When you ask anyone who has been a part of the South Beach scene for any length of time, they will tell you that Esther Percal is Miami Beach! The specialist in luxury waterfront real estate personifies the vibrant cultural and social mélange for which South Beach has become famous. Arriving in the 1960’s from Cuba, Esther’s family took up residence in the heart of South Beach. To this very day, her father owns a shoe repair shop on Washington Avenue.
Few professionals who were born to do the work they do started as early as Esther. When an aunt and uncle were looking for a home in South Beach, the sixteen-year-old dynamo insisted that they see a home near hers that was for sale. They immediately purchased it. In hindsight, this would become the first of many real estate deals in a remarkable career!
Anyone who believes that the current times are the wildest ones South Beach has seen (after all, the SoBe club and beach scene has become legendary), Esther remembers a far more untamed moment in Miami Beach’s history. Working as a resale and rental specialist at Brickell Place Condominiums, the first building to be built on Brickell Key, she had a front-row seat to the filming of Scarface in 1982 and ‘83. As crews set up a variety of scenes at the Atlantis, which was next door to her office, Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino paced and fretted, giving Esther an unencumbered view of the celebrities who would bring the drug-drenched world of Tony Montana to life.
The Birth of SoFi
South Pointe Towers, the first condominium to be developed in South Beach in over twenty years, provided Esther with her next big role in the transformation of a once sleepy, then seedy South Beach into the luxe destination it is today. As she undertook the management and sales of South Pointe Towers, she had her first taste of truly running the show. From our current vantage point, at $89,000 for a one-bedroom condo to $350,000 for the penthouse residences, the range of prices for those units seems incredibly cheap, but what must be remembered is that at the time few people believed there was a real future for South Beach. The name SoFi, which is now used to describe the posh neighborhood “South of Fifth,” was still decades away from being coined and light years away from being realized.
“Back then, very few people believed there was a real future for South Beach,” says Esther. “Most of them had seen it go from bad to worse in the previous two decades and felt there was simply no way up.” The importance of this long viewpoint held by Percal is that it provides her with a greater knowledge of the high and the low points in Miami Beach’s history. This sets her apart, as the breadth of her knowledge informs her ability to advise clients wisely as to the soundness of their decisions when measuring certain properties against others.
“It was very difficult to sell the future back then!” Esther remarks. “When we finally opened the on-site South Pointe sales center, we had to hire an off-duty policeman to guard the office full-time!” Imagine a time when Joe’s Stone Crab—in the midst of this dereliction—was only open part of the year and there were no other fine dining spots in sight! The Art Deco revival buzz was just beginning to heat up during this time, growing hotter with the opening of the Carlyle Hotel bar. “Little by little, establishments began to spring up around us,” she recalls.
Construction was finally completed in 1987 and Miami Vice began filming throughout the palm-studded avenues that crisscrossed South Beach. “They filmed in South Pointe’s lobby and all around the nearby streets,” Esther remembers. “It was so exciting to see how beautiful the city looked on television! Because I had worked so many years aware of Miami’s corrupt and illegal undertones, I knew first-hand that the Miami Vice stories were not as unrealistic or sensational as they may have appeared to the rest of the world at the time.” Even so, Percal felt that the city was finally moving toward its fully realized potential, and she identifies those early pioneers who put their money on South Pointe as the mavericks who helped the dream to become South Beach’s current chic reality.
Hitting Her Stride
After her resounding success at South Pointe Towers, Percal began a stint with a young, energetic sales team at Wimbish Realty and found herself enlivened by her hard-working colleagues. This is when she hit her stride, participating in Miami Beach’s full-speed-ahead resurgence. “The collaborations that took place within that particular circle was incredible,” explains Esther. “We all became close friends and had a great time along the way (and sold an incredible amount of Miami Beach real estate!).”
Percal’s highest sales during this time consisted of homes at some of Miami Beach’s most prestigious addresses. “In 1993, I sold the home at 30 La Gorce Drive for the all-time high price (at the time) of $2,150,000 to a German businessman,” says Esther. “The widow of Mr. McKnight, who had owned the 3M companies, was the seller—the couple had commissioned the renowned architect Russell Pancoast to design it for them and it was the last home he ever designed.” The modern style of the house, which was completed in 1955, was a break from Pancoast’s traditional Mediterranean Revival style architecture, making it unique within his storied repertoire. Due to the remarkable explosion of development that Ms. Percal has witnessed over the years, a challenging subject is often preservation, as progress does bring with it a certain level of sacrifice. This particular home is a prime example, given that it was demolished after being sold for $17 million in 2006.
Upping the Ante
Finally Esther takes the reins of her business life, starting her own company. “In 1995, I formed a small boutique real estate firm called Gerard International Realty,” she remembers. “The company was named after a deceased realtor friend of mine who was incredibly dear to me and died far too young.” Esther located her business in the Sterling Building, which was owned by Mitchell “Mickey” Wolfson, Jr. It was one of the few buildings on Lincoln Road that had been refurbished at the time, and it was from this vantage point that Percal and a long list of other tenants watched Lincoln Road come back to life.
In 1998, Al Harper and Ron Shuffield, two former colleagues, bought Gerard International Realty. They integrated it with four other Eslinger Wooten Maxwell (EWM) offices they owned, eventually selling the company to HomeServices of America, Inc.™, a Berkshire Hathaway Company. Percal remains a jewel in EWM’s Miami Beach crown to this day
One of the reasons she has enjoyed such astounding success during her 33-year career is because she understands that real estate isn’t just about value; it’s equally about values. “In a business where money rules the ethics of its participants and jades principles, I am most proud to have built an extraordinary reputation without ever having compromised my integrity,” she remarks. “I have also built a lengthy and irreplaceable list of clients, and have earned the ability to knock on any door or call any seller, the end result being the privilege of being welcomed into any home.”
Whereas success might spoil some, Percal feels humbled and grateful to have been able to place some of the greatest people she’s ever met in homes that are truly perfect for them. One of these is Robert Gottlieb, who tells a favorite personal story about the day he met Esther:
“I came down with a friend, who was planning to buy a place with me, to look at homes in Coral Gables because we had the name of a realtor who specialized in real estate there. After she showed us a few houses, I thought to myself, ‘If I wanted a house in Connecticut, I would buy a house in Connecticut!’ Hoping that South Beach would be a better fit than what I had seen that day, I found Esther through the great artist Julian Schnabel—for whom Esther had frequently worked and with whom she remains close friends—and I wasted no time in calling her.
“My friend and I met Esther at the then very chic News Café the next day. Out the door walked this strikingly beautiful woman, who was striding out with two iced cappuccinos. She put us in her convertible BMW and had an entire day planned for us to see condominiums, which is what I thought I wanted. Once I started looking at them, I realized that if I’d wanted to buy my aunt’s apartment on West End Avenue, I would have bought it!
After a full day seeing condos, she looked at me and said, ‘I’ve figured something out about you, Bob.’ I asked, ‘What’s that?’ She replied, ‘You don’t want a condo, you want a house.’ The entire next day, she showed us houses but nothing turned me on. As we were driving back to where we were staying after dinner, out of the blue Esther said, ‘There’s this house: it’s not on the market but a couple is fixing it up to flip it.” But Esther had a hunch and called from the car. They weren’t quite ready to show it, but Esther insisted, as she had a hunch. The minute we drove up, I said, ‘Wrap it up; I’ll eat it here!’
“The owners were startled because they weren’t expecting to sell it then, but we started negotiating. This is one of Esther’s true talents—she’s helpful in negotiations but doesn’t put pressure on anyone, so the experience feels incredibly smooth and friendly. I love my house to this day.”
Esther says of clients like Mr. Gottlieb and Mr. Schnabel, “They are two of my stars. I have matched many beautiful homes with the finest of people, and I have made lifelong friends along the way. I would say I have visited, at least once, just about every home in Miami Beach.”