Admittedly, it's one hell of a challenge: how to transform Hollywood's hardscrabble downtown into something architecturally iconic, timeless in its appeal and vibrant where today it's stagnant. Well, nuclear physics is tough too, but there are experts who can do it for you.
Hollywood has no objection to hiring these experts. Its Community Redevelopment Agency paid the Urban Land Institute, which has a record of injecting life into bergs even more mummified than modern-day Hollywood. Ten years ago, the institute's recommendations were roundly cheered, then summarily ignored by a CRA committee led by Mayor Mara Giulianti. More recently, the CRA has paid Miami-based Bernard Zyscovich Associates, whose bill will soon reach $350,000, to design a master plan that contains guidelines commissioners and city staff can use to determine whether a proposed project fits with its overarching goals. But once again, his effort has been delayed by the city.
Zyscovich started in 2004, and in the years since, Hollywood has been waving home massive condo projects like some crazed third-base coach. No city official would ever admit it, but it's apparent that somewhere along the line, commissioners realized that what seemed a problem -- a total lack of development guidelines downtown -- is actually an advantage in luring developers who want cart blanche in designing their towers. Better yet, these developers and their lobbyists could smell the desperation in city hall: commissioners willing to approve any project, no matter how hideous its proportions, and dig deep into the city's coffers for incentives, all to clean up a blighted corner and get some property on the tax rolls. So wrangling handsome incentives from this crew was child's play -- especially for a lobbyist with the combination of campaign dollars and cunning of Alan Koslow.
In the current climate, where South Florida is the overbuilt ground zero for the nationwide collapse of housing values, Hollywood should have finally run out of developer dance partners. And yet, here comes the biggest of them all -- a 25-story colossus currently known as Block 55.
That planned development will be up for a second reading at tomorrow's Hollywood City Commission meeting. An artist's rendering of that project, and the perspective of two commissioners who are poised to vote in favor of it.
This story is too tangled to tell in a single blog post, so let's make this a Juice mini-series. We'll begin by letting the project's proponents have their say.
Commissioner Patty Asseff, who represents Hollywood east of Federal Highway to the beach, is one among the five-commissioner majority that gave approval to the project at its first reading in February. She points out that the developer, Chip Abele, paid a high price for the property, on the northeast corner of Young Circle -- some $26 million.
Abele's purchase was made, of course, before South Florida's housing bubble burst. So Abele has had to make mortgage payments as well as pay taxes on that land, meaning that each passing day eats into his future profit. On October 18, Abele's development group, SFD@Hollywood, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, a move that will allow for the restructuring of debt. Asseff, for one, sympathizes with Abele's plight.
As does Commissioner Linda Sherwood, another member of the five-vote majority. "I feel kind of sorry for this developer," she says, "because this plan has been on the boards for five years. He's been going around trying to give commissioners through the years what they wanted."
This is a point that Abele's lobbyist -- Koslow, naturally -- has made to commissioners in arguing that the developer deserves some incentives to help him pad his profit, even if that's at the city's expense. This line has also proved persuasive to a commission majority.
"There is a certain amount of incentive, yes," says Asseff. "But there should be for someone who will come into our city and make improvements."
Besides, Asseff is in a hurry to do away with downtown blight. "We need to get that Federal Highway corridor cleaned up," she says, an effort that starts with the Townhouse apartments that currently occupy Block 55 and blend in with the seedy motels that line both sides of the highway north and south of the Circle.
That looms large for Sherwood, too. "The main thing is that that horrible, crime-ridden Townhouse apartment building will be torn down," she said. "We want to be able to have people in (Block 55) who are teachers, police officers, nurses -- median income folks, who are responsible-type people."
Those residents, she adds, will make downtown Hollywood a more inviting location for cafes and shops. "We've been attempting for years to get critical mass downtown. We can not get quality retail -- name-brand retail -- without the number of people in the neighborhood who can patronize those businesses."
Plus, the sooner Abele finishes his condo tower, the sooner Hollywood can start collecting taxes from those who buy those units, says Sherwood.
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Opponents of the project complain that Block 55 is yet another major downtown development that comes before the Zyscovich guidelines become official -- a formality that has been pushed back again and again. (Currently, they're schedule for approved this fall.) Sherwood worries that if the commission waits for the guidelines' approval Abele's plan may collapse. "For this guy to have to wait another six or seven months, he could lose his financing -- and he could also lose the Publix."
Yes, the Publix. Another selling point for Abele's development, he would partner with the grocery chain to build a new store to replace the dilapidated one on the east side of the circle. That plaza has been a magnet for transients and other undesirables. Given the current saturated state of the South Florida housing market, there's talk that Abele's group will build the Publix first, then wait for the economic picture to change before breaking ground on the condo tower. That's fine with Asseff. "A new grocery store alone will bring an impetus to downtown," she says.
Asseff is familiar with New Times' reputation for taking a skeptical view of the city's development plans. She denies that the Radius, a condo tower across the street from Block 55 was a blunder, though she admits that it's had to rent out many of its units when they wouldn't sell. Likewise, she admits that Hollywood Station, a big condo development on the other side of town, near Hollywood Boulevard and Dixie Highway, has also had to settle for renters when that, too, was supposed to attract owners, a more conscientious demographic, generally speaking. But still, she says, the positives of Block 55 development out-weigh the negatives, a truth that would be evident if this reporter -- and other skeptics -- "look at it from a business standpoint, not a critical standpoint."
Alas, we will take a critical look at this project in tomorrow's edition of The Juice.