After more than a year of effort, the state’s flagship university said last month said it hasn’t been able to lock down 5 of 12 acres needed to build the downtown graduate campus, slated for finance and technology programs.
The owner of those 5 crucial acres? Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene.
In 2021, as plans were forming to create a graduate school in West Palm Beach, Greene offered to join the city and county in donating land to the state’s flagship university. But after months of talks, the deal fell apart.
A key sticking point: He wanted UF to abide by a February 2022 promise to name the graduate school after him in exchange for his land donation. UF said it would name a building after him instead.
Who is Jeff Greene, and how did he come to be such an important player in downtown West Palm Beach?
Here are five things to know.
How much is Jeff Greene’s net worth?
Greene started his real estate empire from grad school and remains a hands-on investor. The Florida real estate billionaire was born in Worcester, Mass., where he attended high school. During winter vacations, he worked as a waiter and busboy at The Breakers Hotel on Palm Beach. He put himself through college at Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and sociology. He later graduated from Harvard Business School with a Master of Business Administration.
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While earning his master’s degree, Greene began investing in real estate. He subsequently moved to California and grew his real estate empire. During the runup to the Great Recession in the mid-2000s, Greene correctly bet against the subprime mortgage market. Today he controls a fortune that exceeds $3 billion.
Greene lives with his wife, Mei Sze, and three sons in an oceanfront Palm Beach mansion next to Mar-a-Lago. Boxing champ Mike Tyson served as his best man during his 2007 California wedding to Mei Sze.
Unlike other entrepreneurs and investors, Greene maintains a slim staff and prefers to handle many of his business dealings personally.
His ownership of property is not without controversy.
He and the owner of The Blink Monk, a popular wine and tapas bar downtown, remain locked in litigation. The conflict is about The Blind Monk’s ability to keep leasing its Evernia Street space, which is owned by Greene.
He poured millions into Palm Beach County after the recession
In the late 2000s, as the nation’s real estate market became mired in recession, Greene moved from California to Palm Beach.
He then began buying foreclosed or troubled properties, mostly in West Palm Beach.
These include vacant downtown sites once set for luxury condos, and 20 acres of vacant land around Currie Park. They also include unsold condominium units in The Strand, City Palms and The Whitney condominiums, which he rents out.
Greene even bought the Omphoy Ocean Resort on Palm Beach. Greene renamed the hotel Tideline Ocean Resort & Spa.
Jeff Green properties: He’s not just an investor
Greene transformed land near Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard into the Cameron Estates apartment complex. He turned a former Mazda automobile dealership into The Greene School, a private school on Dixie Highway just south of the downtown. Last month, he opened a tennis academy at the school.
He’s also building One West Palm, twin 30-story towers rising at 550 N. Quadrille Blvd. These towers, slated to feature offices, apartments and a hotel, began construction in late 2019 but remain unfinished.
In 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic hit and workers nationwide stayed home, Greene threatened to leave the towers as empty shells if he could not obtain city approval to switch the towers’ planned office space to apartments. The city refused, and Greene relented.
To date, work still continues on the towers, and one tower still is not fully enclosed with glass. One West Palm’s completion date is unclear, but it likely won’t be before 2024.
Nevertheless, Greene recently filed plans with the city, seeking approval for a 30-story tower for apartments and offices on land along North Flagler Drive, near Currie Park.
Other development plans remain on hold, including a plan to build hundreds of “micro-apartments” downtown.
Whose town? West Palm Beach is my town!
When it comes to downtown West Palm Beach property, Greene is competitive with another real estate billionaire, fellow Palm Beach resident Steve Ross.
Ross owns the Miami Dolphins football team and is chairman of Related Cos., a New York-based real estate development firm. In 2000, the company built The Square, formerly known as CityPlace. Since 2000, Ross has poured millions of dollars into West Palm Beach, buying and building office buildings and apartments. More are planned.
Publicly, Greene and Ross are mostly cordial. During a January luncheon of the Palm Beach Civic Association in Palm Beach, Greene said he and other developers stand “on the shoulders of Related.”
But occasionally, they reveal their private rivalry.
And after UF and Greene could not agree on terms for a land donation, Greene last month said he was willing to sell the land to UF for $45 million, if he could buy land at The Square now home to Publix. The land belongs to Ross.
Greene was openly critical of Ross for not being willing to part with his land for the UF deal. Ross said he can’t sell to Greene because the land already is committed for apartments.
In its Feb. 28 announcement, UF cited “regrettable divisions in the local community” as the reason for the campus plan holdup.
Where does Jeff Greene live?
Since he moved his family to Palm Beach, Greene has sought to become an influencer in politics, policy and philanthropy, blending ties to California celebrities with national and international business leaders.
A Democrat, Greene unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010, then mounted an unsuccessful bid to be the Democratic candidate for Florida’s gubernatorial race in 2018.
In 2015, he convened a conference on Palm Beach to discuss wealth disparity and the disappearing American middle class. Among the speakers: best-selling authors Thomas Friedman and Niall Ferguson and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. The audience included film director Oliver Stone and one-time Apple CEO John Sculley.
Greene has signed The Giving Pledge, a promise by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to charitable causes. Closer to home, Greene is know for being a supporter of the Palm Beach Police & Fire Foundation.
After he was approached about donating land for the UF campus, Greene became an enthusiastic supporter. He even began raising money for UF by hosting dinners at his home for potential donors.
During a recent interview, Greene said he still hoped to help bring the UF campus to West Palm Beach.
Alexandra Clough is a business writer at the Palm Beach Post, part of the USA TODAY Florida Network. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @acloughpbp. Help support our journalism. Subscribe today.