Hooray for Hollywood
Florida's Hollywood is the unglamorous one. Sure, the city has a lively little downtown entertainment district, where on most evenings the scent of Argentine grilled beef shares the air with pizza, where reggae jostles against blaring salsa and the rhythmic thump of electronic beats.
But, though Hollywood calls itself "the Diamond of the Gold Coast," there's nothing glitzy about the single-family bungalows and boxy apartment buildings that surround downtown. On Hollywood Beach, the sun rises slowly over the bold, bipolar silhouette of the 998-room Westin Diplomat, but the Broadwalk is still cluttered with cute, modest, art deco-style hotels, eschewing trendy nightclubs for casual sports bars.
Tinseltown it's not.
Celebrities? Well, maybe one. That would be Mayor Mara Giulianti, an auburn-haired firebrand who dominates the city's politics the way Daley did Chicago. The imperious Giulianti has a "vision": to wake this somnolent town of 145,000 so it can realize its or at least, her big-city ambitions.
Under Giulianti, Hollywood's historic Young Circle has become wreathed by condo towers, spurred largely by tens of millions in developer incentives that, according to the assurances of the Giulianti administration, will produce hundreds of millions in future tax revenues. It's a similar story on the beach, where, in Giulianti's far-seeing view, Ocean Drive could become a canyon of condos and resorts. Hollywood, like Fort Lauderdale and Hallandale Beach, had much to gain from South Florida's housing boom.
Now that it's gone bust, though, Hollywood has the most to lose.
In what may be an alarming harbinger, one $100 million project in Young Circle, called HART (for Hollywood Art District), has already defaulted on its loans. With construction costs rising to unprecedented levels, developers and real estate analysts say new Hollywood condos will have a hard time keeping costs low enough to sell units, making it hard for them to keep pace with their own loan payments.
Other coastal cities in Broward have hopes that soon-to-arrive slot machines will help fill city coffers in lean times. But Hollywood, at least in part because of Giulianti's anti-gambling efforts, is out in the cold on this front. The city has no pari-mutuel venue within its city limits, though it stands at the crossroads of legal gambling in the county with Gulfstream Park, Dania Jai-Alai, and Mardi Gras Race Track & Gaming Center all within a mile of Hollywood. In fact, Hollywood waged an anti-gambling lobbying campaign before the March 2005 referendum in which voters voted for slots in the county. The result? Hollywood gets none of the loot and all of the traffic.
A pall seems to have settled on Giulianti's city. 2006 has been a year of defeat, retrenchment, scandal, and bluster. City government has never suffered from such a crisis in public confidence.
On the legal front, a string of high-profile defeats seems to speak to mismanagement at numerous levels, including the City Commission. For example, a discrimination suit brought against the city by the Hollywood Community Synagogue Chabad Lubavitch ended in June with a $2 million settlement and a promise that commissioners would attend classes in religious land-use laws. Then the city was thwarted in a controversial eminent-domain gambit, derailing one of the mayor's priority projects. The Hollywood Police Department last month lost a judgment in an age-discrimination suit against its own chief, at a cost exceeding $2 million.
Adding to the municipal woes, Hollywood's brand of no-holds-barred wheeling and dealing boiled over last month into one of the juiciest scandals in the city's history. Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom was charged with using his public position to perform private lobbying services for a wastewater management company. New disclosures from prosecutors in that case suggest that Giulianti herself may be in danger of indictment.
The one person who ought to feel a sense of urgency, who has the power to steer the city away from calamity, is the one person who's most dedicated to staying the course. "Regarding Hollywood and its renaissance," Giulianti says, "I'm as optimistic as ever."
In public remarks, Giulianti has touted a new generation of Hollywood residents who would fill the downtown and beachside condos, their cosmopolitan tastes providing impetus for retail development in both districts.
Partly as a consequence of the city's courting this population, property taxes have stayed high, which social service agencies say is starting to affect a population on the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum: Hollywood's working poor.
The high property taxes have forced apartment buildings to raise rents, a result that has led to the evictions of tenants who have fixed incomes or work low-wage jobs. Suddenly, these people must search for new homes.
"My feeling is that they haven't left [Hollywood] and that's why I'm being bombarded by unsheltered people," says Tammy Morton, executive director of Jubilee Center, an agency near Dixie Highway that serves free lunches to the impoverished. For the first time, she's found herself helping people who have jobs and income but no homes. "They don't know where to go."
Ramshackle motels along Federal Highway have traditionally been a refuge, but even those have become expensive. A room that a few years ago cost $27 per night today costs $50. The motels need to pay their taxes too.
That's liable to make the lunch line at Jubilee Center even longer. Asked for his opinion on the mayor, a homeless man with a mangy beard looks up from his tray: "Mara?" He shakes his head. "She started out OK, but she's a sellout to big corporations, to development on the beach."
The man, who wouldn't give his name and would say only that he lives "in the woods," skims the frosting off a square of angel food cake as he ponders Giulianti's political evolution.
"She never used to be that way," he says dolefully. A Hollywood resident of nearly 35 years, he speaks of Giulianti as though she were an old friend who had lost her way. "Everything she does is for money."
For some reason, Giulianti labors under the perception of the backroom wheeler-dealer with hardboiled patter about how money talks.
The engine behind of the mayor's redevelopment plan is the Community Redevelopment Agency, created by the city but functioning as a separate legal entity, with tax increment financing. Tax rates going to the county are frozen in CRA districts, like Hollywood's downtown and its beachfront. As property values rise from new investment, the extra property tax revenue goes to the CRA, creating a substantial fund that the city has wide discretion in dispensing.
In many cases, CRAs work to create affordable housing. In Hollywood, however, it has largely concerned itself with creating high-rises, like those now being built around Young Circle.
There are two exceptions. Tango Gardens is a row of 60 townhouses planned along Adams Street from South 22nd to South 24th avenues, and these could be purchased by people whose income is within 120 percent of area average. Metro Hollywood is a condo development proposed for the corner of Adams where it meets Dixie Highway. Its 118 units would be a mix of townhouses, condos, and live/work units, all of which would sell for under $300,000, placing them lower than Broward County's average home price of $325,000.
But in a city operating under the specter of corruption charges, the benefits of these projects are clouded by the connections of their developers.
Cynthia Berman-Miller was still the city's director of the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs when, in March 2005, the city first advertised development opportunities on Adams Street. Berman-Miller submitted a proposal, and though she had left city employment by the time her group won the bid, it aroused suspicion of an inside deal.
Berman-Miller's partner in Metro Hollywood is Rep. Ken Gottlieb, who has his own close ties with the city government as its representative in Tallahassee.
The joys of landing a development contract with the city can be bountiful. But before you get to that point, you have to go through the gauntlet of public scrutiny. It can be a tough trip.
It's nearing 9 p.m. on October 24 when it finally comes time for Rep. Ken Gottlieb to make his presentation to the North Central Civic Association, which meets at the Fred Lippman Center on Polk Street. Despite his silver suit, the baby-faced Gottlieb has the rumpled, drowsy look of an 8-year-old boy roused early from his nap. It must be exhausting to work as a legislator by day, a developer by night.
Gottlieb goes through the basics of the design, and despite the critical expressions in the crowd, he appears to be gaining confidence. "Fifty years from now, when all the other buildings that are being built are being looked at for redevelopment, the community will be fighting to save this," he says. Someone in the audience scoffs, loudly.
Recovering his momentum, Gottlieb points out: "No other [development] group wanted to bid on this. What we decided was, that didn't matter. We still wanted to make something that was architecturally significant, that would be a revitalizing tool for the city."
Maria Jackson, an activist on Hollywood's South Side, demands to know whether Gottlieb's group will ask the city for an additional $1.5 million to buy the VFW property next to the Theresa Apartments. He says they will not, but his answer takes a defensive tone he knows Jackson opposes any project with Cynthia Berman-Miller's involvement.
Every dispute in Hollywood has a history, a related skein of personal affronts and grudges. For some Hollywoodians, the mention of Berman-Miller is like a red cape for a charging bull. Jackson, who suspects Berman-Miller got an inside deal from the city, appears to grind her teeth at the mention.
"This is going to make our quality of life in Hollywood better," Gottlieb insists. "I think it's important to focus on what's happening and not necessarily innuendo and personalities."
In a city where personalities dominate politics, that may not be a realistic hope. At the meeting's end, the association's vice president makes an apology to Gottlieb, explaining, "It's just hard for us to trust our public officials these days."
On November 7, it was Berman-Miller's turn. She attended a special meeting of the United Neighbors of South Hollywood, at McNicol Community Center. But as Jackson and association President Andre Brown publicly grilled her, another group of association members stirred in the back.
"I don't think it should matter who builds what, as long as they're putting the money back into the community," shouted Jack Meharian, who was standing just to the left of the district's commissioner, Beam Furr. Meharian then made a motion that the association support Berman-Miller's project.
Brown and Jackson appeared stunned. They refused to call a vote. "Half the association left!" Brown said.
When all else fails, mastery of the rules comes into play.
The two sides shouted at each other, each hurling accusations that the other was corrupt. Over the din, Commissioner Furr challenged Brown: "You have to vote. There's a motion on the floor. Are you all afraid to take a vote?"
Association member Helen Chervin muttered bitterly, "Backdoor Beam. He's at it again."
Berman-Miller was the only one in the room smiling.
After checking the association's bylaws, Brown allowed the vote. The nine who voted in favor of the project were not enough, Brown said, to constitute an association majority, and the motion failed. The association's official stance against the project remains.
Berman-Miller refused to speak with New Times, but Gottlieb, in an arrangement brokered by a public relations firm, agreed to a highly structured interview composing answers to questions relayed through his media representative.
The opposition to Metro Hollywood is being blown out of proportion by "one very small but vocal group of individuals from the United Neighbors of South Hollywood that have been making character assassinations and throwing stones at our partners and our project" is the way Gottlieb summed up the situation.
The October 18 meeting of the Hollywood City Commission had all the makings of a showdown. This was the first since the arrest of Commissioner Wasserstrom for his role in a wastewater treatment contract, a deal that to the regular cast of critics looked fishy from the get-go.
Mara Giulianti has mastered the art of diverting the opposition. The commission's critics turn out in force to pour out their venom during the "public comment" portion of the meeting. By the time public comment rolls around, though, many critics have left in frustration.
The meeting's first two hours are a barrage of awards. City Manager Cameron Benson unveils the Hollywood Strategic Plan video an homage to the city employees and to the mayor's vision that Giulianti calls "uplifting." The Firefighter of the Quarter Award winner is praised for his "wonderful attitude," and a few others are simply "terrific."
Toward the end of the awards procession, Giulianti quips, "There are some folks here who believe the hype about how the City of Hollywood never does anything right, and so it's a pleasure to see you hand out these awards."
When finally the time for citizens to stand up and speak arrives, the meeting is three hours behind schedule. "I can't remember when we've been this far behind," Giulianti marvels.
Only the most devoted commission critics remain: grim, unyielding folks waving signs that "Say No to CBM" referring, of course, to Berman-Miller.
The feisty Howard Sher has spent most of the meeting pacing the room's back aisle, like a restless matador. Dressed in his trademark ensemble of golf shirt, khaki shorts, and sandals, Sher chastises Giulianti for losing track of the e-mails she sent from her personal account relating to the Schwing Bioset contract. Sher whose commission meeting harangues deserve a YouTube medley somehow ends by saying, "No, Mayor, I didn't start the war in Iraq!"
"Howard, the problem is that you think you did," Giulianti cracks.
The mayor makes little effort to mask her contempt for her critics. She looks at them stone-faced, though she betrays a twitch on the right side of her face when a comment apparently upsets her. She can't entirely resist taking not-so-subtle swipes at her opponents.
When a friendly face, that of Audrey Joynt, moves toward the lectern rather than the expected Mara-despiser Pete Brewer, "You don't look at all like [Brewer]," Giulianti quips. "And thank goodness!"
The evening's most poignant moment is provided by an elderly woman, Pat Smith, who came to the meeting to bid her city farewell. She is moving to Tennessee. "I thought that I would be sad to leave Hollywood," Smith says. "I've lived here all my life."
The Radius condo tower project in Young Circle and the planned development along Dixie Highway, Smith says, are "monstrous, out of scale with the existing neighborhood."
She closes with a warning: "Be careful what you do in the future, because if Hollywood is being destroyed for me, it will be destroyed for other people."
Giulianti strikes a completely different tone two weeks later, at a meeting of the Hollywood Beach Business Association, whose members include hotel operators and restaurateurs. The tough dame who presides over commission meetings becomes deferential almost apologetic. These are wealthier constituents than at the commission meeting.
Beach commerce has suffered from heavy construction it's currently impossible to get to the beach from Hollywood Boulevard and yet the costs of property taxes and insurance have forced business owners to raise their prices past the point their customer base can afford.
Giulianti's speech is full of caveats that act as winks to her audience: "What you have read in our not-so-accurate newspapers...," for example. But the reality is that she can't offer the tax breaks this audience desperately wants.
"My taxes were $8,000 in 2000," says another woman who owns a business on the beach. "Now they're $23,000. You can bet my revenue didn't go up that much."
Giulianti's administration has even less support among condo-owners on the beach, another powerful lobby.
"The people who live here and vote here, she doesn't care a whole lot about how we feel," says Cynthia Greene-Eason, president of Condos of Hollywood Beach. Greene-Eason's homeowner's insurance has tripled in the past year, an experience common among her members. With property taxes increasing at the same time, it's becoming too expensive even for these relatively wealthy residents. On the other hand, the real estate market is so soft, they can't sell.
The condo residents on the beach want their neighborhood to keep its village-like character, but that may not be a priority shared by Giulianti, who seems to want more condos.
"The whole city is being built into oblivion," an exasperated Greene-Eason says. "I look out from my 17th-floor condo, and there are cranes everywhere. It looks like Jerusalem, Israel."
Giulianti has ruled Hollywood for 20 years with a two-year hiatus between 1990 and 1992 following an electoral defeat but if she wants to keep her throne, she must hope that by the election in March 2008, her ambitious redevelopment plans have finally borne fruit.
The public-corruption case against Wasserstrom figures to be the most combustible issue in the next mayoral campaign. Broward State Attorney Michael Satz has charged Wasserstrom with four counts of official misconduct and one count of unlawful compensation in connection with his lobbying for Schwing Bioset, a wastewater treatment company that sought and received a sewer contract from Hollywood.
In that vote, commissioners were asked to overlook the apparent conflicts of interest that came with the contract and to spend more money for the sake of future profit, because this was an opportunity that couldn't be missed.
Though Wasserstrom recused himself from the commission vote on Schwing Bioset, he is accused of falsifying conflict-of-interest forms in which he claimed not to be a paid lobbyist. Wasserstrom has admitted publicly, in a New Times article ("Ooh, That Smell!" April 15, 2004), that in exchange for his marketing Schwing Bioset, he would be compensated by Normandy Group as a paid lobbyist for the company, which is run by Arnold Goldman, the ex-husband of Wasserstrom's aunt.
Wasserstrom also alleged that Giulianti's son Stacey, a partner in Wasserstrom's law firm, was "involved." Indeed, Giulianti recused herself from voting on the contract. But she denies knowledge of Wasserstrom's double-dealing.
She agreed to answer questions from New Times via e-mail.
"He [Wasserstrom] never told me anything," Giulianti writes. "I learned about [Wasserstrom's] relationship when he said things publicly at the meeting."
But she admits to pursuing the matter in a private capacity. "I was so confused about what [Wasserstrom's] relationship was with Arnold Goldman and whether or not he was his uncle that I finally emailed ONE EMAIL, unfortunately, from my home, asking Mr. Goldman to explain his relationship so that I could file a conflict-of-interest form that is accurate."
Giulianti is at a loss to explain the e-mail's disappearance. "I always copy myself at City Hall on anything that is about city business," she says. "I don't know why or how this one was lost."
In lieu of that note, she offers a summary: "He had sold his business in Boca and was bored," Giulianti says of Goldman. "Keith was very excited about a wonderful project and told [Goldman] that the Native Americans involved were from out of state and needed a contact here. He [Wasserstrom] referred them to him [Goldman]."
The arrangement sounds anything but benign: A city commissioner hooks up a family friend as a lobbyist for a business, then that commissioner lobbies his own city to accept that business' pitch with the expectation that he'll soon be paid, not directly by the firm but through the family friend.
Giulianti who doesn't explain why, if she was privy to this arrangement, she didn't blow the whistle herself abstained from a vote on the Schwing Bioset contract out of concern for her own conflict through her son. "I asked my son what I should do if I had a conflict. He said he didn't know much about it, but that I should just do whatever Keith asked me to do."
Was she herself subpoenaed? "Yes, I was subpoenaed," she says. "I probably would not have testified if it was up to me to do voluntarily." In fact, in its case filings, state prosecutors allege that Wasserstrom misled Giulianti about his relationship with Schwing Bioset.
But that doesn't mean Giulianti is safe from criminal indictment. Documents made public November 7 suggest the mayor had a bigger role in the Schwing Bioset contract than she's admitted publicly. There were several e-mails between Giulianti and Goldman, rather than the one she has claimed. (Others were lost when computers belonging to Giulianti, Wasserstrom, and Goldman all mysteriously crashed.) And their exchanges were far more detailed than Giulianti has acknowledged. At various points in the correspondence, the mayor gives Goldman advice about how to win a favorable vote from a hold-out on the commission, Fran Russo.
Russo did not return calls seeking comment.
Giulianti is now trying to distance herself from Wasserstrom. In her statements to New Times, she took exception to a question identifying Wasserstrom as her ally on redevelopment issues. "Keith was not an ally any more than Fran [Russo], Cathy [Anderson], and often, Beam [Furr]," Giulianti writes.
Still, she's hard-pressed to cite instances of conflict between herself and Wasserstrom. "I used to joke that Keith was so high on development that he'd ask them to add more floors!" Giulianti writes. "I always said he made me look downright anti-development, because he didn't care, like I do, about historic preservation and/or adherence to some smart-growth principles."
By the same token, Giulianti calls Wasserstrom "a very moral religious person" and says that "we all hope Keith will be exonerated."
There are rumblings of political revolution in Hollywood. Commissioner Peter Bober launched his mayoral campaign in August, and at the current rate, his ubiquitous "Bober for Mayor" Segway will need new tires before the March 2008 election.
The first few months, Bober resisted the challenger's impulse to take shots at the incumbent. In recent weeks, he's abandoned that restraint.
"She is totally out of touch with how people feel," he says of Giulianti. He calls her "confrontational," a "bully," and says it's for these reasons that "a lot of employees in City Hall will be very happy when Mara's gone."
In her statement to New Times, Giulianti calls Bober "a say-no kind of guy." Where a few months ago Bober bridled at these accusations, he's now learned to embrace them.
"I take that as a compliment," Bober says, "because I vote against what I consider tricky projects. I have voted for some incentives, but I have voted against a ton of them. The fact is, [Giulianti] doesn't know when to say no. I do."
The knock on Bober is that he didn't say no louder and earlier. A strong-willed naysayer might have been able to keep the city from some of its haphazard spending, critics contend.
Currently, 100 percent of tax increases from new development go to the CRA. Bober wants to study the possibility of reducing that percentage as a way of replenishing the general fund for long-overdue improvements to the city's infrastructure and, perhaps, as a way of giving tax cuts. The idea figures to have broad appeal.
"Every economic class in Hollywood is being pounded by taxes and high insurance," Bober says. "No one is not paying a heavy price."
Long before the mayoral election, there will be a special election to fill the commissioner's seat vacated by Wasserstrom, who was suspended by Gov. Jeb Bush pending his corruption case.
All of the candidates are preaching reform. "You have to have responsible leadership I guess that's my theme," says David Mach, an Emerald Hills resident who declared his candidacy last month. "You have to have people up there who aren't lawyers and lobbyists and who are responsible." The others are former commissioner Richard Blattner and businessman Stephen Greenberger.
That spirit has taken hold among sitting commissioners too. Commissioners Cathy Anderson and Sal Oliveri have lately expressed an unwillingness to continue doling out developer incentives in Oliveri's case, he doesn't seem interested in following through with those for which he's already voted.
The entire commission comes up for reelection in 2008, and by that time, they'll have to decide whether to stake their political careers on Giulianti's redevelopment vision or abandon it as a way to stay in office.
Bober has his own theory: "The rest of the City Commission is starting to get wise to the sophistry of the mayor's policies."
For her part, Giulianti is trying hard not to blink. If her redevelopment plan is ever going to be realized, she and her city must project an image that is calm, even in the face of chaos. Developers are watching, as are those affluent residents who would fill Giulianti's condos downtown and on the beach. "I think everyone on the commission but Peter is still very positive and optimistic," Giulianti writes. "The city has never looked better."
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