“Brooklyn is a gateway of culture; the streets of Brooklyn can prepare you for anything.”
--Miami Developer Asi Cymbal on growing up in Brooklyn
Asi Cymbal’s visionary development project along the Downtown Fort Lauderdale waterfront, called “Marina Lofts”, was inspired, he said, by the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, currently one of the trendiest locations in the country and described in the media as “the new Brooklyn.”
In a recent interview with the Brooklyn Eagle from his office in Miami, Cymbal said, “Williamsburg was inspirational because of its vibrant culture and talent…it has the coolest retail shops and restaurants. And I still think Blue Bottle has the best coffee in New York.”
Cymbal knows Brooklyn well. His family immigrated to Brooklyn from Israel when he was just 3 years old, and until his teens, he lived in Trump Village, the affordable housing project built by Donald Trump’s father on Ocean Parkway in Coney Island.
Sometime after they moved to another rental apartment on Ocean Parkway and Avenue L, the building went co-op. His mother worked as a bookkeeper in a tie factory, and scraped up enough money with a bank loan and help from friends to buy the apartment. She sold the apartment about a year later for more money than she could make in a year as a bookkeeper.
Cymbal credits his mother for his decision to become a real estate developer. The entrepreneurial spirit displayed by his mother made a lasting impression on the young Cymbal.
Cymbal’s mother was also instrumental in his decision to earn a law degree. He recalled, “My mother spoke poor English, she was accustomed to making deals with a hand shake, but when she had to deal with the legal issues of contracts she was always asking me for help. I realized how a thorough understanding of the law could help me as a developer.”
When I asked him more about his childhood and high school years at Abraham Lincoln High School, he reminisced: “I think the streets of Brooklyn can prepare you for anything. I was a typical teenager then; I spent more time at Coney Island’s Arcade House than I did at the high school.” He laughed. “I guess you know what that means. I loved to go there, eat hot dogs and play video games all day.”
“When I was 16, I often took the D train to Manhattan, I’d hang out in TriBeCa, and return so late I fell asleep on the train. I woke up at the end of the line realizing I had missed my Stillwell Avenue stop.”
Cymbal graduated from Vassar in 1991 and UCLA Law School in 1996. During law school he met one of his mentors, Santa Monica developer and mixed-use pioneer Howard Jacobs. He took a job with Jacobs in 1997 overseeing construction sites, learning from Jacobs something about every aspect of the development process.
Cymbal considers himself as a “dreamer.” Recalling his time in Los Angeles, Cymbal said, “I wanted to build skyscrapers. I wanted to move back to New York because that’s the best place to build skyscrapers.”
He found a job there in 2002 with developer Shaya Boymelgreen. “I ended up working in Downtown Brooklyn next to Barclays Arena.” Boymelgreen hired Cymbal as the company VP, working as both project manager and general counsel. He worked for Boymelgreen for two years as the lead developer and built the small outfit into a company with 100 employees. Cymbal became more determined than ever to make his mark as a developer with his own company.
Even though he worked on significant conversion projects for Boymelgreen in SoHo, TriBeCa and the Financial District, all together worth over $700 million, he also figured out that New York was simply too expensive to realize his goal. “I needed money and contacts, and I didn’t have any,” he said.
Concluding he could more realistically make his mark in South Florida, where development projects of the scope he envisioned would be less expensive than in New York, Cymbal moved to Miami in 2004.
Within three years he had created Cymbal Development. He made a name for himself and his company with partnerships and projects in the Miami Design District and the Wynwood neighborhood. As the South Florida Business Journal reported in 2012, “Drawing on friends, family and new business relationships for support and funds, Cymbal Development has acquired, developed or constructed more than $150 million in projects in Miami.” One of Cymbal’s mixed-use retail and condominium properties in Miami’s Design District sold for more than a 500% gain just 24 months after completion.
Cymbal likes to transform urban landscapes. “I identify with urban,” he explained.
“I grew up in New York and spent most of my life there. I also spent considerable time in Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, and now Miami. There is an intellectual and sophisticated dynamic and a curiosity to these great cities – a nuance that I am in tune with."
In what the local press has called his boldest move yet, Cymbal is developing a six-acre waterfront area along the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale called Marina Lofts.
True to his principles, when Cymbal says "I have no interest in building an uninspiring box and squeezing money out of it...I like to build beautiful buildings and communities, to maximize a project’s value on all levels," he means it.
He hired world renowned Danish architect Bjarke Ingels to design Marina Lofts (more details on the project can be viewed at www.big.dk/#projects-cym). Ingels' beautifully futuristic and stunningly imaginative design will help Cymbal Development leave an indelible imprint on the downtown Fort Lauderdale waterfront. Marina Lofts is a testament to Cymbal’s innate knack for connecting upscale commercial density with private living and public space on a grand scale.
Cymbal has said, “Good design enhances lives and inspires communities, and I believe a real estate developer has a moral obligation to leave an environment better than he found it.”
One of Marina Lofts’ high-rise buildings is cleverly designed to appear as if it had cracked and separated, with a walkway through the middle so the public will have through access to Fort Lauderdale’s popular River Walk. Fort Lauderdale is known as a city that relies on water as much as land for its characteristic lifestyle; as Cymbal said of Marina Lofts, “It’s uniquely Fort Lauderdale.”
There have been other developments in the downtown Fort Lauderdale area along the river in recent years, but none with the scope and vision of Marina Lofts. Fort Lauderdale economic development groups believe that Marina Lofts will not only provide economic benefits, but that Marina Lofts will also bring the right touch of aesthetic enrichment to an area that otherwise might not be able to attract young professionals throughout South Florida.
Other developers are also impressed. We spoke with prominent Miami developer Tony Cho, CEO of Metro1, who said of Cymbal, "Like me, he's focused on emerging markets, making city and urban living better." When I asked Cho what he thought of Marina Lofts, he said, "From the design perspective, its very beautiful, very cutting edge. Asi thinks big, his work is exciting."
When the Fort Lauderdale Planning and Zoning Board unanimously approved the project in May of this year, Bob Swindell, President and CEO of Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance, said "Marina Lofts is a dynamic project that will invigorate the long-neglected south side of the New River, as well as provide affordable luxury housing for our growing creative class."
While as a visionary developer Cymbal will continue to transform buildings and neighborhoods as he has done so far in New York, Miami and now Fort Lauderdale, it was also interesting to learn how his Brooklyn background plays such an influential role in his success wherever he works.
As he said during the interview; “Brooklyn is great because of all the energy, talent, and culture. Like myself, so many immigrants have grown up and passed through Brooklyn on their way to the world.”