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Talking with Hollywood attorney Alan Koslow is like trying to net a butterfly. You bob and spin in circles trying to follow him as he nervously paces, looking and acting like Tony Curtis as the frantic show-biz agent in the film Sweet Smell of Success. There's a constant stream of interruptions from cell phone calls. "It's Yossi? Patch me in," he says excitedly into a new palm-size handset, which he proudly describes as "the ultimate in smallness, almost Dick Tracy-size." He retreats to a corner, murmurs into the phone, gesticulates. Then he's back to you.
"I've got big deals all over, not just in Hollywood, that you'd love to know about," he teases. "But I can't tell you. It's not soup yet." Then he gets another, less welcome, call. "Tell him to shove it up his ass. He can't blow it by me like that." Koslow is juggling six balls and giving each his undivided attention -- for one nanosecond.
At the moment the 44-year-old Koslow is the go-to guy for Hollywood real-estate development. Along with his law partner Bernie Friedman at the heavyweight firm of Becker & Poliakoff in Hollywood, he represents the developers of most of the current big-deal projects in town, including a proposed hotel called Turtle Nest Suites.
But it doesn't look like Koslow has a prayer of winning approval for the project. His client, Miami developer Tibor Hollo, wants to build a $24 million, 12-story hotel that would face North Beach Park, home of several endangered sea grasses. It would stand on a 1.2-acre lot less than 300 feet from a hatchery for endangered sea turtles and just across the road from the Anne Kolb Nature Center at West Lake Park, a swampy sanctuary for threatened mangrove trees, crocodiles, snook, herons, and egrets.
The hurdles are formidable. Almost 200 residents who live in the surrounding area of two- and three-story buildings have signed a petition opposing the project's height. The city's planning director has advised against changing the land-use designation of the site from residential to business to make the proposed density of 193 rooms possible. The state wants Hollywood to curb beachfront construction, so as to ease storm-evacuation problems. Some environmental experts say the project will threaten the endangered turtles the hotel is supposed to celebrate. And local politicians are still smarting from a recent brawl over another high-rise hotel planned for the beach.
But these seem like insurmountable obstacles only if you don't know Koslow. He's a master at manipulating the city's real-estate code to win exemptions, formally known as variances, from planning and zoning rules, and he knows how to work the hidden levers of money and politics. While the Hollywood City Commission has practically ground to a halt because of bitter disagreement over how to redevelop the city's ramshackle two-mile Broadwalk along its beautiful beach, Koslow continues to win approvals for variances on height, density, parking, and other requirements, thus making real-estate deals more lucrative.
Hollywood's political polarization has actually helped Koslow. Developers need him now more than ever to get through the treacherous labyrinth of the approval process. He gets paid well, win or lose, and sometimes earns a handsome bonus when he steers a project through successfully. "It's gotten more difficult to do real-estate development since the last election, and that's enhanced my practice," he says with a shrug. By the way, he'd rather not be called a lobbyist. "I lawyer," he protests, unconvincingly. "I don't lobby."
Watching Koslow in action over the last three months has offered insights into how real-estate deals are struck in Hollywood -- and why many ocean vistas are now obscured by high-rises. One thing's for certain: No matter what happens to Turtle Nest Suites, Koslow and lobbyists like him will continue to profit from South Florida's love-hate relationship with real-estate development.
Back in January, Koslow's biggest challenge was to persuade beach residents and city officials in Hollywood to let the Turtle Nest Suites project proceed to the next bureaucratic stage. Hotels in that area are not supposed to exceed five stories and 50 rooms, and Hollo wants to build 12 stories. But that was just a pesky little detail when Koslow went before the Hollywood Planning and Zoning Advisory Board on January 25. The board's approval is crucial because its recommendations guide the city commission in making the final decision on requested land-use changes. Dressed in a perfectly tailored suit, his black hair slicked back smartly, Koslow set the tone of the meeting by having Friedman, who is also Hollywood's paid lobbyist in Tallahassee, shake hands with each of the nine board members. The members were appointed by the city commission, and Friedman, according to Hollywood politicos, is a major campaign fundraiser for the three commissioners who make up the pro-development majority.
But hand-shaking alone wouldn't do the job. At the start of the meeting, city planning director Laurence Leeds pointed out that a 12-story hotel is incompatible with the surrounding low-rise community and does not meet state storm-evacuation standards. Koslow fought back by stressing the developer's strong credentials and the tax and tourist dollars the project would provide. He introduced the high-powered design team working on the project and presented a slick slide show. The capper was a short speech by Hollo himself, a courtly, 72-year-old, real-estate titan who's made and lost fortunes building high-rises in South Florida over the past 50 years. Charming the board with his Hungarian accent and Old World manners, he promised to build a hotel made of "environmentally sensitive" materials for families interested in nature-oriented vacations. Lectures and tours of nearby nature areas would be the featured attractions.