Neisen Kasdin has made an outsized mark on his hometown and its surroundings, but not the way he thought he would growing up — and even into college.
“I looked at my career path back then and I said, ‘Oh, I’ll become a U.S. attorney. Then I’ll become a U.S. senator. Then I’ll become president,’” he said. “That was kind of my dream world view.”
Born and raised in Miami Beach, Kasdin fell in love with politics early on.
“I remember when I was 9 years old watching the 1964 Republican and Democratic conventions gavel to gavel,” he said. “That’s how I was wired from a very early age.”
He lost himself in biographies, and still does. He found a hero in Winston Churchill, whose stalwart philosophy would become his own.
“You need to do what’s best,” Kasdin said. “Sometimes what’s best is not understood by the people, but takes dedication and time. And Churchill was that way. He didn’t play to the crowd. He did what he thought was best.”
Kasdin’s father owned what was then South Florida’s largest drugstore chain and was one of Miami Beach’s most prominent nightclub co-owners. His mother worked booking acts for TV-personality Barbara Walters’ father. But Kasdin looked beyond his hometown as the place he would pursue politics.
When he left to study history in college, “I didn’t know that I would ever come back,” Kasdin said. “I felt (Miami Beach) was shallow. It was very showy. It lacked culture. It lacked real industry and commerce. It wasn’t a real city.”
He returned, though, after earning his law degree. He came home to a job at a small firm and continued in “small-scale commercial litigation” for about 10 years, he said.
But he found his real passion and the spark that would propel him into politics in a nascent preservation movement trying to protect Miami Beach’s Art Deco buildings from the wrecking ball.
“That focused me on being involved in preservation, urban revitalization, planning, redevelopment,” Kasdin said.
He was on the original board of the Miami Beach Community Development Corp., chairing it from 1985 to 1990 and chairing the initiative to redo Ocean Drive and Lummus Park in South Beach.
Then in 1991, he began a decadelong stint on the Miami Beach City Commission, culminating in a two-term run as mayor. While there, he began a relationship of supporting the New World Symphony that continues to this day. He was instrumental in the development and construction of the symphony’s Frank Gehry-designed home, the New World Center, which opened while he was the symphony’s chairman.
After his second term as mayor ended, his practice shifted to an emphasis on development and revitalization projects at Gunster. Then in 2007, he took over what was then Akerman Senterfitt’s land-use practice group in Miami.
Through it all, he continued focusing his professional and community efforts on transforming South Florida’s skyline. He served as chairman of the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade County’s economic development organization, and led the creation of Miami’s downtown master plan. He still serves as vice chair of the Miami Downtown Development Authority.
In addition, he has represented clients in the development of projects that have revitalized and reshaped the South Florida landscape — from Miami Beach to Brickell, Little Haiti and Wynwood.
He represented Miami Design District Associates in creating a 1-million-square-foot retail and arts district, the developers of the 3-million-square-foot mixed-use Midtown Miami project and the joint venture behind the Miami Worldcenter project during the initial stage of the 30-acre, 12 million-plus-square-foot mixed-use, multiphase development under construction in downtown Miami.
He also represented Swire Properties in the construction of the $1.5 billion, 5.5 million-square-foot Brickell City Centre, where Akerman moved its Miami office, which Kasdin heads.
But he hasn’t forgotten his preservationist roots or vision. He represented Faena Group in the development of a $1 billion oceanfront development in Miami Beach that involved restoring the 1940 Versailles Hotel tower to its original design. Doing that, though, required the demolition of a 1955 addition, which included a Mid-century Modern mosaic mural by American artist Jack Stewart depicting “Apollo Driving His Sun Chariot Across the Sky.”
Kasdin and Faena worked with the Miami Beach Preservation Board in vetting the restoration process and, rather than destroy the artwork, agreed to carefully remove it from the building’s facade and store it for future placement elsewhere.
“I like to think there is a consistent thread that runs through my work from the time I was in the public sector to the private sector in terms of, without sounding corny about it, building quality, sustainable neighborhoods and communities,” he said. “I love city building and transforming cities and helping create great neighborhoods and great projects, which are a part of creating great neighborhoods.”
Neisen Kasdin Born: Miami Beach, 1954 Spouse: Ana Children: Julian, Eric Education: University of Florida, J.D., 1979; Northwestern University, B.A., 1976 Experience: Partner, Akerman, 2007-present; Shareholder, Gunster, 2000-2007; Partner, Keith Mack, 1998-2000; Partner, Geiger, Kasdin, Heller, Kuperstein, Chames & Weil, 1996-1998; Partner, Levine & Geiger, 1992-1996; Partner, Taylor, Brion, Buker & Greene, 1989-1992; Partner, Giller & Kasdin, 1980-1989; Associate, Wolf & Sampas, 1979-1980
Carlos Harrison is a freelance writer in Miami.