West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel Took on Community Activists, and Dreams for Northwood Village Died
One morning in 2002, Carl Flick got up early for a walking tour with architect George Perez. Flick wanted to show Perez every historic building in downtown Northwood, a 4,500-home neighborhood in the northeast section of West Palm Beach. They started with the Northwood Hotel, on the corner of Northwood Road and Dixie. They walked past the three-story Alfie's Restaurant Equipment, a peeling hulk that revealed beamed ceilings when the two squinted through years of grime on its barred windows. "I wanted to show him that there were people who cared about the history of the area," Flick remembers. Then they paused and contemplated a couple of blocks smack in the center of downtown Northwood.
"There was a big industrial building, called Don T's, with a barrel roof, that had been used as a venue for rap concerts," Flick recalls. "It was notorious. There had been riots, drug deals, constant police activity. There was a storefront church, Iglesia del Nazareno; a convenience store, which was just a front for a drug organization. They had paraphernalia, crack pipes, literally hanging from the shelves. Food was rotting in their freezers. There was an animal charity that was no more than a glorified kennel. And a bunch of buildings that were just shells with no roofs. It looked like a bombed-out Berlin. There wasn't a single building on those blocks worth saving."
If the sight was depressing, Flick was optimistic. A historic preservationist and urban planner, he hoped that soon those blighted blocks would look different. He envisioned a thriving "Village Center" of shops selling art, clothing, and books and a real drugstore or a gourmet grocer instead of a crack den hawking pipes and rotten food. Rather than roofless buildings, there'd be affordable apartments for waitresses, students, nurses, and city workers.
It was a compelling vision. But eight years after that morning survey, those blighted blocks stand empty, a gaping hole in the center of Northwood Village inhabited only by weeds and insects.
Flick's quest to preserve Northwood Village turned personal when West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel made him her enemy. Frankel's animosity toward Flick and his grassroots development projects would eventually kill his bright plans. The good intentions of preservationists would turn neighbor against neighbor, merchant against merchant, citizen against politician.
Allegations of fraud, bribery, corruption, and even mental illness have been lobbed like bottle rockets. The battle has generated a lawsuit against the city, a grand jury investigation involving a Florida House member, and an FBI probe.
Carl Flick's first big battle in Northwood was classic David versus Goliath. In 1999, corporate giant Walgreens wanted to plunk a $4 million suburban-style drugstore on the corner of Broadway and 45th Street. Flick, who worked as a senior planner for the county until 2002, led a group of activists who passionately wanted to protect Northwood's laid-back charm from swaths of sun-baked asphalt.
A delicately built, sandy-haired man in his early 50s, Flick is a speaker who can pontificate for an hour while hardly drawing breath. He runs a commercial photography business out of his Northwood home. Even in this open-minded, arty neighborhood, he seems eccentric. On the side, he's a body painter: At events like Key West's Fantasy Fest, he decorates comely women with abstract vines, seascapes, mermaid's tails, and faux lingerie.
Flick knows his stuff when it comes to "new urbanism." When Walgreens proposed its project in 1999, Flick argued publicly that the busy building was poorly designed for urban residential streets. The City Commission debated the Walgreens proposal for more than four hours, finally siding in a unanimous vote against it.
It took people like Flick to begin to reverse nearly a century of blight in Northwood, where a series of booms and busts had stalled development. A drawing of Northwood's business district in 1925 depicts a view of Northwood Road, crowded with Model T's parked by a dry goods store. Another photo shows butchers in white aprons posed outside May's Groceries at 436 Northwood. The area had always been racially diverse, situated between historically black Pleasant City and historically white Riviera Beach. U.S. 1 ran through the business district, a mélange of black- and white-owned commerce where for years, one of the oldest African-American bookstores in Florida was squeezed into a small, crowded room filled with memorabilia.
By the 1980s, Northwood's main streets had fallen on hard times. As late as 2005, these blocks at night were scary places. Entire acres were ringed with chainlink and barbed wire.
In the 1990s, whites, many of them gay, bought Spanish-style bungalows at modest prices in the historic section of Old Northwood — snapping up two-bedroom homes for $40,000. They moved into the shady avenues east of Broadway, barricading the streets against the drug dealers and prostitutes with attractively landscaped dead-ends. They opened boutiques and antiques stores side by side with Mo' Betta Braids, Supe's Jamaican, and Golden Rule storefront church. It looked as if the neighborhood, once again, was scheduled for another boom.
For a decade, Flick has been president of the board of directors of Northwood Renaissance, a nonprofit community development corporation founded to help revitalize the neighborhood. The organization helped launch a turnaround on Northwood Road, and in 2002, it began buying up or acquiring purchase options for 70 percent of an "anchor site" at the west end of Northwood Village. The plan was to bring in a Publix and build 90 residential apartments and 15,000 square feet of retail, with a parking deck folded into the building.
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."
Flick and Murray say Mintz and Briesemeister began a campaign to discredit Northwood Renaissance. Mintz worked behind the scenes, sending emails to neighborhood organizations. He raised questions about the credentials of Northwood Renaissance's board. He denigrated their methods and experience.
Frankel had also turned against them, lining up firmly with Briesemeister. A friend told Flick that the mayor couldn't utter Flick's name "without spitting on the table." Frankel had once pointed a finger in Flick's face and said to a companion, "I will never sit down in the same room with that man." Their relationship had deteriorated so drastically that Flick offered several times to resign as Northwood Renaissance's board president — but the board felt they needed his expertise too much to let him go.
At a January 2005 meeting of the Community Redevelopment Agency's advisory board, Terry Fox was launching into a presentation of the Village Center development plan when board Chair Gigi Tylander interrupted him. He was flabbergasted. "She simply refused to let me finish the presentation," he recalls. "The issue was coming up for a vote that night, and the board was fully in favor of our project." Tylander, Carl Flick adds, simply squashed the project. "It was like she was pushing the genie back into the bottle," he says.
That same month, Briesemeister began publicly promoting Mintz as her preferred developer for the anchor site. She contacted Citibank, lender for Northwood Renaissance's Village Center, and openly questioned the nonprofit's experience and expertise. The lender told Flick and Murray that Briesemeister had berated him for writing a letter of support for the Publix anchor site plan.
"We spoke directly to Regional Director Bob Balcerak at Publix and were told they were not interested in putting a store on that site," Briesemeister says now. A Publix spokesperson told New Times that, at the time, "there was not enough density to support a new Publix store in that area."
Flick claims Briesemeister also called Northwood Renaissance's developer, Michael Leeds. "At that point, right in the middle of our delicate negotiations, Leeds backed out," Flick says. "He indicated he didn't need a messy conflict."
A month later, Frankel told a Black Chamber of Commerce meeting on Northwood Road that a Publix would be built in Northwood only "over my dead body."
Mintz and some CRA staff were working hard to turn the community against Northwood Renaissance, lobbying black and white business owners. They claimed that Northwood had acted unethically — threatening eminent domain, buying property for less than it was worth.
Mintz sent emails to Northwood activists and the owners of property near the proposed Publix site. Rod Tinson, who owned nearly a full block across the street from the anchor site, began circulating petitions urging residents to lobby city commissioners to support Mintz's plan. Tinson later sold a parcel of his land opposite the anchor site to the city for $1 million.
Mintz also sent emails to Terry Lynn Knight, president of the Northend Coalition of Neighborhoods. On February 14, 2005, Mintz asked Knight to organize residents to speak out against Northwood Renaissance's plans at a City Commission meeting to discuss the fate of the anchor site. "Not so much in regards to the Publix, but rather to discredit the group," Mintz wrote. "It would be great if you could get that Black lady who sold to Carl Flick her land to speak how he took advantage of her."
Knight grew disgusted with the subterfuge and turned over Mintz's emails to Northwood Renaissance.
Three hundred Northwood residents showed up at City Hall for that commission meeting, so many that temporary chairs had to be set up in the hall. That night, Briesemeister presented her five-year, $20 million CRA plan for Northwood and the Pleasant City neighborhood. Flick was given 20 minutes at the podium to make his alternate case.
Two days later, Mintz wrote to Knight: "I would really like to take over the [Village] Center project if Northwood is not capable of doing it... What is important now is to get this Northwood Renaissance out of my hair, so that we can move the development forward."
Northwood Renaissance's board members weren't ready to quit. They'd landed tens of thousands in awards and grants from outside funders. "I think the mayor, Mintz, and Briesemeister thought at that point that we would just curl up and die," says Flick. "They wanted to be rid of us, but we'd worked for years on those plans."
Fox thinks he and his fellow board members were naive. "We thought we were doing good, that logic would prevail. We'd go to these commission and advisory board meetings, and we'd make organized, well-thought-out presentations of our plans. But that didn't make any difference. This was a political battle."
Northwood Renaissance at last agreed to transfer its purchase options on the anchor site to the CRA, in exchange for funds and land west of Broadway to develop affordable single-family homes. Flick and Murray say Frankel also agreed to cooperate with their plans for Village Center. But Briesemeister tells New Times the city never agreed to help on that project.
On April 9, Briesemeister announced to the City Commission that Mintz was pulling out of development plans in Northwood. Mintz was moving to Israel. The commission voted to purchase from Mintz two plots of land on Broadway adjacent to the anchor site for $650,000. Mintz had bought the two parcels for $450,000 two years earlier. "It looked like a sweetheart deal," Flick says.
Meanwhile, Northwood Renaissance had been backed into a corner. There would be no city approval for affordable apartments. In December 2005, the nonprofit, with no hope of breaking ground on Village Center, had to give up its hard-won $10 million in state tax credits.
With city leaders against them, Northwood Renaissance board members decided in July 2006 to fight back. Flick had run into state Rep. Mary Brandenburg at an affordable-housing luncheon. Knowing that Brandenburg was on Frankel's newly empaneled ethics committee, he asked her, as a committee member, to meet with Northwood Renaissance's board to talk about what he saw as a pattern of interference and downright hostility from the city.
Over the course of a two-hour lunch at its offices, Northwood Renaissance detailed perceived ethics violations to Brandenburg. At the end of the presentation, they say, Brandenburg told them they should meet with the mayor. They needed to make a "significant contribution" to Frankel's reelection campaign to establish "good will" with the city. "You've got to pay to play," she told Murray, Flick, and Fox.
Politicians have a sharp memory for contributions, Brandenburg advised them. According to board members, Brandenburg turned to Flick and said: "I remember exactly when and where you gave me a $50 check. I know precisely which neighborhoods support me and which ones don't."
According to Flick, Brandenburg offered to set up a meeting between Flick and Frankel, noting that Flick should bring his checkbook. He should plan on making a contribution of $500.
"I don't think the mayor will meet with me," Flick told Brandenburg in confusion.
Brandenburg promised she'd arrange a meeting.
Northwood Renaissance reported the meeting with Brandenburg to the State Attorney's Office, and a few days later, Flick got a call from the FBI. Agents asked Flick to set up a meeting with Frankel. They wanted him to wear a wire. Flick says he declined. Brandenburg called Flick several times to set up the meeting, but he didn't return her calls.
Palm Beach County State Attorney Barry Krischer convened a grand jury in fall 2006 to look into Northwood's allegations. The jury also investigated complaints by citizens' groups and developers alleging links between campaign contributions and developer approvals. Over six months, the jury heard testimony from Northwood Renaissance, neighborhood activists, developers, and publicists who claimed they had been pressured for contributions.
In February 2007, the grand jury released a report that detailed developers' bundled campaign contributions to the mayor and city commissioners, one of whom, Ray Liberti, was by that time in jail on corruption charges. The report discussed hidden contributions and pointed to ethical breaches within the mayor's ethics committee. And it found that city staff had "acted unethically by targeting residents, causing inconvenience, financial losses, and loss of property."
The findings showed a clear pattern of contributions made to the mayor's campaign by developers. Frankel hadn't done anything illegal, but the report detailed an atmosphere in which developers knew what was required to grease the wheels of projects at City Hall. In a way, Brandenburg had been giving Northwood Renaissance excellent advice.
Part B of the report dealt with Brandenburg's meeting with Northwood Renaissance. It found Northwood Renaissance's version of their meeting "compelling and credible" and questioned the truth of Brandenburg's testimony.
In 2007, Northwood Renaissance filed a lawsuit against the city alleging that city officials drove the Village Center project into the ground. "When I accepted a position on this board," Fox says now, "I never, ever imagined that I'd get caught up in this kind of political whirlwind."
A spokesperson at the mayor's office says it's not appropriate for Frankel to comment because of the pending litigation. Brandenburg also said she wouldn't comment.
Kim Briesemeister is at the end of her fifth year as director of the West Palm Beach CRA. Her offices in the new City Center are bright and expansive; her staff of seven bustles efficiently through days of planning meetings, fielding phone calls, helping businesses in Northwood finance façade renovations, offering advice on business loans, and working to attract new retail and restaurants to Northwood Village. Staffers are planning a streetscape project on 24th and 25th streets.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, CRA Redevelopment Administrator Grace Joyce and Marketing & Event Coordinator Sharon McCormick-Keiley drive through the Northwood neighborhood. They point to streetscaping in the industrial district and a wall to keep schoolkids from randomly crossing the railroad tracks. They name new businesses moving into storefronts on Northwood Road. Joyce stops her SUV at intervals to wave or chat with residents: a couple running a daycare center, a man watering his lawn.
Ask many of the merchants on Northwood Road how they feel about Briesemeister's CRA and you're likely to see faces light up.
Star Robinson's bakery, Hello Cupcake, opened on Northwood Road in July. Red velvet, Boston cream, and chocolate cheesecake cupcakes line the shelves. Robinson says the CRA's McCormick-Keiley approached him after she tasted one of his cakes at another event. "They were like my fairy godmother," says Robinson. "They helped me find the location and qualify for support. They spent $600 on my grand opening. Newspaper ads. Radio ads."
Robinson is one of more than 40 businesses the CRA has attracted to Northwood in five years — about 30 are still open or scheduled to open soon. On alternate Friday nights, the shops on Northwood Road stay open late and pedestrians stroll past a sidewalk fire-eater. Vendors haggle gently over the price of silver jewelry.
Scott Curry, who has since given up his interior design business on 24th Street, now leases space in his building temporarily to the Center for Creative Education. He credits Briesemeister with giving the neighborhood real direction. "She has literally changed the face of Northwood. It's a 180-degree spinaround. On weekends, people flock down here. Public sentiment has gone from a level of one or two to a nine or ten since she came on."
But the two parcels Northwood Renaissance assembled so painstakingly over four years sit empty. The hotly contested "anchor site" is a vacant lot used for overflow parking during events. A sign advises passersby to contact the CRA for development opportunities. Because of the economy, the city has put off publishing a formal request for proposals. The peeling paint on Alfie's Restaurant Equipment is just as it was in 2002, when Flick took his historic tour, and prostitutes still stalk along Broadway after sunset. Barbed wire and no-trespassing signs ring vacant lots. Wildflowers poke between cracks in the asphalt.
Ask locals about Northwood Renaissance and some express surprise that the group's offices are still open. One or two others carry on the feud with Flick or anonymous posters on internet forums. Northwood Renaissance Executive Director Murray has turned her attention to building affordable housing in the Westgate community of West Palm. Flick, still president of the board, helps shepherd the organization through sales of affordable homes west of Broadway. The nonprofit has expanded its mission and dropped Northwood from its name: It's now Neighborhood Renaissance.
A sign on the Village Center site shows a cheerful Mediterranean-style building with striped awnings, rendered in pastels against a blue sky, offering units for sale at $120,000. There are few takers.
In September, the nonprofit's sluggish lawsuit against the city saw new developments. The mayor briefly entered negotiations with Neighborhood Renaissance, HUD, and the county for the city to take over Village Center and complete it as planned. In exchange, Neighborhood Renaissance would have agreed to drop its lawsuit. But those negotiations too have stalled.
Flick notes the irony. "If the city were to take over and build Village Center," he says, "it would perfectly accord with our mission."
For now, though, it appears that in this decade-long development game, nobody wins.
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