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Hooray for Hollywood

Florida's Hollywood is the unglamorous one. Sure, the city has a lively little downtown entertainment district, where on most evenings the scent of Argentine grilled beef shares the air with pizza, where reggae jostles against blaring salsa and the rhythmic thump of electronic beats.

But, though Hollywood calls itself "the Diamond of the Gold Coast," there's nothing glitzy about the single-family bungalows and boxy apartment buildings that surround downtown. On Hollywood Beach, the sun rises slowly over the bold, bipolar silhouette of the 998-room Westin Diplomat, but the Broadwalk is still cluttered with cute, modest, art deco-style hotels, eschewing trendy nightclubs for casual sports bars.

Tinseltown it's not.

Celebrities? Well, maybe one. That would be Mayor Mara Giulianti, an auburn-haired firebrand who dominates the city's politics the way Daley did Chicago. The imperious Giulianti has a "vision": to wake this somnolent town of 145,000 so it can realize its — or at least, her — big-city ambitions.

Under Giulianti, Hollywood's historic Young Circle has become wreathed by condo towers, spurred largely by tens of millions in developer incentives that, according to the assurances of the Giulianti administration, will produce hundreds of millions in future tax revenues. It's a similar story on the beach, where, in Giulianti's far-seeing view, Ocean Drive could become a canyon of condos and resorts. Hollywood, like Fort Lauderdale and Hallandale Beach, had much to gain from South Florida's housing boom.

Now that it's gone bust, though, Hollywood has the most to lose.

In what may be an alarming harbinger, one $100 million project in Young Circle, called HART (for Hollywood Art District), has already defaulted on its loans. With construction costs rising to unprecedented levels, developers and real estate analysts say new Hollywood condos will have a hard time keeping costs low enough to sell units, making it hard for them to keep pace with their own loan payments.

Other coastal cities in Broward have hopes that soon-to-arrive slot machines will help fill city coffers in lean times. But Hollywood, at least in part because of Giulianti's anti-gambling efforts, is out in the cold on this front. The city has no pari-mutuel venue within its city limits, though it stands at the crossroads of legal gambling in the county — with Gulfstream Park, Dania Jai-Alai, and Mardi Gras Race Track & Gaming Center all within a mile of Hollywood. In fact, Hollywood waged an anti-gambling lobbying campaign before the March 2005 referendum in which voters voted for slots in the county. The result? Hollywood gets none of the loot and all of the traffic.

A pall seems to have settled on Giulianti's city. 2006 has been a year of defeat, retrenchment, scandal, and bluster. City government has never suffered from such a crisis in public confidence.

On the legal front, a string of high-profile defeats seems to speak to mismanagement at numerous levels, including the City Commission. For example, a discrimination suit brought against the city by the Hollywood Community Synagogue Chabad Lubavitch ended in June with a $2 million settlement and a promise that commissioners would attend classes in religious land-use laws. Then the city was thwarted in a controversial eminent-domain gambit, derailing one of the mayor's priority projects. The Hollywood Police Department last month lost a judgment in an age-discrimination suit against its own chief, at a cost exceeding $2 million.

Adding to the municipal woes, Hollywood's brand of no-holds-barred wheeling and dealing boiled over last month into one of the juiciest scandals in the city's history. Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom was charged with using his public position to perform private lobbying services for a wastewater management company. New disclosures from prosecutors in that case suggest that Giulianti herself may be in danger of indictment.

The one person who ought to feel a sense of urgency, who has the power to steer the city away from calamity, is the one person who's most dedicated to staying the course. "Regarding Hollywood and its renaissance," Giulianti says, "I'm as optimistic as ever."

In public remarks, Giulianti has touted a new generation of Hollywood residents who would fill the downtown and beachside condos, their cosmopolitan tastes providing impetus for retail development in both districts.

Partly as a consequence of the city's courting this population, property taxes have stayed high, which social service agencies say is starting to affect a population on the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum: Hollywood's working poor.

The high property taxes have forced apartment buildings to raise rents, a result that has led to the evictions of tenants who have fixed incomes or work low-wage jobs. Suddenly, these people must search for new homes.

"My feeling is that they haven't left [Hollywood] — and that's why I'm being bombarded by unsheltered people," says Tammy Morton, executive director of Jubilee Center, an agency near Dixie Highway that serves free lunches to the impoverished. For the first time, she's found herself helping people who have jobs and income but no homes. "They don't know where to go."

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Thomas Francis

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