Suddenly, members of the Dolphin Isles Homeowners Association faced a moral dilemma: Should they abandon principle and take a payoff?
Their decision may launch a new era in Fort Lauderdale politics. In what city officials say is a first, neighborhood groups confronted with a controversial project have struck a deal with the developer, trading support for money.
"The message to people is that everything can go as long as we get money... that material benefits can be more important than our beliefs," Lopez says. "That scares me very, very much."
Lopez was president of the Dolphin Isles association when the money deal was negotiated with developers of BridgeSide Square, a fifteen-story apartment and office tower proposed for about five acres just south of Oakland Park Boulevard and west of State Road A1A.
The homeowners association of Dolphin Isles, a neighborhood of single-family homes between NE 19th and NE 29th streets, at first opposed the $44 million project. Then the developers, Dallas-based Sapphire Properties, sat down with association members. Out of those negotiations came a proposal: Dolphin Isles would reverse its position and support BridgeSide Square; in return Sapphire Properties would give the association $100,000 for neighborhood improvements.
Lopez said no, but the association voted to take the money. She held to her principles and quit.
"I resigned because they asked us to speak in favor of the project when we were speaking against it. This is a very strong issue for me. It was too much for me to put my signature on that piece of paper.
"I realized our chances to defeat the project were almost none, but I had to stand on my principle. They are overbuilding here. We have traffic problems. We are turning this area into an unfriendly area with so many high buildings."
Spencer Lloyd, who took over as Dolphin Isles president, supported the $100,000 agreement based on recent political history. More than a year ago, some Dolphin Isles residents fought The Palms, a 30-story apartment complex on the beach at NE 21st Street. The city permitted less-strict height and density requirements to allow the project, which residents say will cause too much traffic on the beach.
When the BridgeSide deal was presented to the association, some residents remembered The Palms defeat, Lloyd said, and didn't want to put up another fight only to lose again and have nothing to show for it.
"By the time it was presented to us, we had the understanding that it was a done deal," Lloyd said. "We got so burned with The Palms.... The majority voted in favor of taking the $100,000. We as homeowners were getting hosed, so we scrambled around to get money for our beautification project."
In return Dolphin Isles switched positions on BridgeSide. In July resident Jack Cummings had stood before the planning and zoning board to oppose the project on behalf of the association. He accused the board of changing density calculations to permit the project.
After the developer's agreement was signed, however, Cummings sent city officials a letter on Dolphin Isles letterhead supporting the project.
"Jack Cummings has been one of the fiercest opposers," Vice Mayor Tim Smith said. "When I got a letter from him saying he supported it, I almost fell off my chair."
The vice mayor's political analysis: "They've been bought off. Everybody's got a price."
Smith, who attended some of the discussions over the agreement, explained what went on: "They were concerned about traffic, so the developer gave them sidewalks, a gated guardhouse, traffic lights. They were still opposed, and the developer said, 'What will it take?' Then one neighborhood said, 'It'll take $100,000.'"
Sapphire executive Stan Cameron, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, defended the agreement.
"We don't consider it a payoff," Cameron says. "It was a way for us to do something to improve the area.... We were asked to participate in community improvements and we agreed. It's a really good project for the community and the city. It will turn around a blighted area."
Dolphin Isles wasn't the only beneficiary of Sapphire's generosity. The developer also signed a $120,000 agreement with the Lauderdale Beach Homeowners Association for improvements to that neighborhood east of A1A between Oakland Park Boulevard and NE 19th Street.
Lauderdale Beach Homeowners Association President Ron Mastriana, an attorney who at times represents beachfront developers, did not return phone calls seeking comment on the agreement, but a copy of it is on file with the city.
In the Lauderdale Beach agreement, Sapphire promises to give the association a $20,000 cashier's check after the first building permit is issued. That money is to be used for "constructing an entrance feature" at A1A and NE 27th Avenue.
Another $10,000 is to be placed in a trust account upon final approval by the city commission. When the first permits are issued for the project, Sapphire will deposit $90,000 in the trust account. If government agencies agree, the $100,000 is to be used for street alterations to prevent BridgeSide traffic from going into the neighborhood. If the money is not used within twelve months, it goes into the association's bank account.
In exchange for the money, the homeowners association agrees to "publicly support owner's requests for all approvals required by the appropriate governmental authorities to permit the construction and operation of the project."
Dolphin Isles residents said their agreement is similar to Lauderdale Beach's but refused to release a copy.
When completed the fifteen-story BridgeSide Square tower will include 246 apartment units, 15,000 square feet of retail space, and 25,000 square feet of office space. An adjacent five-story building will include 1088 parking spaces.
To build the project, the developer needed public land that included two streets, an alley ,and the 279-meter parking lot in front of Shooters and Bootlegger's restaurants. The city gave the developer that land, about half the nearly five-acre site, according to Vice Mayor Smith.
The site is in Smith's district, and he supported the project on the commission's first vote. A final vote on the project is scheduled for December 9.
"The reason I supported it is because the good outweighs the bad," Smith said. "There may be more traffic down there, but we get new infrastructure and development in a troubled area.
"This $100,000 [agreement] is brand new, but it makes sense," he said. "If you're going to tax the infrastructure, you ought to mitigate it. They are just mitigating any negative effects their project will produce. That neighborhood will be nicer than ever when that thing is all said and done."
Not everyone agrees.
"It's way too dense, too bulky, just too much," said Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle, the only commissioner to vote against BridgeSide. "It's one thing when a developer buys land and develops it, but this is being done on city land. It's amazing, this deal. The city is giving away a city parking lot."
Of the $100,000 agreements, Naugle said, "I'm not sure the neighborhoods are in favor of [BridgeSide]. But I think they felt there's no way to stop it, and they wanted to get as much as they could out of it."
The developer's agreement troubles Gary Sieger, president of the North Beach Island Alliance, a group of homeowners and condo associations on the beach between Sunrise and Oakland Park boulevards.
"I give BridgeSide Square all the credit in the world for trying to work with the neighborhood, but I think the language in that agreement sets a dangerous precedent," Sieger says. "It says that a developer can go into a neighborhood and get unconditional support for a project. That's what they get for their money.