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Although the residents want to see another hospital take over the emergency room at the Cleveland Clinic, that probably won't happen. "It's a perfect spot, it's ready to go, but there's too much money in big development," Hariton complains. The likely plan, instead, calls for a 25-story Hyatt "retirement" community with assisted living where the average age of residents would be 78 years old. The building's height alone would exceed the local code by ten stories, a code Hyatt officials say they aren't worried about getting around. "We'll just go to setbacks and variances," says James Bloomquist, a Hyatt vice president who confirmed the plan and announced Hyatt would start building immediately after the hospital's move if the deal goes through. His confidence is based on talks with city officials and negotiations with Cleveland Clinic representatives, he says.
If they face resistance, Hyatt executives have history on their side, too. Since 1995 Fort Lauderdale officials have willingly altered city codes for height, width, setbacks, and population density in favor of beachfront development. In more than ten locations in a two-mile stretch, buildings rise well above the standard code limit of 15 stories. Five years ago city officials also agreed to change the code for density in the big condos, jumping it from 40 units per acre to 60. The 50 percent increase in density gives developers a chance to make a lot more money per acre.
All this has resulted in "monstrosities," including the 28-story L'Hermitage and the Palms, says Hariton. Mayor Jim Naugle echoes the opinion. Naugle voted against allowing the Palms to rise right through the roof of city codes in 1995, when current commissioners Jack Latona and Carlton Moore supported the project. "The Palms thing was greased like lightning; they hired the former city attorney to get the variances," Naugle recalls. "It puts an unfair burden on the community, but there's nothing I can do about it now."
Visible just south of the hospital, a single Palms tower the color of pink bubble gum now rises 31 stories out of the sand, about 400 feet. A second, partially erected building climbs toward 32 stories. The massive project, offering only the most limited setback from the street, presages what may come at the Cleveland Clinic site, according to both Naugle and residents.
The corps of activists, who claim they now have more than 10,000 signatures of concerned residents, have succeeded in gaining the attention of their city commissioners. Both Gloria Katz and Tim Smith, whose commission districts front the beach, have promised to lobby other politicians as well as hospital executives for emergency care on the barrier island. And both say they oppose a Hyatt highrise.
For Smith the antidevelopment position is new, requiring a change of direction. Although he has strongly supported sizable beach-development projects in the past -- the latest is Bridgeside Square, a complex of rental apartments, shops, and a parking garage now rising in Smith's district -- he now claims enough is enough. "We need to push dense development away from that area," he says. "There are plenty of places with open arms waiting for the Hyatt, and I got addresses for them."
But the solution may not be as simple as alternate business addresses, a fact recognized by Hariton. "The Cleveland Clinic is a private business," Hariton acknowledges, "they can do what they want." And if they want to sell to the Hyatt for big bucks and city officials try to put a damper on the deal, city taxpayers could end up footing the bill. According to state law, "if a city limits what an owner can do with their property and others have done it, the owner can get compensated," explains Naugle. Compensated with taxpayer money. So officials might not risk strongly opposing either the Cleveland Clinic's decision to sell or the Hyatt's plan to build, Hariton figures.
None of that makes him or his fellow barrier islanders comfortable. But it inspires their storytelling. "There's another one, the wife of the former U.S. ambassador to Greece," says Ray Wolowicz. "She was sitting in the Black Orchid having dinner one night when she suddenly started bleeding internally. The hospital was right there, and it was lucky. They got her into the emergency room in time, and then into surgery. It saved her life."
The graying heads of his companions are all nodding. And soon the signed pages of their petitions will be arriving on the desks of politicians.