If it’s Scaled Down and Appropriate for the Gables, There is a Good Chance That Venny Torre’s Firm is Building it. The Rest of the Time, Venny is Busy Enhancing the City as a Model for new Urbanism
By Doreen Hemlock
Call him Mr. Downtown Coral Gables. You’ll find him leading the Business Improvement District, on the board of the Community Foundation, working with the city museum, helping with historic preservation, or just strolling downtown from his townhome to his office and local restaurants.
Builder and real-estate developer Venny Torre can’t pinpoint why he’s so driven to enhance urban living in Coral Gables, his home since 1995 and hub for his Torre Companies. Perhaps the passion stems from his youth in Cuba’s small city Cienfuegos, where his dad owned and ran a hotel on the main square and Torre liked walking to school under covered colonnades. Or maybe it came from the year the family lived in cosmopolitan Madrid in Spain before moving to South Florida.
After college, Torre also drew inspiration working for the Graham Cos., developers of the planned community Miami Lakes. He lived upstairs and worked downstairs on the new main street there, cementing his love for a walkable, urban lifestyle.
Whatever the source, the 57-year-old relishes the challenge to energize urban centers, especially in his adopted hometown. “I call them puzzles,” says Torre about urban buildings and community efforts he takes on. “I like solving puzzles.”
A Collaborative Style
Associates say Torres gets others excited about urban puzzles too, making projects with him collaborative and fun. “He’s inclusive,” says global business consultant Carolina Rendeiro, who has served on the board of Business Improvement District with Torre for years. “He listens.”
The same skills Torre uses for construction he brings to community-building, says architect Maria de la Guardia, who’s worked with Torre for more than a decade. “He creates a strong foundation by establishing good relationships with team members,” she says, describing Torre as low-stress, positive and open-minded. “He finds a way to rally support and enthusiasm around the projects he’s involved with.”
That’s key, because Torre has been steeped in real-estate ever since he moved to Florida. His lawyer-mom and hotelier-dad worked with a fellow Cuban who turned a tract of western Miami-Dade County into a residential community. Starting at 15, he did manual labor on that project during summers, “hammering, moving steel and blocks, going up and down ladders. I got nails in my feet,” recalls Torre.
Always keen on drawing and art, Torre figured he’d study architecture to make his mark in urbanism. But two years into the University of Florida he switched majors to construction, tapping his entrepreneurial side. A bachelor’s in hand, he found a job with South Florida’s respected Graham Cos.
By age 30, Torre was on his own, parlaying the skills and contacts from his Graham years. He worked in Coral Gables with partners to build a Dutch colonial-style community, the award-winning Campo Sano Village, and another compound in Bermuda-style – both in the spirit of the architecturally detailed villages developed by the city’s founder George Merrick.
He’s been building in Coral Gables ever since, most recently creating luxury townhomes in the urban core, some for MG Developer led by Alirio Torrealba. The idea of the townhomes is to fill a gap in the housing profile of the city, something that’s in-between today’s vogue of mid-rise condos or large Mediterranean manses: Multi-story townhouses that are luring empty-nesters from larger houses in the suburbs to live near downtown shops, restaurants and cultural offerings. “I try to be different and not follow the trend,” says Torre. “I like to be more of a trendsetter.”
His renovated office building at 208 Andalusia Ave. shows that progressive streak. The private offices offer public art exhibits and feature a mural by a graffiti artist. Torre now has an installation outside consisting of large, blue butterflies he painted himself.
From Pop-Up Galleries to Fundraisers
In civic circles, Torre also is known for creativity. He came up with the idea for pop-up art galleries in empty spaces on Miracle Mile for this spring’s debut of the StreetScape project, says Mary Snow, executive director of the Coral Gables Community Foundation. “Some people thought he was overly ambitious, but he did it,” she says. “He got the landlords to donate the space” for the temporary galleries designed to activate the street.
At the Community Foundation, Torre has been expanding the Tour of Kitchens, a fundraiser he’s chaired for three years, adding more kitchens at more diverse homes. For next year’s 10th anniversary, he plans a rooftop kickoff with a band – all to help fund scholarships and programs for Coral Gables High School’s culinary program, says Snow. “He’s a thinker of the big picture, not just for his interests but for the betterment of the city,” she says Snow.
Torre’s community involvement grew partly out of real-estate. Seeking zoning amendments in the 1990s, he got to know then-Commissioner Jim Barker, eventually helping with his re-election campaign. He got involved with city groups, enjoyed it, and soon joined the board of the new museum, drawn by his love of art, architecture and history.
Today, Torre heads up the Business Improvement District that represents downtown merchants and property owners. He finds puzzles worth solving in amplifying that unique voice – which is sometimes drowned out, Torre says, because many owners don’t live in Coral Gables and can’t vote in the city. Yet he believes city investments in the business hub can provide big returns to local government.
“If the city invests in the downtown, it goes right back to them. And here’s why: the residential tax dollar is capped by your homestead,” says Torre. “If the downtown is booming, the tax increase potential is greater.”
Downtown business owners aren’t always unified either, adds Torre. Some landlords were against the transformation of Miracle Mile, which pinched immediate profits in exchange for making the downtown a more sophisticated destination long-term. “We have to educate people to have more of a combined self-interest than an individual one,” he says. “In the long-run, we’re better off with quality retail and restaurants.”
If the city invests in the downtown, it goes right back to them…
To foster quality, Torre also leads the city’s historic preservation board, a group that works to maintain such 1920s gems as City Hall and the Biltmore Hotel and uphold the city’s original urban plan. “What makes Coral Gables so special is our history, architecture and master plan, so well defined by George Merrick,” he says. “The founders knew what they were doing. They set the rules and standards, and we need to protect that.”
Expanding into Central Florida
Nowadays, Torre’s biggest real-estate project is not in Coral Gables but central Florida. The lakeside city of Sanford asked for proposals to redevelop three downtown blocks, and Torre’s team won the competition. His group is now designing a mixed-use project with apartments, offices, retail and other features – a development slated to cost more than $50 million.
Torre’s proposal calls for using brick and other architectural elements already common in Sanford’s historic downtown. New structures in he city’s Heritage Park also will be varied, “so buildings feel like they’ve been done over a period of time, not by a cookie-cutter developer,” he says.
As in downtown Coral Gables, Torre aims to create a “sense of place,” the New Urbanist vision of somewhere folks want to live, work and enjoy a meal – a walkable area that can be a catalyst for the whole city, he says. He sees his developer’s role as “being involved, tied to the project, considerate to the community, and giving back. That’s how we’re approaching this project and that’s how we are.”
To be sure, Torre’s zeal for cities, urban travel and renovation can have downsides. His teenage daughter Olivia recently bemoaned an upcoming family trip to Barcelona in Spain, because “all you’re going to do is look at architecture,” she told her dad. And Torre’s wife Coco has learned to live with Venny buying, renovating and selling their homes – about 10 so far, starting after Hurricane Andrew with a 1936 Mediterranean-Art Deco house. “My wife says, “I know we’re moving when they put in the chandelier in the entrance-foyer,” he jokes.
Still, Torre can’t fathom not being involved in business and civic efforts to energize downtown Coral Gables: “What I do, it’s not work for me. It’s like being with friends all the time.”