Hollywood's Got the Bends

ArtsPark Village puts the city at the mercy of developers

For all the talk of political revolution, Hollywood's April 2 city commission was heading in the same direction as during the glory days of deposed Mayor Mara Giulianti: toward giving a developer a boatload of incentives and zoning concessions, despite a slew of unresolved problems.

The project is ArtsPark Village, a 25-story, mixed-use monstrosity that could dominate Young Circle for decades to come. It rose from the ashes of the Hollywood Art District (HART), the condo complex-theater-charter school that set a new standard for publicly funded money-pits in a city already famous for them.

Adding to the instant nostalgia at the meeting was Alan Koslow, the highly connected attorney who had shepherded so many other incentive-rich projects through Hollywood's approvals process. Koslow was speaking for Miami developer WSG, which wants to build ArtsPark Village. He was joined by old Giulianti ally Dick Blattner, a commissioner; Blattner savaged city staffers – the city manager, the planning director – who had failed to endorse the project, even though the commission had a four-vote majority in favor of it. "This should never happen again," Blattner said.

By the time commissioners asked for Benson's help, it was too late.
By the time commissioners asked for Benson's help, it was too late.

Blattner and others in the majority turned to City Manager Cameron Benson, asking him to use the Economic Development Roundtable, a panel of planning experts, to persuade WSG to make costly changes to its plans. Specifically, they wanted WSG to finally address residents' fears that ArtsPark Village was too tall, that it was not set back far enough from surrounding streets, that it lacked adequate parking, and that it was nothing more than the city's latest boondoggle.

But WSG had already considered and rejected such changes, which would have cut into the developer's profits. Besides, the developer had the votes to get the most profitable version of the project approved. If the city had adopted a set of zoning guidelines years ago, Benson and his staff might have been able to prevent this project from reaching Goliath proportions. Now it was too late. He was being sent on a fool's errand. The meeting, entering its seventh hour, was a farce.

Just after midnight, Benson cleared his throat. "I have to say this, get it off my chest," he began. The city gave him orders but no negotiating tools, he said. "There's no leverage, nothing to hang our hats on when we go to the table to negotiate this project."

Benson continued, "There was a history of what was supposed to happen" – he waved a fistful of papers, the zoning codes that were never adopted – "and if this didn't happen it would put you as a commission into a bad situation. That happened yesterday and is now floating over into the new day... I knew that this day was going to come, and you know what? No one listened to me."

They weren't going to start now. A moment later, commissioners voted in favor of the embattled project.

It's hard to say exactly when Hollywood's downtown redevelopment plan took a wrong turn, but the last time it seemed to be on the right track was 1998. That's the year the D.C.-based Urban Land Institute unveiled a study that called for a low-rise, pedestrian-friendly downtown in Hollywood, with no parking meters or big-box retail stores, like the Publix that has blighted Young Circle for decades. That study got a standing ovation from community activists. "Why didn't they hire these people 10 years ago?" one observer asked the Sun-Sentinel.

Now, 10 years later, the question is why the study by ULI – which has since orchestrated downtown revivals in Charlotte, N.C., Bridgeport, Conn., and San Bernardino, Calif. – was so casually dismissed. The person most qualified to answer, former Hollywood mayor Giulianti, did not respond to questions.

It was Giulianti who in 2003 embraced another downtown vision, by Miami architect Bernard Zyscovich, who was more willing to accommodate high-rise condos. Still, the Zyscovich plan provided at least a way to forge the zoning codes that Benson needed to keep developers at bay. Without them, commissioners essentially took the place of experts in negotiating with developers. Not only were the commissioners less qualified, they were also susceptible to the influence of campaign contributors, among others.

Against this backdrop, it's easier to understand the sequence of blunders that occurred next. Acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, commissioners approved plans for HART by a developer named Gary Posner, who had never attempted a project nearly that big, and Patricia Peretz, whose primary qualification appeared to be having known Giulianti from working at the Hollywood Arts and Cultural Center. The city gave the pair millions in incentives and loans.

The ink had barely dried on the development agreement when Posner started knocking down walls at the Home building – without the consent of condo owners, who sued. Then HART purchased the Hollywood Bread Building's parking garage from a seller who wasn't the clear owner, prompting another lawsuit.

In 2004, Posner told the city he couldn't afford to build a new theater, which was one of the primary selling points of the project. He then missed the first deadline to pay back the city's loans. Posner's legal bills were rising, as were South Florida construction costs, at the same time the Florida condo market took a nosedive.

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