Broward News

Critics Give Take on the Newest, Tallest Condo on Hollywood's Young Circle

No city in Broward County has high stakes development decisions like Hollywood. It's why for the last decade it's become an emotionally charged issue. For all the fine points that fill the debate, the argument comes down to whether you believe the city should accommodate the developer or if the developer should accommodate the city. The projects have changed, but the debate has not.

In Monday's post about the Block 25 project, planned for the northeast corner of Young Circle and Federal Highway, commissioners Patty Asseff and Linda Sherwood argued that the city should be grateful to developer, Chip Abele, for his willingness to build in Hollywood. For this he's entitled to a big share of the future taxes the city would collect on the property, as well as the right to design his condo tower as a "planned development," or just "PD" -- status that frees him from the zoning guidelines that tend to cut into profit margins. Last evening, in a 5-2 decision, the Hollywood City Commission gave Abele his PD.

The culture of giving developers incentives and architectural cart blanche is, for better or worse, the legacy of former Mayor Mara Giulianti. And despite her defeat in January 2008, a majority of the commission still subscribes to Guilianti principles. Commissioner Heidi O'Sheehan, who was elected that same month, is in the minority.

"Unfortunately, there's this feeling in the city that if we don't say 'Yes' to everything, (developers) are just going to walk away and not build anything," says O'Sheehan. "And I don't believe that."

Hollywood, she argues, is selling itself short: "This is prime real estate in South Florida -- there aren't a lot of places left to develop. We're holding a lot of cards that we can bargain with."

More from O'Sheehan, and the city activists who take her view on developing Hollywood's downtown, after the jump.

In July the city's Community Redevelopment Agency hired Miami urban designer Bernard Zyscovich to revise a master plan he crafted in 2004 that was never formally recognized. Abele and his backers on the commission are eager to lock in planned-development status before that happens .

This seems a contradiction. Zyscovich is being paid to ensure a city design in which individual projects fit within a collective vision, while the commission is doing the opposite -- letting each project define the collective vision. And Block 55 development is just the latest example.

Or at least that's how it seems to Terry Cantrell, president of the Hollywood Lakes Civic Association, whose members have lobbied hard against letting the project get in line ahead of the Zyscovich plan. "The city has spent $200,000 to do the (Zyscovich) master plan and zoning recommendations," says Cantrell. It could have delayed approval for Abele's project until Zyscovich's ideas became permanent policy. "Why not wait another couple of weeks?" he asks.

Activist Sara Case lost narrowly in the January 2008 election to Asseff, an event that had big implications for Hollywood development. Case wonders why the commissioners don't trust Zyscovich. "They hire him, and then they don't pay attention to him," she says. "How can they substitute their judgment for the judgment of a professional planner like Zyscovich?"

Supporters of the Hollywood Circle development caution that by delaying its approval, the city would not only risk losing the project, it might make the city vulnerable to a lawsuit. That threat seems implicit in the commission presentations by lobbyist Alan Koslow.

"I think that's a bogus argument," says Case. And if the city really wanted to protect itself from legal action, she adds, it would have called for a "zoning in progress" that freezes new development until new design guidelines and regulations can be adopted. Hollywood has not done so.

While Abele's group may have started the development review in September 2007, Cantrell points out that the developer didn't apply for zoning changes until this past November -- four months after Zyscovich's arrival. By that time the developer should have known that the city's plans were fluid.

No one on either side of the debate disputes that the Block 55 property, where the Hollywood Circle would rise, needs a new look. The Town House apartments are there today. An unsightly and unsafe presence, which along with the seedy motels that line both sides of Federal Highway north and south, the Town House plays a role in populating the Publix plaza on the east side of Young Circle with transients and other menacing characters who discourage pedestrian commerce downtown.

And while those who favor the Hollywood Circle condo argue that a new Publix alone might make the development worthwhile, O'Sheehan sees potential disaster if, as planned, the Publix gets built before the condo. What's to keep the same unseemly elements from getting comfortable in the new supermarket? It's an even bigger concern for those who are convinced that it may be a long time before the South Florida market conditions improve to the point where Abele's group is ready to start building.

Certainly, Abele must have noticed that the only two recent downtown projects comparable to his -- Hollywood Station west of downtown and The Radius, which is just across the street from Block 55 -- have both struggled to sell units.

"It's all about 'critical mass' downtown," says Cantrell, borrowing a phrase popular among supporters of this project, who used that same term in advancing previous projects. "But Hollywood Station isn't near full. The Radius isn't near full. Neither project has fulfilled the need for people downtown."

Even if the best-case scenario takes hold -- that the Hollywood Circle gets built in the next three years -- there's a slew of other, less catostrophic but still worrisome possibilities. Aesthetically, many believe the building is, at 25 stories, much too tall. Certainly, it exceeds the height limit that Zyscovich has recommended in the draft version of his plan.

Cantrell says the proposed development is too dense -- that the floor-to-area ratio suggests a completed tower with all 424 units occupied would overwhelm downtown streets and make parking impossible. Especially so when one factors in the mammoth development just across Young Circle on its southeast side, called the ArtsPark Village, which would be 22 stories high and have 423 condo units.

The ArtsPark Village, of course, inherited the site of the Hollywood Art District, or HART, which is a tragic chapter in Hollywood development history and which seems to have lots in common with the Hollywood Circle. Both are huge projects being advanced by developers with little experience working on that scale, whose profitability hinges on the city's generosity with public funds, and which offer multi-faceted selling points that may not be realistic.

In the case of HART, there were plans for a charter school and a theater, in addition to the condo units. The charter school happened, but the project went belly-up before anything else could. The city lost a $3.5 million investment it made on the front end, a political error the commission tried to correct in negotiating with the site's new developers. But when the ArtsPark Village developers complained about having to pay that debt, the commission agreed to drop the condition in exchange for the tower's being topped off at 23 as opposed to 26 stories. A high price to pay for a plan revision that could have been negotiated at no expense by simply insisting on height limits.

O'Sheehan remembers that episode all too vividly, and she brought it up in a Monday meeting with Abele, "I tried to say, 'Tell me how I can explain to residents that I spent $3.5 million of taxpayer money to bring down a project three stories, and I'm going to turn around and approve this project for three more stories,'" she recalls. "I don't know how I can justify that."

Along with Commissioner Richard Blattner, O'Sheehan voted against approving the site plan for the Hollywood Circle at yesterday's meeting. But five commissioners voted in favor of it. The next phase calls for a master development agreement that gives specifics on the building's design.

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Thomas Francis