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South Florida's Housing Crisis Leaves Behind Ghost Towers

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CityPlace South Tower was part of the building frenzy in West Palm Beach — a city that, according to annual census estimates, issued building permits for 9,000 residential units from 2002 to 2007, more than double the number issued in the previous six years. City leaders were trying to revive downtown shops and reap millions of dollars in tax revenue. "The city is on fire," Mayor Lois Frankel said excitedly in 2004. "All of a sudden, it is going to be a boom. There is going to be a huge transformation in the next few years."

Condos at CityPlace South Tower were supposed to sell for $500,000 to $800,000. According to property appraiser records, 37 of the 420 condos have been sold. But there's no way to know how many of those buyers actually live in the building or which units the developer, Related Group, has simply decided to rent out. Just like at Tao, some buyers have filed lawsuits trying to get their deposits back. A local real estate consultant, Christina Morrison Pearce, recently proposed converting the building into a hotel to support its neighbor, the Palm Beach County Convention Center. But Pearce says the mortgage on the building is still too high for her buyers, and county leaders were not eager to embrace the idea.

Leah Weatherspoon, a spokesperson for Related Group, said she would answer only emailed questions for this article. Then she did not respond to the email New Times sent.

"It's quiet, you know what I mean?" the valet, Patterson, says. "You get to use all the amenities you want."

Saved by the Highest Bidder: Radius, Hollywood

Sara Gordon is convinced she got an amazing deal. The 28-year-old went hunting for her first house three months before the stock market crashed. She paid $300,000 for a two-bedroom condo with views of the Atlantic Ocean and the ArtsPark in downtown Hollywood.

"It's supercool," she says, as she heads out one evening near Young Circle. Along with the rooftop pool, the home theater, and the restaurants in walking distance, she found the ultimate perk: "I have Starbucks in my building."

This kind of enthusiasm is what investors had in mind when 200 people camped out on the street five years ago to buy homes in Radius. The 311-unit pair of curved white towers was to be the first large residential development along Young Circle in three decades. The City of Hollywood, which was trying to ditch its scrappy, working-stiff reputation and attract more Boca-style residents downtown, chipped in $11 million in incentives for the project.

In 2006, then-Mayor Mara Giulianti was a cheerleader for Radius and other high-end condos, which put to shame the faded, Three's Company-era apartments and cheap motels that had stood near Young Circle for years. By contrast, the new developments were heralded as beacons of luxury that would draw hordes of clean-cut yuppies. "Certainly there aren't a zillion people knocking on our doors to stick anything on U.S. 1," she said at the time. "Certainly not with stainless steel and granite tops. I think it brings energy, and I think it brings young people who love this type of living."

The plan worked — sort of. Plenty of young people such as Gordon live near Young Circle, but they are more Publix shoppers than moneyed socialites. Meanwhile, Radius has given up selling glamour in favor of selling anything at all.

"You've got to redefine success," says Andrew Gardner, vice president of condo operations for Lane Co., which partnered with Hollywood developer FIRM Realty to build Radius. "Success right now, for any developer, is to get rid of its inventory at a number that allows it to fight another day."

In fact, Radius was one of the lucky ones. It was approved for occupancy in December 2007, and 190 of the original buyers closed their deals before the real estate market collapsed, Gardner says. After that, his company's strategy was to sacrifice profits in the name of survival. Last November, Lane auctioned off 40 Radius units at prices that began as low as $90,000. This helped the company find out exactly what buyers were willing to pay, which in some cases was half the original price. "Compared to three years ago, no, it's a bloodbath," Gardner admits.

He estimates the building is only about 64 percent occupied — and that includes renters and seasonal residents. But he says 85 percent of the units have been sold and closed, and that makes Radius seem positively miraculous compared to competitors such as Tao and CityPlace South Tower.

Of course, not every detail of life at Radius is worth celebrating. Gordon pays $740 a month in maintenance fees, a price she believes is "compensating for the unsold units." (Gardner says this is simply how much the amenities cost.) The building has even started charging residents for valet parking.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab

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