By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
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It had also bought seven parcels for the Village Center on the four acres of blighted blocks Flick had pointed out to Perez on their morning walk. The riot-prone concert hall, the convenience store, and the roofless buildings were bulldozed. Even better, Northwood Renaissance landed a $10 million grant in state tax credits — an extremely competitive award — to underwrite the affordable-housing project. Village Center would combine retail space on the ground floor with 84 affordably priced apartments on the second. They figured the cost of the project at about $26 million.
Northwood Renaissance's plans had the support of former Mayors Nancy Graham and Joel Daves. The mayors trusted Northwood Renaissance's leaders enough to give the nonprofit a $150,000-a-year contract to "remedy blight" in the neighborhood. With the money, Northwood Renaissance served as the city's makeshift Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), tasked with bringing new businesses into the commercial district. The grant paid the salaries of three employees, including an executive director, Terri Murray. It also provided $30,000 a year for marketing.
When Frankel took office in 2003, she initially showed support for Northwood Renaissance. Frankel connected the organization with a developer that had built 20 other mixed-use projects with Publix as a tenant. The city also helped Northwood Renaissance assemble the Village Center site by threatening owners who held dilapidated buildings with condemnation.
Even so, Northwood Renaissance was not universally loved. Progress, at least according to some business owners, had been agonizingly slow. "Drip, drip, drip," landowner Rod Tinson was often quoted as saying.
"I came to Northwood and I saw this little village that was going to be restored," Scott Curry remembers. Curry had relocated his interior design business, House Dressings, to Northwood in 2001. "Northwood Renaissance was courting businesses to come to Northwood, talking about beautification and marketing. But the money was never there. After eight months, I was extremely discouraged. Nothing ever happened."
The downtown was still struggling. Northwood Renaissance had enticed shops, restaurants, and offices to the village. But many didn't have the money to survive for the long haul. Storefronts began to empty out. New businesses, ever optimistic, would move in to replace them. Northwood Road had new pavers, palm trees, and trellises draped in bougainvillea vines. Still, morale among business owners and residents was at an all-time low. People were impatient for real change.
Change was on the horizon. But Flick and his supporters could never have predicted how quickly their plans would unravel.
In 2004, Mayor Frankel created a new position to oversee the city's efforts to repair blighted neighborhoods. Frankel wanted to install a full-time director for the city-run Community Redevelopment Agency. The mayor got a call from a rising star in urban planning, Kim Briesemeister. Briesemeister said she'd be interested in the job, but with one catch: She wanted more control.
A trim, no-nonsense blond who's now 47, Briesemeister had spent four years with the Hollywood Community Redevelopment Agency and five more years as CRA director in Fort Lauderdale. Briesemeister had helped orchestrate redevelopment plans during a land boom in downtown Hollywood.
During discussions, Briesemeister and Frankel hit it off.
"I like startups," Briesemeister says now. "The Fort Lauderdale CRA was fully functional, and I saw much that still needed to be done in West Palm Beach."
After Frankel hired her, the mayor's first mission was clear: Do something about Northwood.
Briesemeister had made a lot of friends in her decade working in community redevelopment in South Florida, and one of the most important was Hollywood landowner Jerry Mintz. He was a florid, outspoken Canadian millionaire developer who had a tendency to rub people the wrong way. Mintz had renovated blocks of historic buildings along Harrison Street in Hollywood, and he'd received millions in incentives from the city and the Hollywood CRA under Briesemeister's tenure. Having served in the Israeli military, he still relished a good scuffle.
Briesemeister quickly brought Mintz in to help redevelop Northwood. They agreed that the last thing the depressed village needed, at the height of a real estate boom, was affordable apartment buildings and a grocery store. Instead, they envisioned a "Bohemian village," with a European-style piazza, upscale condominiums, and a fashionable mixed-use project. Mintz stood to make a great deal of money developing the project.
Briesemeister was so confident that she, and not Northwood Renaissance, could get things done that she cut off the city's funding to the group in 2005. She put some of the money saved toward hiring a staff for a new Northwood Community Redevelopment Agency. She also recruited influential locals to the existing CRA advisory board.
Mintz started meeting with merchants, residents, and Northwood Renaissance. Terry Fox, a Northwood Renaissance board member and vice president of Regions Bank, recalls his first lunch meeting with the developer. "Mintz told me flat out that Northwood Renaissance would never get our projects built," Fox says. "He added that the city wanted the Village Center site for a parking garage. I went back to the board and said, 'We've got a problem.' "
Briesemeister tells New Times that Northwood Renaissance was moving too slowly. "I said, 'This isn't going to work. We have to move quicker than that,' " Briesemeister recalls. "A redevelopment agency has to get to the implementation stage. You can have community meetings and say this or this would be great if we could have it, but it's not realistically vetted. The issue wasn't about whether what Northwood Renaissance was doing was wrong or right or their specific capabilities. The CRA has very powerful redevelopment tools, the ability to acquire land, and the bonding ability to leverage dollars to get things done."