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Heartbreak Hotel

Face it, Hollywood. Compared with the other beaches that line the South Florida coast, you're the ugly duckling.

Your beachfront condos look like military barracks. Your shops are all chipped paint, faded awnings, and kitsch merchandise. Hell, even your sunbathers are eyesores — oblivious, it seems, to The South Beach Diettm forbidding carbs.

But don't fret. What you lack in good looks you make up for in character. On a coastline fast becoming uniform, yours is the only one that has been spared the inevitable row of high-rise condos, insufferably trendy bars, and $40-a-plate restaurants.

Unpopularity has its virtues. Hollywood Beach allows a person to drive — and park! — within 50 yards of the sand. It has the singular quality of being affordable: For $20, you and a friend can have a decent meal. And on the Hollywood Broadwalk, you won't run into the fashionable and tragically wealthy. Everyone's free to chill — and isn't that what beaches are for?

Yes, these are special qualities, essential not just because Hollywood Beach should rightly have its own identity but because South Florida ought to offer variety in beach experiences. So although it might be tempting for some to give the area an extreme makeover, no redevelopment plan should detract from Hollywood Beach's novel unchic.

One of the most important bulwarks against a needless transformation of Hollywood into another Sunny Isles has been the coastline's first line of defense: the small, inexpensive beach motels that have so far held back a wave of sprawling, upscale resorts and condo megatowers. Placed on small parcels that divide beach property into a crazy quilt of land lots, the small motels present a huge headache for developers hoping to assemble enough acreage for a major project. And city codes place limits on the height and density of buildings in the central and north portions of the beach.

But now, a tsunami of new pressures is coming at motel owners that threatens to wipe away the village pace of life on Hollywood Beach. As one of the few remaining strips of underdeveloped coastline, the land has appreciated dramatically, doubling and tripling the cost of property taxes in the past year alone. The hurricanes of 2005 had a similar multiplying effect on insurance rates. And small inns don't have enough rooms to generate the kind of revenue they need to keep pace with rising operating expenses.

The only thing holding back a total onslaught of new development, it seems, is the crappy housing market itself, which is making developers think twice about adding to the glut of new condos until prices start heading up again. But after an abysmal 2006, the housing market is showing signs of a rebound. Another boom may be around the corner. And with pie-in-the-sky downtown development projects like the Hollywood Arts District and Tango Gardens failing, city officials will be searching for new sources of tax revenue — finding them, perhaps, through high-rise, high-density buildings on the beach.

Some motel owners are standing firm. Others know the game is up and are bailing out. And real estate agents, naturally, are swirling like sharks, smelling blood in the water. One agent expressed mild shock when, in a conversation, New Times wondered how land values could keep skyrocketing under decades-old motels, some dramatically showing their age. The agent tried to clue us in.

"They'll all be gone in five years," she said.

She may be right.

In 2003, Liz Woods, a nurse, sold her home health care business in chilly La Crosse, Wisconsin, and headed to Hollywood Beach. With the $350,000 that was her life's savings, Woods bought the Sun & Surf, an 18-room motel on Indiana Street. It was "run-down" and "roach-infested," Woods says, but with a $150,000 line of credit, she and her fiance, Kevin, figured they could fix up the place.

To save money, the couple did most of the renovation work themselves, and since they could generate income only after completing the project, they toiled long hours. "We crawled home at 10 or 11 at night," Woods says. "Then we were back here at 8 a.m. That was our life for nine months."

The motel attracted middle-class tourists from the Northeast, Canada, and Europe who appreciated the weekly rates of around $500 and fully furnished kitchens where they could cook their own meals.

In her first year, Woods appeared to be another success story on the one South Florida beach that has a tradition of rewarding middle-class investors.

But long before the hurricanes made landfall, an unnatural disaster loomed: the Hollywood Grande's arrival next door.

Originally, developer Fabrizio Passalacqua's plan called for 145 hotel rooms along Ocean Drive. Then he revised it, adding condos and height to his project. The new design would have 226 units in buildings that would reach 91 feet, casting Woods' small hotel into shadows.

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Thomas Francis

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