Dark Tower

Las Olas River House was supposed to be the life of the party, not a hollow high-rise

"River House is the type of building you'd expect in Manhattan, but it's right here in South Florida," Helman says.

Asked why so little life is apparent in the building, the developer points out that the units, sold "designer-ready" (some might say "completely hollow"), require that owners spend months to design, permit, and finish the interiors. Some owners have opted not to move into their units while the construction is as thick as it has been. What's more, the developer has been selling units in small groups, holding on to certain condos to allow time for the market to drive up prices -- and profits.

"We have consistently moved the price, moved the market, at a nice, steady, increasing pace, and we've had sales every month," Helman says. According to Helman, public records haven't caught up with sales and fewer than 40 new units remain unsold.

But some of River House's residents allege that the situation isn't so rosy inside the building. In interviews with New Times, River House residents complained that the developer has been slow to finish many of the building's amenities. "Projects that were supposed to be complete by now still aren't finished," says Bill Dilodovico, who bought his unit in January for $760,000.

Even though the first residents began unpacking in December 2004, River House's pool, library, and bistro weren't finished until March. Mailboxes were finally installed last month. And even today, the health club, elevators, and many hallways are still under construction. Even the bike room, which the developer claimed would be finished in August, isn't ready, residents say.

Helman says minor delays are to be expected with such a large project. "We were under a lot of pressure from many of the buyers to close on their units as soon as possible," he says. "I don't think the common-area stuff has been a problem."

But some of those residents disagree. "What the hell does it take to finish a bike room -- a few metal racks?" says one resident who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. "The building is a total zoo."

That might explain why River House remains a dark tower. Its prices, starting now just shy of $1 million, are no doubt out of reach for most buyers in South Florida.

But save your nickels, because last month, Freddie Mac CEO Richard Syron predicted that such high-end real estate had reached its price peak and would likely decline. If prices drop nationwide, South Florida's market will likely lead the way.

Deerfield Beach's McCabe predicts a 10 to 30 percent correction (some might say "crash") in South Florida luxury condos in 2006. A glut of available units, coupled with a dearth of affordable housing, could precipitate a fall, the analyst says.

"The problem is that developers have been led to believe there's a much greater market for luxury condominiums -- particularly $700,000-and-above units," he says. "But the majority of people who were buying them were not true end users. What it's done is overinflate the true demand. So we've built this oversupply, because developers have had a lot of cheap money to do it with."

Even Helman, River House's developer, admits that some investors have irrational expectations. Asked specifically about unit 2910, purchased in January for $1.145 million and now on sale for $2.095 million, Helman smirks.

"He might have it on the market for that, but he won't get it," he says.

Real-estate attorney Howard Kurzweil remains optimistic about the building. He bought his unit for $1 million in December 2004, and although the constant flow of construction crews in the elevators is annoying, he has high hopes.

"I think it'll be the ultimate condominium in Fort Lauderdale," he says. "You just have to give it time."

Helman concurs: "The people who have been attracted to the River House, they wouldn't want to live anywhere else."

That goes for at least 55 of them, anyway.

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