miami. It will include retail, office, academics and residential. We’re currently under construction on our Cipriani project in Coconut Grove. That will be a residential project by the bay. We’ll start construction on our 500 Alton project in the next 30 days, a 7-acre

redevelopment with a 3-acre park and a clean, modern residential tower that’ll be a gateway to the city. We’ve broken ground on our transit-oriented development near the Coconut Grove Metrorail station, Grove Central. That will be Target-anchored, provide necessary infrastructure improvements for the neighborhood and deliver 400 residential apartments, of which 15% will be workforce. We broke ground on a housing community in Northwest Miami-Dade called Natura Garden. We’re completing several grocery-anchored shopping centers and commencing construction on several industrial development projects throughout Dade and Broward. We completed One Park Grove, an over $700 million in Coconut Grove designed by OMA and Rem Koolhaas. Last year we completed Eighty Seven Park, a very high-end residential building on 87th and Collins on Miami Beach. We’re working on some public-private partnerships like the headquarter hotel for the Miami Beach Convention Center and several others. So, we have a pretty robust portfolio for sale and rent – urban, suburban and office, retail and industrial. I like the diversity of the company and the direction it’s heading in. I look to continue benefitting from the positive attributes of communities in our cities, whether it’s the climate or the social, cultural and entertainment aspects. As our cities improve and evolved from a cultural and offerings perspective, more and more migration and investments come. We will continue to lead in diverse neighborhoods, to improve the quality of the surroundings and help the economic resiliency of a lot of these municipalities, to have new tax creation to fund services for the community.

Q: In November, Terra secured the 99- year rights for the control of the Miami Beach Marina, which your firm aims to renovate. What will that look like?

A: It’s a long-term decision. We want to create more green space and enhancements in the city. I’m trying to make Miami Beach a premier, worldwide yachting destination. It’s important for the quality of tourism Miami Beach deserves. It’s all part of a package. Cities today need to look at how to make their neighborhoods better places to live. This is a big example of a public-private partnership improving infrastructure and creating an economic case for our cities to be smart in asset management, in trying to develop diversity for their economies and, especially now, recovering and restarting our economy post-pandemic. There’s a huge opportunity for our cities to be even greater than before, nationally and internationally, as cities of the future. We’re poised for that and just have to continue to make smart decisions with challenges like affordable housing, water resilience and transit ridership and connectivity. The more investments we make, the better.

Q: We’ve seen big changes in Miami with the pandemic, from more people working from home to an influx of Northeasterners and Northeastern companies coming here instead of the historic migration from Latin America. How do you see those changes playing out in the future, and what does it mean for your business?

A: The migration from the Northeast or California has historically always been there. We’ve always had a connection with the Northeast as a place during seasons to have a second, third or fourth homes. We’re now seeing more relocation, primary moves. How we evolve and adapt has to do with the definition of the products we’re creating. There’s a much stronger investment and allocation of our portfolio in the light industrial/e-commerce/logistical space. These new families are being introduced to neighborhoods in Miami, educating themselves about our city rather than just thinking about downtown or the beach. We look at it holistically. There is a strong look at Miami Beach as a destination that needs to produce products for these families to be able to live and work, so there’s a significant trend toward office and residential there. Families coming here are looking at South Miami, Coconut Grove and Coral Gables. Rather than the perception of us as a superficial Caribbean city, they’re more thinking of Miami as a global city of the future. It has characteristics to welcome foreigners, really low social barriers, and improvements in education. The pandemic has opened up the eyes of a lot of these families who didn’t realize what an amazing place we have. Word-of-mouth is powerful. Once they decide to relocate here, they have families and friends, and that creates an energy of attention and discovery we’re finding throughout the tri-county region. It’s exciting but also an opportunity for us to continue to improve ourselves and deliver the next generation of buildings and infrastructure and show the world Miami is serious but also a happy place to live. One thing this pandemic has brought upon is that people want to feel happy. They want to feel positive and the energy our city and the people here create is definitely positive. The pandemic has brought a whole new discovery of our city. As the vaccines roll out and people feel safer, more secure and confident, we need to home in on who we are, what our opportunities are and how we can deliver on those objectives in a timely manner that is inclusive of the entire community.

Q: The Florida Legislature is discussing opening up gambling more in the future. Will you be involved in that?

A: No.

Q: If you were to pinpoint one or two major needs in this community that would improve it markedly, what would they be?

A: Biscayne Bay’s nutrient overload. We need to look at ways to protect our bay, beaches and sea life. They’re part of why people choose Miami and why they love the environment and ecology. Finding the appropriate balance of nutrients to foster plant and sea life is critical and transcends having neighborhood planning for water resilience and stormwater management. Another thing is looking at the zoning code to create a module that allows for smaller product types, three-story type products within urban areas, and density if people deliver on affordable housing. Sprinkling affordable housing throughout our community rather than concentrating it in one area is key, as is expanding our transit infrastructure to connect our neighborhoods and bring transit closer to where people live and work is important. Creating pilot projects for adaptation to or mitigation for sea level rise is also important.

Q: As someone who served on the Biscayne Bay Task Force, what stuck out as most urgent among the group’s recommendations?

A: A smart system that can assess what parts of our neighborhoods or coastline are creating nutrient overload. There are so many contributors to nutrients in our bay, whether it’s fertilizers and stormwater runoff through the Little River or our sewer pump stations and septic tanks. Having a smart system would help us to better understand where the problems are, and investing in that type of research will allow us to make smarter decisions on where we need to focus our resources to make the most impact for the bay. The sewer breaks are the natural thing most people think about, but you have to look at 10 to 20 areas that are impacting the bay, try to assess and identify what’s creating the most nutrients and then invest in policies or new regulations to mitigate those activities. As we adopt new rules and investments, we need to track the improvement so we can see what the return on investment is. That will be the focus. Chief Bay Officer Irela Bagué is going to do a great job guiding the professionals in our counties in looking for ways to do that.

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement?

A: My family, my marriage and my two children.

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