Women in Real Estate Build Neighborhoods, Revitalize Cities

— Three of the most accomplished women in South Florida real estate joined forces to speak to a standing-room only crowd at the first Women in Real Estate Luncheon. Avra Jain and Kim Briesemeister talked about their latest projects, followed by a discussion moderated by Alicia Cervera Lamadrid, on June 3. The luncheon was presented by the University of Miami School of Architecture’s Master of Real Estate Development and Urbanism (MRED+U) program. Fittingly, the luncheon was held at the beautiful landmark National YoungArts Foundation building, better known as the Bacardi Building, one of the best examples of Miami Modern (MiMo) architecture in the city.

The program kicked off with a greeting from UMSoA Dean Rodolphe el-Khoury and introductions of the speakers by Charles Bohl, director of the MRED+U program.

Jain, principal of The Vagabond Group, introduced her newest project, the purchase of the historic Miami River Inn and its transformation to the River Inn Miami. An engineer by training, Jain said that she has always loved construction and built her own treehouses as a child. When she was working on Wall Street, real estate became a hobby and then a passion. As a woman in the field, Jain said she “never saw boundaries, never saw a glass ceiling.”

Briesemeister, another groundbreaker, had a pilot’s license at 18. “I met a Dutch pilot and travelled the world, finishing my college degree by correspondence,” she said. “We were living in Curacao, and they city government set up an equivalent of the Downtown Development Authority. I started working for them as the Director of Marketing and became Executive Director.” She said she loves downtowns, loves the energy and vibrancy of them, so once she returned to the United States, Briesemeister continued to work with redevelopment planning for downtowns, including Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood, and finally founded her own company with Chris Brown: Redevelopment Management Associates. The company employees people who work in every facet of urban planning and redevelopment, including marketing, finance, architecture and planning.

Their just-published book, Reinventing Your City, offers eight steps for strategic urban planning.

Jain went on to talk about building neighborhoods: “If you’re going to build neighborhoods, you have to have places for people to go. Transitional neighborhoods should never feel contrived,” she said. “When I started working in the Little River area, the artists were already there.”

“Cities make mistakes,” Briesemeister said. “They can be fixed, but someone at the city has to see it. When you’re trying to help a city redevelop, you need to feel the city: drive around and understand it.”

Her firm helped bring the Funky Buddha Brewery to Oakland Park, a city that had a lot of warehouses and a railroad track bisecting it, with no beach or other immediate draws. The rezoning that allowed Funky Buddha to move in has allowed the company to grow dramatically and created a burgeoning restaurant district in Oakland Park, utilizing previously languishing spaces.

The panel wrapped up with more general words of wisdom: “To be able to be a woman and be really strong? It’s FUN,” Jain said.

“Always make sure you can leave,” she added. “Try not to be a slave to your job; do things on the side that may become an alternative if you do decide to leave.”

Cervera Lamadrid, managing partner of Cervera Real Estate and a UM alum, said, “Sometimes I wish I’d married a house husband; I think it’s easier for a woman to be the man in the room than for a man to be the woman in the room.”

Briesemeister’s final piece of advice: “Whatever room I walk into, I’m in charge of. You have to be comfortable that nobody else has control over you.”

The MRED+U program has an advisory board that pairs students in the program with board members in a mentoring relationship. MRED+U student Jessica Younis and alumna Annie Weizenecker (MRED+U, 2012) spoke before the primary addresses.

Weizenecker has been working with All Aboard Florida, designing stations for the train that will connect Orlando and Miami. Her advice to the MRED+U students in the room was “Don’t be afraid to work hard! Find what you’re passionate about and work at it.” All Aboard Florida is Weizenecker’s first job, post-graduation, and she started as an intern while still in grad school, working on site planning and assisting with land purchases.

Younis talked about how much she enjoys the MRED+U program, which began one semester ago. Her passion is mixed-use development and she loves the way that MRED+U taps into various areas of real estate development and allows students to be involved in every aspect of the field.