Geller's Giveaway

Hollywood peddles prime downtown land for a steal with the help of a developer-loving senator

There are some things to like about Senator Geller. He's a dominating type-A character with great energy, a regular spitfire. Some people call him charismatic, some say he's bombastic, others use the word arrogant. Whatever you call it, he's not afraid to speak his mind. He spoke it to me, in fact, for about two hours the other day. The Democrat, who has been a state legislator for the past 17 years, explained the JPI land deal the best way he could. But what he said couldn't have fooled a child -- just the Hollywood commission.

First, he noted that JPI has promised to pay $153,800 more annually for parking spots in the city's garage next door. "The city is getting a very good deal," he told me.

That's all well and good, but what the hell does it have to do with the price of gazpacho in Singapore? Even Geller admits that the new revenue is going to come from jacked-up fees to be paid by the new condo owners, money the city deserves regardless of the land price.

Geller also noted that the conversion to condos would increase property taxes for the city's downtown Community Redevelopment Agency. Bravo. Also completely off the point in any business negotiation.

And the senator insisted that JPI lost money on the rentals. "JPI was looking for their normal 20 to 22 percent rate of return and they reduced it to 18 or 19 percent for this deal, and they ended up not even making that," he said.

The numbers, however, indicate a tremendous profit. And the city, when it comes to the apartment deal, truly did lose millions.

Geller also profited on the Jefferson deal. A look at his financial disclosure shows that he netted a chilly $227,000 from his law practice in 2003, and he admits that almost all of it came from developer clients, most of them operating within Hollywood and Hallandale Beach. The same year, he made less than $25,000 from his work as a senator, which means that developers pay him almost ten times as much as the public does. The way to a man's heart may be through his stomach, but you get to a Broward politician's ticker only through his wallet. Wonder which job is closer to Geller's heart?

Just look at the senator's actions in Tallahassee. He spends a lot of time in Florida's capital fighting for his clients. He's sponsored legislation to give builders more rights to sue government and most recently led the crusade to wrest land-use control from the county. His top priority has been to give cities the power to put 50 residential units per acre on the beach, rather than the county standard of 25. Funny thing, Geller represents a bunch of developers who want to build high-density property on the barrier island, including the controversial 38-story Island Palms high-rise on Hollywood Beach.

He has a grand vision for Broward's beaches: Skyscrapers left and right. "Height can be your friend," he says of the buildings he wants on the beaches. "Tall thin good. Short squat bad."

Maybe so, but only in places that actually should have dense populations, like downtown areas. The beach isn't one of those places. It's for everyone, not just those who can afford to buy a condo in one of the developments that Geller represents. Ample hotel rooms and restaurants, sure. But jamming the oceanfront with high-rise residential buildings and local traffic will only help destroy the best reason to live in Broward County.

Geller's Giveaway, as Sierra Club president Rod Tirrell has dubbed it, has prompted the senator to go to war with the county on developmental issues. The battle reached an impasse in the state Senate during the last session.

I asked County Commissioner John Rodstrom, a staunch opponent of Geller's Giveaway, if he thought the senator's public work on behalf of developers constituted a conflict of interest. "That's not for me to decide," Rodstrom said diplomatically. "That's for voters to decide."

I told Geller that it wouldn't be a bit surprising if his developer friends paid him nice juicy bonuses for his legislative work in Tallahassee. He denied such a thing has ever happened. "Not only have I not gotten any extra money for that, you also have my word of honor -- and I swear on my children or whatever you want -- that I have not only not made a single dollar, but it has hurt me because I don't have as much time in my practice," Geller declared of his public service.

To illustrate his argument, he e-mailed me a mock 700-word newspaper story he wrote up -- at considerable effort, I have to presume -- that he headlined "Representative Norman denies unethical conduct."

The story highlighted all the assumed conflicts that I would have as a newspaper columnist should I become a legislator. For instance, Geller had me voting against a sales tax increase that "would have dramatically affected the financial stability of Representative Norman's employer," as he put it.

There were a few other examples that were even more strained, but you get the picture. Toward the end, he quoted Hollywood Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom calling me a "fucking liar." I could take that, but then Geller had Koslow saying I was ugly. Don't hate me because I'm beautiful, man.

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