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The Woman Behind One of the Most Influential Malls in the U.S. — and What Else She’s Doing

March 21, 2022

Jackie Soffer fondly recalls her father, Don Soffer, ferrying her each weekend to a jobsite between Miami and Fort Lauderdale. She and her brother watched as a dream city slowly rose from the marshy expanse. Now, she runs that mall, which has grown to 2.8 million square feet, as well as the company that owns it.

The 68 acres were the last major piece of a tony town that would eventually become the city of Aventura. Aventura Mall debuted in 1983 as South Florida’s largest mall, and under Jackie Soffer’s continued leadership as chairman and CEO of owner Turnberry, it’s one of the most influential malls in the U.S. “I learned so much about Aventura just by being around when my father bought the land,” she said. “I was fortunate to see it go up stage by stage.”

As local lore has it, the broader development of Aventura, Spanish for “adventure,” got its name after the elder Soffer, lead developer in a partnership that bought 785 acres of mostly swampland for $6 million in 1967, famously remarked to partner Eddie Lewis: “What an adventure this is going to be.”

Far from the Ocean

Aventura Mall’s first phase yielded 24,000 condos; Turnberry Country Club, complete with its Robert Trent Jones-designed golf course; community structures; and a causeway to bind the giant parcel. It didn’t take long for the area to become a docking point for the rich and famous, Jackie Soffer recalled. “But a part of me didn’t want that. I didn’t want to be defined by my family’s wealth.”

So when she graduated from high school early at age 17, she retreated to Colorado. “So many people prefer the ocean, but I love the mountains. And Boulder was a beautiful place. That’s why I picked the U of Colorado,” she recalled. “It was appealing to me because I would be in an environment far from home where I could be just a normal kid. Plus, it had a healthy lifestyle.” After graduating with a communications degree, Soffer moved to Aspen to become a ski instructor, but the call of home grew louder. Her dad was in his 50s and his father had died at age 63. She didn’t want to miss the chance to spend time with him. “I decided to go back to Miami for a while,” she said.

Back to the Waterfront

“A while” turned into an illustrious career in which Soffer oversees millions of square feet and upward of 1,000 workers. She worked in various capacities in her dad’s firm, first learning the leasing side of offices he developed in South Florida and later “every aspect of our hotel and resort business, from front desk on” in Orlando, she said. She eventually assisted her brother on the purchase, redevelopment and expansion of the famed Fontainebleau Miami Beach resort.

But the mall she had watched rise during her formative years is what really piqued Soffer’s excitement, and she’d ultimately take its helm while balancing other duties. “It’s been a joy to work on Aventura and to be able to take the mall in a direction and evolve with it,” she said. Co-owned by 33% minority partner Simon, “the mall is a completely different property than it was when it opened in ’83,” she said.

Soffer is half of what the Miami New Times dubbed 2021’s Best Power Couple. She married another high-profile Miami-area developer, Dacra president and CEO Craig Robins. She already was acquainted with the wunderkind Robins, who spearheaded the restoration of South Beach and its art deco landmarks and created the Miami Design District. The two met in court in a 2009 transportation lawsuit when Soffer subbed for a colleague at a mediation session. That early acrimony dissolved into matrimony.

“We both grew up in Miami Beach, we’re both in the real estate business, although we don’t share the same customer, and we each work a half-hour drive away,” she said. Each also had three children before they married in 2015, and each was active in philanthropy and the arts. Robins is a prominent art collector, and Soffer has bedecked Aventura Mall with works commissioned by acclaimed international artists, including multiple museum-caliber sculptures.

The couple also has a strong community orientation, she added. “Life isn’t just about making money. I want to be able to say at the end of my life that I made this a better world, whether by giving of money or time to charities or to children who don’t have a support system. Caring about others is extremely important to me and to Craig.”

Among other volunteer efforts, Soffer is a member of the Dean’s Leadership Council at Harvard University Graduate School of Design; the executive committee of the trustee board at the University of Miami, where she’s also on the Dean’s Advisory Committee; and Cornell University’s Center for Real Estate and Finance.

Her Own Path

In 2017, Turnberry debuted a major expansion of Aventura Mall with a three-level, 241,000-square-foot wing, a pair of two-story retail spaces, giant interactive art pieces and a litany of new eateries, including Serafina, Treats Food Hall, Pubbelly Sushi and more to complement its fine dining and casual indoor offerings. “We had a huge pent-up demand and fortunately not a lot of obstacles,” Soffer said. “We were weak on food-and-beverage at a time when people were eating out much more, and a great many restaurateurs wanted to be in our market.”

Aventura’s flagship Apple store, just the chain’s third when it opened in 2004, was relocated and reimagined in 2019. It features indoor trees, an indoor amphitheater and an outdoor, tree-lined garden with winding paths and seating. “It’s a great customer experience that has performed well,” Soffer said.

She ran Turnberry with her brother, Jeffrey, until 2019, when he branched off to create Fontainebleau Development, which includes the namesake Miami property, JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort & Spa and Fountainebleau Las Vegas, which is expected to open late 2023.

In her own right, Jackie Soffer oversaw the mall’s luxury expansion in fall 2021, including new stores from Hermes, Ferragamo, Balenciaga, Burberry Kids, Vilebrequin and Ralph Lauren, an expansion by Gucci and new stores-within-a-store for Bulgari and Rolex. “This is organically driven by customer wants,” Soffer said. “These brands know their customer behaviors well, what ZIP codes they’re shipping to and how other brands are performing here; they also know the advantage of this property’s positioning.”

RELATED: Luxury Tenants Ready to Embrace Gen Z

But the mall — home to anchors Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, two Macy's concepts and JCPenney — also offers a price-point balance. Tenants like Zara and Lululemon “do quite well here,” Soffer said.

She also is putting her own stamp on Turnberry’s broader interests. The company — whose portfolio includes Town Center Aventura, Destin Commons in Northwest Florida and JW Marriott Nashville — filed plans this year for TwoTurnberry, a 14-story office building with 20,000 square feet of retail. It will sit near a Brightline train station being built across a pedestrian bridge to the mall. Soffer also facilitated the process to get the station, which eventually will link Aventura and the Miami area by rail with Orlando and Disney World.

And Turnberry is working with Terra to bring an 800-unit Grand Hyatt Miami Beach to the Miami Beach Convention Center in 2023. Not only did she strike up a partnership with Terra, but the partners also had to gain voter approval.

Under her leadership, the company also is collaborating with developer LeFrak to create another master-planned South Florida project, SoLe Mia, a 184-acre community going up on the largest undeveloped parcel in Miami-Dade County east of Biscayne Boulevard. It will feature 4,000 condos, The Village at SoLe Mia lifestyle center, hotels and other features around a seven-acre, swimmable Laguna Solé, South Florida’s first Crystal Lagoons feature.

Soffer retains her lifelong visceral love for the mountains and enjoys skiing and hiking when her hectic schedule allows, preferably in Colorado. She still enjoys travel, despite logging hundreds of thousands of miles. “Travel is a big part of my job, and I love visiting places and properties around the world,” she said. Design and architecture also are high on her “like” list, as are clever colleagues. “I enjoy being around intelligent people and learning from them.”

Those include her now 89-year-old father, the founder of a family juggernaut that would go on to develop some $10 billion in commercial and residential space, including 20 million square feet of retail, 15 million square feet of Class A office and more than 3,000 hotel and resort rooms. “We talk frequently,” Soffer said. “He still likes to be involved.” The most influential people in her life, not surprisingly, “are my family: my husband, kids and parents.”

Aventura Mall, though, remains on her mind, as well. Marketplaces and tenants must adhere to one basic truth, Soffer said. “Retail has always been about providing the customer with an experience and a product that makes them happy, something they’re going to constantly want to be part of. A big part of this business involves getting people interested in your brand and keeping them interested. I’d say that’s how the industry moves forward.”

Despite COVID-19 and other industry setbacks, Turnberry and Aventura Mall appear to be gathering steam. “There are some big leases coming,” she said. “There are a lot of great tenants coming into the market.”

By Steve McLinden

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today

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