Tony Cho's New Flow
The Miami real estate investor and developer has done it all, from jet-setting with celebrities to building a fortune — and he's only in his 40s. His new venture — building harmonious communities for 1 billion people — might be his most ambitious yet.
Nightlife promoter. Realtor to the stars. Commercial broker, developer and investor. Always finding Miami’s next hot urban neighborhood. Tony Cho’s journey spans the glamour of urban Miami’s rebirth. Soaring property values and international press coverage testify to the success of those who got in early on Wynwood and the Design District. But it’s left Cho hungering for something more.
Call it gravitas out of the glitz: Cho’s solution to fill his personal void promises to be his most ambitious venture. He plans to use Florida as the base for a global platform to develop communities impacting the lives of 1 billion people for the better and invest in companies that will innovate for the future. He’s become a speaker on his concepts at events from Miami to Berlin to Glasgow. His 1-billion people claim instantly smacks of a catchline and Cho knows it. But he’s quick to say he won’t personally build for the billion. Rather, he wants to provide the inspiration, strategies and demonstration projects for others to follow in “regenerative placemaking.” Even so, it’s a big claim Florida soon will test. The proof-of-concept neighborhood will be in Jacksonville. A prototype building opened late last year in Miami’s Little Haiti.
Cho sketched his story in an interview with FLORIDA TREND at the demonstration building in Little Haiti, an old warehouse he bought 20 years ago. Laid-back, he cradled his new puppy Aki, part Australian Shepherd and part Alaskan Klee Kai, as he spoke. His story began 44 years ago in an interfaith ashram in Indian River County on Florida’s Treasure Coast. His biological grandmother, who adopted him because his parents weren’t married, was raised Jewish in Coney Island, had a self-described awakening and became a charismatic and controversial guru named Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati. Her Kashi Ashram drew scores of followers and celebrity devotees such as Arlo Guthrie and Julia Roberts, before Ma Jaya’s death in 2012. The ashram still operates today.
Cho’s stepfather was one of the Korean pioneers who brought the international style of taekwondo to the United States. Young Cho was raised interfaith, slept on the temple floor, one of 100 to 150 residents who shared communal meals and had limited interaction with the outside world. Cho speaks fondly of the life, likening it to growing up in a village or tribe setting that gave him a passion for community. His grandmother had an international reputation as a civil rights leader and humanitarian, particularly for her AIDS advocacy. (Over the years, there have been media accounts of litigation that paint a darker picture with allegations of a controlling and abusive environment. Cho says his experience was positive and says the negative accounts are false.)
At age 17, Cho left the ashram for Northwestern University in Illinois, where he studied political science and international relations, aspiring to be president of the U.S. He found Northwestern insufficiently progressive and lacking diversity. Also missing Florida’s warmth, he moved in with his stepfather in Miami, where he interned at Miami Beach-based MTV Latin America in 1996 and 1997, falling in love with the city and Latin culture. It inspired him to travel to Argentina on a Northwestern study-abroad program — where he promptly dropped out of school, took up eating red meat and called his “grandmother the guru” with the news. “She freaked out, went completely ballistic,” he says. She cut him off financially and “she excommunicated me from the community,” he says. The break didn’t last. A few months before being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Ma Jaya presided in 2011 over the marriage of Cho and his wife, Ximena. The couple has since built a secular, 18-acre eco-retreat center called ChoZen adjoining his grandmother’s ashram site in Sebastian.
In Argentina, he took a job as a host at a top Buenos Aires night spot and lived the high life. Cho returned to Miami in 1998 and became a South Beach promoter. But after a few years, he says it was time for a new chapter and he got his real estate license. He found a niche repurposing old buildings, like warehouses, for the creative class. In 2005, he founded commercial brokerage firm Metro 1 that he says has accounted for $3.5 billion in non-institutional transactions in its 18 years.
The firm soared until the global financial crisis in 2008, which hit Florida real estate with particular ferocity. Cho has described being “badly burned” in the Great Recession after taking on too much debt and calls the era “the lowest point in my professional career.” He was losing his house in foreclosure and divesting of cars, except a Prius, when he met Ximena. They moved into a onebedroom apartment and for a time she paid the rent. “She got in when the stock was low,” he has quipped.
There were other rough patches ahead typical of the contentious atmosphere of Miami real estate where image is carefully crafted and zealously guarded. Cho says Metro 1 proved to be a sort of university for many brokers, naming a half-dozen now prominent figures in Miami’s urban core. One of the brokers whose name Cho dropped also was one of two agents sued by Metro 1 over noncompete agreements. The agents counterclaimed being shorted on commissions; the cases were quickly settled out of court. When asked by Florida Trend about working with Cho, one of the agents who was sued responded, “My experiences are not positive. So I may not be the best person to interview.” When Florida Trend asked Cho’s public relations representative about the response, Cho objected through the representative to even a passing reference to the dispute or his former colleague’s response. A second e-mail from the woman then arrived, with three attorneys copied on it. “Please retract the inaccurate, disparaging and improper statement regarding (the) lawsuit between myself and Metro 1 as it was made incorrectly. The case was amicably resolved.”
Cho, notably, for years represented New York transplant and investor Moishe Mana who became the largest property owner in Wynwood. Mana in 2014 sued Cho, claiming Cho cut him out of a deal to acquire county-owned land near properties he already purchased. Cho sued back, telling the Miami Herald the dispute was a misunderstanding. The cases were settled out of court. Mana declined to comment for this article.
Metro 1 focused on adapting older properties for new uses in neighborhoods that have become hallmarks of Miami inner-city chic: Wynwood, the Design District, Little Haiti. “Those areas have been home runs in terms of appreciation of real estate values,” Cho says. In 2011, he was named Young Leader of the Year by the Southeast Florida/Caribbean chapter of the Urban Land Institute. But, “when I saw the galleries and the artists leaving Wynwood, just getting priced out, I said, ‘This is not what I want to be part of.’ I think what I’ve learned in general in my real estate projects is that successful real estate projects, particularly high-profile projects, sometimes have undesired consequences for underserved communities — gentrification, cultural misappropriation, not affordable — things the developers don’t want to happen, but they just happen by the natural inertia of capitalism and economic pressures.”
Seeking a new model, he with investment partners spent years acquiring land in Little Haiti and securing Miami approvals for his first large-scale project eventually called the Magic City Innovation District. It would be hard to find a developer who talks more about preserving existing communities than Cho, and he talks of the developer group having hundreds of meetings with the community. Nonetheless, the project encountered concerns that it would increase property values and rents and further gentrification.
Gepsie Metellus, executive director of the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center, in the years before Magic City’s approval, voiced community concerns that the development would displace people and contribute to gentrification. Now, she says, “if anything, they’re worse given the housing affordability crisis in South Florida.” She says such projects displace essential workers.
Cho says there’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t aspect to neighborhoods in need of revitalization. Without more people, the local businesses die on the vine. Bring in more people, and rents rise. Cho says he educates small businesses on the importance of owning their buildings. The key, Cho says, is planning, policy and incentives — three levers government and communities have to influence what happens. “Why is a developer who takes large risks to develop real estate going to build equitable workforce and affordable housing unless they can make the same money they’re going to make building a luxury condo that’s somebody’s third or fourth home?” He also firmly believes the future of development globally is to de-emphasize accommodating the automobile in city design and also to innovate building materials. One of his tenets is that the built environment accounts for nearly half of global carbon dioxide emissions, which portends ill as population grows. He believes the development future everywhere is vertical. “If human population wants to grow, it has to grow up, not out. Density is our friend. There’s so much NIMBYism and anti-development. People need to realize the world is going to develop. Population is growing.”
In Florida, without denser and vertical development, the state’s remaining open lands are in peril, he says.
In 2019, he and his investor group won approval for the Magic City Innovation District, a specially designated area in Little Haiti allowing an 18-acre project of 8 million square feet of office, hotel and retail and 2,630 housing units. To get approval, the developers agreed to fund $31 million over time to a newly created Little Haiti Revitalization Trust that could spend the money on affordable housing, cultural preservation, financial literacy or other endeavors. “Little Haiti is an important area of our community’s history and culture,” says the area’s elected representative, Miami City Commissioner Christine King, in a statement to Florida Trend. “Miami’s popularity increases every year. We cannot stop gentrification; however, we can definitely mitigate the effects. This is why it is crucial to have entities like the Little Haiti Revitalization Trust to steward revitalization efforts which are conscious and respectful. We should embrace developers who understand the importance of these sentiments and aren’t completely driven by a bottom line.”
In April 2021, Cho launched Future of Cities, a multi-pronged platform — part real estate investment, part venture ecosystem and part think tank — to popularize a development approach called “regenerative place-making” and provide best practices and thought leadership to public officials, private developers and investors to positively impact urban living.
“So that they can create amazing, thriving places where people of all backgrounds, of all social economic diversity can come together and co-exist. It goes beyond sustainability,” he says. “Sustainability just sustains the status quo. Regenerative placemaking doesn’t exclude or kick out people or displace people. It’s a framework we’re developing based on my 20-plus years of experience in underserved communities — what went right but mostly what went wrong.” Asked what the toolkit would look like, Cho cites land trusts, green space, public-private partnerships, walkability and championing ideas such as the “15-minute city” in which most of what people do and need is within a quick walk or bike ride of their homes.
The first demonstration neighborhood will be Jacksonville’s Phoenix Arts and Innovation District, in what Cho anticipates will encompass residences and commercial spaces using carbon-capturing building materials, such as specially engineered concrete or bricks. He says he intends to make money, make an impact and inspire others, although he wasn’t ready to discuss details with Florida Trend. He says that as a developer he doesn’t arrive in a neighborhood with decided plans but listens to the community. “I’m really focused on the 99%,” he says. “I don’t do luxury development. I do things that are more community-driven, arts-driven, innovation-driven, and we’re really trying to focus on the quadruple bottom line — people, planet, profit, purpose.”
The district is an opportunity zone, making certain projects eligible for tax incentives. A Friends of Phoenix non-profit Cho and investors founded also will be able to take advantage of government incentives. “In Jacksonville, we bought really right. I think if you play the long game and you’re really looking at creating long-term value, you can do really well financially and have an impact,” Cho says. In another venue, he addressed profitability. “What people think is that when you’re doing impact investing, you have to forgo the profit. That’s not true. There’s no real estate that I have ever done where I’ve not made money. In all of my investments, if you look at my track record, I have produced more than a 40% return, through recession, through ups and downs. It’s not socialism. It’s not communism. It’s evolved capitalism.”
Back in Little Haiti, Cho last year wanted to focus on his Future of Cities initiatives and sold his 15% stake in the Magic City project for undisclosed terms to his co-investors, Miami-based Plaza Equity Partners and Montreal-based Lune Rouge and Dragon Global’s Bob Zangrillo. To date, the developers have rehabbed a few warehouses. The first high-rise is projected to begin construction this year.
His departure causes some concern in the community. “Tony Cho was in fact one of the Magic City partners who was the most accessible, most open to community meetings, the most willing to hear our concerns,” says Little Haiti activist Metellus. “He’s no longer a partner. I imagine his influence is diminished if not completely erased. He was willing to listen and work with us.”
He retained the warehouse, which is in an opportunity zone, that he bought decades ago and made it a demonstration project for adaptive reuse. His aim is to make the building, named the Future of Cities Climate and Innovation Hub, net zero in emissions. It has solar roof panels, a co-working space, a spa and gym with showers for cyclist commuters, art exhibit space, a large space for community events, a furnished duplex rented out for short-term vacations and a large back garden. It held hundreds of people, including County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, for an event during Art Basel to debut the hub and speak about a sustainable future for Miami. For the event, Cho had the building wrapped by a mural of the city shown as if planned with biophilic design. Along with his Future of Cities initiative and Metro 1 brokerage, it also houses companies in which his Cho Ventures has invested such as Mexican clothing brand Caravana.
As he chats on a tour, puppy in his arms, he says, “We’re basically in the downtown cultural district of Little Haiti with Magic City in the background.” He gestures across a rooftop. “They’re just about to break ground on their first building so I get to watch the project that I founded in the neighborhood I’ve been in for over 20 years. So it’s kind of a beautiful full circle of my life over here.”