Hush, Money

With just days remaining before Floridians vote on January 29, beachfront development is the hottest issue in South Florida's fiercest political race — that is, if the flow of campaign dollars is any measure.

Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti, buoyed by well-funded allies, is running for reelection as a champion of development. She's challenged by Peter Bober, a Hollywood commissioner, who, along with some of his commission colleagues, has been more skeptical about how development affects Hollywood residents.

Echoing a national trend, Bober is the "change" proponent in the Hollywood mayoralty race, although a call for change also has special resonance in a city that's seen more corruption scandals and policy failures than any other in South Florida. That same change, vague as it might seem, could be a particularly fearsome prospect for Hollywood high-rise developers who have invested in beachfront property hoping that Giulianti will have the votes to continue granting their wishes.

Hollywood Beach is one of the few stretches of South Florida's Atlantic shoreline that is actually underdeveloped, a fact that is obvious even from a skyscraper's perch in New York or Chicago, where Giulianti's biggest donors are. For the builders of condominiums and hotels, a significant obstacle to Hollywood development has been the patchwork of small owners around the beach. At least some of them could stall a large-scale project by stubbornly refusing to sell their land or apartments.

And so we come to the Ramada Hollywood Beach Resort and the attached Oceanwalk Mall. The Ramada parcel of land comprises as much as ten acres, according to one Hollywood official; it dwarfs its neighbors. This jewel sparkles all the more when one considers that it sits at the easternmost point of Hollywood Boulevard, the beach's natural center. One challenge for the Ramada's would-be developer is the building's landmark status.

Erected in 1926 by Hollywood founder Joseph Young, the building, originally the Hollywood Beach Hotel, was once one of the poshest addresses in South Florida. It was designed "to be an iconic form and destination for Hollywood Beach," says Bernard Zyskovich, an architect appointed by the Giulianti administration to forge a new master plan for Hollywood. Today, it's the last standing example of Mediterranean Revival design in Hollywood Beach. Last year, a city panel identified it as the centerpiece of its historic overlay district, which is intended to protect Hollywood Beach's architectural character from speculative development.

But time has been cruel to the hotel, which has endured a series of bad ideas, starting with an art deco redesign in the 1940s and, in the 1980s, the addition of the Oceanwalk Mall, a dim, low-ceilinged emporium that has proven hostile to shoppers. The mall's retail tenants aren't any happier. It's a frustration shared by small investors who own many of the 360 rooms at the Ramada, which was converted to condominiums; they are on the horns of a dilemma, trying to choose between setting rents high enough to recoup property-tax costs and low enough to remain occupied.

From a slight remove, this same situation could be an opportunity for a bigger investor to buy out the many small owners and give the property a new focus, unlocking greater profit potential from, say, a luxury hotel complex. But the best indication that Hollywood's prime beachfront property may be in play is found in campaign finance reports, which for the first time have been made available on the city's website.

An entity operating under the name Oceanwalk Mall LLC appears responsible for some of the biggest donations to development-friendly candidates in Hollywood. Under that name and through several associated companies that share the same address on New York City's Fifth Avenue, the Oceanwalk Mall group has given $9,000 to Giulianti and $5,500 to incumbent Hollywood Commissioner Cathy Anderson. It has also given $2,500 each to incumbent Hollywood Commissioner Fran Russo, who's running unopposed, and Hollywood Commission candidate Linda Sherwood. Their districts are not even in Hollywood Beach.

The biggest checks in the Hollywood races, however, are likely those written to the law firm of Becker & Poliakoff. That firm represents Oceanwalk Mall, is paid to lobby for Hollywood in Tallahassee, and enjoys close relationships with Giulianti and other commissioners. From 2004 to 2006, according to a Miami Herald report, Becker & Poliakoff's record for earning yes votes from the Hollywood Commission was 32-0.

Becker & Poliakoff partner Alan Koslow, a former Hollywood city attorney, also represents MCZ Centrum Florida, the only developer that has given even more money to Hollywood politicians than Oceanwalk Mall has. Chicago-based MCZ Centrum's donations apparently have a more straightforward goal than Oceanwalk Mall's: MCZ Centrum is in the midst of converting three apartment buildings to condos and wants to stay in the good graces of city officials.

Oceanwalk Mall LLC's objectives are harder to divine. Giulianti, Anderson ,and Sherwood, who have taken money from the group, say they do not know its intentions. Koslow did not return phone calls, nor did Bober. Other than campaign contributions, the group has not taken any of the steps that would normally bring greater scrutiny, such as submitting plans to Hollywood's Department of Planning and Zoning or giving public presentations. Ron Kaletsky owns a T-shirt shop in the Oceanwalk Mall and sits on the Planning and Zoning Board, but he says he's as much in the dark as the next person; Koslow, he says, won't confide in him.

David Hess manages the Ramada Hollywood Beach Resort and is the property manager of its condo association; these and associated organizations at the same address have given $2,500 to Giulianti's reelection campaign. Hess says his organizations intend to launch a renovation project that would return the Ramada to its original grandeur. He declined to say how much that is estimated to cost and said he would show plans for the renovation to New Times in February, after the Hollywood election has been decided. Hess would not describe his discussions with Oceanwalk Mall LLC, although he said he believes his renovation would complement that group's plans for the Ramada property.

Oceanwalk Mall LLC's real objective may be hiding in plain view.

In May 2007, Koslow went before the Hollywood Commission to describe his clients' interest in a $300 million mixed-use development at the Ramada site. Wouldn't that scale of project mean building on top of the historic Hollywood Beach Resort?

"It would have to," Zyskovich says. "If you can't tear down the existing building, then you'd have to build behind it, which would require a building with height."

Great height, because behind the sprawling hotel, there's precious little real estate separating it from the city's Broadwalk, which has its own historic protections, and the beach.

Zyskovich talked to Koslow about the project as recently as a month ago, he says, but "I don't know what he's working on. I don't know who is involved. All I know is that Alan is talking about something big happening there."

The parameters of the city's historic overlay district restrict something big there; that's the point of a height limit that requires special dispensation for structures over 50 feet. "It gives [the city] veto power over what a project might be," Zyskovich explains. To exceed those limits "would require more than a variance," he says; it would need a new ordinance. If an exception to the district's rules were to be made, the Ramada property is where it should happen, Zysko­vich says, "but it should only be for the right project." The City of Hollywood wants to "bring the ownership interests into alignment" at the Ramada property, he adds.

That need not be controversial or partisan, it would appear. Every candidate interviewed for this article said the city should expedite improvements to the Ramada hotel and mall property. And even Sara Case, a leading critic of Koslow's who is running for a City Commission seat, says she'd put her grudge aside if it meant that a city landmark would get a face-lift.

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Thomas Francis