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From his office on the 12th floor of the Las Olas Centre, Don Hall's view stretches across the New River to take in regal yachts, fine mansions, and open skies. Hall says he likes open spaces. He even owned a ranch in Wyoming once, which explains his office's Western décor. Yet blocking that expansive view of the New River is his "fondest wish," he says — and Hall, a lawyer, is the corporate muscle to make it happen.
From his office perch, Hall can peer down at the Stranahan House, a two-story reminder of Fort Lauderdale's pioneer past. That's where he contends all the trouble began, with the house's preservation-minded supporters. Hall's clients, developers Related Group and Rabina Properties, have been trying for eight years to build Icon, a high-rise luxury condo building, next to the Stranahan House. Supporters of the house and the City of Fort Lauderdale have fought back, saying 42 stories of swanky skyboxes will cast a shadow over one of the few remaining pieces of the city's past. There have been charges and countercharges, votes and scuttled deals. Now, Hall is spearheading a new tack: His clients are suing the nonprofit Stranahan House, its supporters, and a single critic of Icon, asking for unspecified damages. Why?
Because, among other things, Hall says, they have defamed the would-be skyscraper and its developers. And concerns about the historic house and its environs have delayed Icon's construction, which kept his clients from being able to cash out at the height of the South Florida condo boom.
There are those who would see in this litigation an attempt to muzzle the public or at least an effort to curb those few citizens with the effrontery to wonder whether it must be Fort Lauderdale's fate to have high-rise condos on every downtown block. Some think this is a SLAPP suit, an acronym for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.
The idea behind a SLAPP suit is that a big fish, like a real-estate developer, intimidates little fish, like a nonprofit preservation group, through the burden of legal costs. Winning in court is secondary. Marc Randazza, a law professor at Barry University, says it's the defamation charge that sticks in his craw. Of the suit, launched in April, he says, "I'm stunned that a licensed attorney signed this."
Nonsense, Hall says. "If this were a SLAPP suit, it would have been filed several years ago. SLAPP suits are designed to discourage people from commenting. Well, the Stranahan House has commented for eight years... This was filed because our clients finally said, 'Enough is enough.' "
After all the tussling, Hall's clients don't want to build somewhere else. The parcel they hold is "the best site in Broward County — one of the best in South Florida — for a luxury condominium," Hall says.
Why is that?
Hall laughs and puts his loafered feet on a table. "Well, look at it," he says. "Its location. It's on the river. It's Las Olas."
The suit accuses Stranahan House supporters of harming the developers' reputations by making false statements and calling them "greedy."
"Isn't that the purpose of most business, to make money?" Randazza asks. "You can't say that a developer is greedy? It's insane."
If Stranahan House supporters have crimped Icon's sales, Gary Schwartz hasn't noticed. Or maybe he's just a really good actor.
A playful pug named Daisy and offers of Perrier greet visitors inside the Icon sales center at 500 E. Las Olas Blvd. Fashion-forwardness is all around, even before the name-dropping starts — Kohler faucets, Franke sinks, Jado rain showerheads. Schwartz, one of five salespeople, glides toward the entrance. His chiseled face and dazzling blue eyes could dress up a white T-shirt, but today he's in long sleeves, a green silk tie, and perfectly cut Hugo Boss black pinstriped pants.
Schwartz is the picture of understated sophistication. His banter moves seamlessly from economics to art to literature. His charisma is infectious. It shouldn't surprise that he once performed major roles in Broadway productions of Kiss of the Spider Woman and Fiddler on the Roof. And, he says, he's sealed 21 condo contracts since he joined the Icon team in January.
"We're dealing with a real strong international market right now — we've been profiling buyers from 15 different countries," he explains. "So it's a really sophisticated, very cosmopolitan group of people that are buying."
The sales team is eight contracts shy of having sold half of the 272-unit building, he says.
"We're competing with international markets like Monaco, because of the year-round great weather, because of the waterways," Schwartz continues. "So if we're competing on these levels, which we are, then our pricing per square footage is a bargain."
Icon units start at $567,900 — for 870 square feet.
Stranahan House supporters worry that the landmark will be swallowed by the high-rise. Next to Icon, "the Stranahan is just going to look like an equipment shack," says James Carroll, a lawyer for the nonprofit that runs it.
For Schwartz, though, the proximity of the little house is actually a selling point. Icon is paying tribute to it. "The greatest cities have the old juxtaposed against the new," he says.