The Mayor's New Digs

The Villas of Positano will offer the height of luxury living in Hollywood when the development project is completed in December.

Located on Hollywood Beach, just south of Sheridan Street and North Beach Park, the project will rest in front of 200 feet of pristine sand kept pearly white by expensive, publicly funded beach nourishment programs. Residents will enjoy a whirlpool spa, attentive valets, 24-hour security, and a concierge.

Who wouldn't want to live there? On November 7, 2005, Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti and her husband, Donald, a retired neurosurgeon, put a down payment on a two-bedroom, two-and-half-bathroom condo at Villas of Positano.

"Three bedrooms were too expensive," Giulianti tells New Times.

Their seventh-floor, 3,038-square-foot condo will include two parking spaces and an eight-by-seven-foot storage locker. "Plus, it has incredible views of the Atlantic Ocean and North Beach Park," says Bobby Auerbach, a sales associate and project coordinator at Villas of Positano. Similar units range in price from $875,000 to $1.5 million.

Mayor Mara is movin' on up.

But Hollywood taxpayers are paying for some amenities that could make her property even more valuable.

The Villas of Positano — whose developer, Lojeta Group, gave $500, the legal maximum, to Giulianti's 2004 reelection campaign a few weeks before she voted to approve the $80 million, nine-story project — has benefited from roughly $10 million in public incentives and infrastructure investments, some of which Giulianti championed while sitting on the dais at City Hall.

It's all coincidence, the mayor claims. "I didn't benefit," she says.

The Hollywood City Commission has a long track record of offering huge incentives to politically connected developers. Projects such as Radius, La Piazza II, and Young Circle Commons have received millions of dollars in cash, land, and fee waivers. A proposed project south of downtown, called Metro Hollywood, could fetch $8 million in public incentives if approved. By contrast, the largest residential development in Fort Lauderdale, Las Olas River House, received just $1.6 million in incentives through the waiver of impact fees.

In the case of Villas of Positano, the Hollywood City Commission approved its first incentive in December 2004. And it was a whopper: a $2 million cash gift from the city's Beach Community Redevelopment Agency. The city mandated that Lojeta Group would have to use the money to renovate North Beach Park — upgrades that would only make condos at Villas of Positano more valuable to the developer and future owners. In exchange, according to the agreement drafted by city staff, the condo association at Villas of Positano would be required to maintain the public area adjacent to the project.

Giulianti rejected the incentive. The mayor didn't have a problem with using public money to benefit private developers, but she didn't like that Villas of Positano residents would be required to maintain the public area surrounding the development.

"Street ends and parks ought to be maintained by the city or CRA, not private homeowners," Giulianti told the Sun-Sentinel in December 2004. "I think it is just a terrible precedent."

The City Commission approved the agreement over Giulianti's dissenting vote.

In less than a year, however, Giulianti became one of those private homeowners. By objecting to the agreement, she had ended up defending the financial interests of the condo association she would soon join.

"I guess you think that was done so that I wouldn't have to pay to fix up my sidewalk," Giulianti says. "Guess again. I didn't benefit from that either."

Yet the public money that Giulianti claims she didn't benefit from just kept coming.

On December 20, 2005, the City Commission, acting in its authority as the city's Beach Community Redevelopment Agency, voted unanimously to earmark $8 million to bury utility lines along 52 blocks of Hollywood Beach. The first leg of the project will include eight beachfront blocks south of Sheridan Street, an area that includes Villas of Positano.

Giulianti voted in favor of the project despite having filed a disclosure with the city, as required by state law, of her potential conflict of interest. On the form, Giulianti did not volunteer specifics of her financial transaction.

Giulianti tells New Times that she is paying for the condo with the money she will earn by selling her house in Emerald Hills, a five-bedroom, three-bathroom house she and her husband purchased in 1979 for $192,000. Giulianti says she did not receive a special price from the developer of Villas of Positano.

"The enormous appreciation in my home over the last 30 years is the reason that I will be able to afford the expensive condo," Giulianti says.

However, when pressed, Giulianti refused to disclose the amount of her down payment or purchase price. "I don't need to fuel anybody's prurient interests about how much I can afford," Giulianti says.

No matter what Giulanti paid (and we'll know eventually), we still wondered whether the mayor had run afoul of Florida ethics law by voting to spend $8 million to bury power lines in her new neighborhood — a public expenditure that will likely benefit her property value.

"The law requires a public official to abstain if the measure that is being considered would affect their private gain or loss or the private gain or loss of a principal, such as a client," says Helen Jones, a spokeswoman for the Florida Commission on Ethics. Jones would not comment specifically on Giulianti's case.

Hollywood City Attorney Dan Abbott says that because so many properties will benefit from the power line burial, the potential boon to Giulianti's pocketbook isn't enough to constitute a conflict. He also says state law mandated that Giulianti had no choice but to cast a vote for or against the measure.

For her part, the Hollywood mayor is unapologetic. She claims that her votes affecting Villas of Positano are no different from another elected official's voting for a city park in his district. Besides, she doesn't plan to flip her condo, even though the neighborhood will be even more desirable after the utility lines are buried. "I'm buying the condo to live in — not selling it — so if the value increases, it wouldn't be much of a benefit."

In fact, Giulianti is angered that she's even being questioned about the condo deal. Her role as mayor doesn't give the public the right to know her personal business, she says.

"This shouldn't even be a story," Giulianti says. "It's a disgrace and a total invasion of my privacy... Please stop harrassing me because some people don't believe I have the right to live anywhere I choose in Hollywood."

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson