Towering Rage

From his office on the 12th floor of the Las Olas Centre, Don Hall's view stretches across the New River to take in regal yachts, fine mansions, and open skies. Hall says he likes open spaces. He even owned a ranch in Wyoming once, which explains his office's Western décor. Yet blocking that expansive view of the New River is his "fondest wish," he says — and Hall, a lawyer, is the corporate muscle to make it happen.

From his office perch, Hall can peer down at the Stranahan House, a two-story reminder of Fort Lauderdale's pioneer past. That's where he contends all the trouble began, with the house's preservation-minded supporters. Hall's clients, developers Related Group and Rabina Properties, have been trying for eight years to build Icon, a high-rise luxury condo building, next to the Stranahan House. Supporters of the house and the City of Fort Lauderdale have fought back, saying 42 stories of swanky skyboxes will cast a shadow over one of the few remaining pieces of the city's past. There have been charges and countercharges, votes and scuttled deals. Now, Hall is spearheading a new tack: His clients are suing the nonprofit Stranahan House, its supporters, and a single critic of Icon, asking for unspecified damages. Why?

Because, among other things, Hall says, they have defamed the would-be skyscraper and its developers. And concerns about the historic house and its environs have delayed Icon's construction, which kept his clients from being able to cash out at the height of the South Florida condo boom.

There are those who would see in this litigation an attempt to muzzle the public or at least an effort to curb those few citizens with the effrontery to wonder whether it must be Fort Lauderdale's fate to have high-rise condos on every downtown block. Some think this is a SLAPP suit, an acronym for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.

The idea behind a SLAPP suit is that a big fish, like a real-estate developer, intimidates little fish, like a nonprofit preservation group, through the burden of legal costs. Winning in court is secondary. Marc Randazza, a law professor at Barry University, says it's the defamation charge that sticks in his craw. Of the suit, launched in April, he says, "I'm stunned that a licensed attorney signed this."

Nonsense, Hall says. "If this were a SLAPP suit, it would have been filed several years ago. SLAPP suits are designed to discourage people from commenting. Well, the Stranahan House has commented for eight years... This was filed because our clients finally said, 'Enough is enough.' "

After all the tussling, Hall's clients don't want to build somewhere else. The parcel they hold is "the best site in Broward County — one of the best in South Florida — for a luxury condominium," Hall says.

Why is that?

Hall laughs and puts his loafered feet on a table. "Well, look at it," he says. "Its location. It's on the river. It's Las Olas."

The suit accuses Stranahan House supporters of harming the developers' reputations by making false statements and calling them "greedy."

"Isn't that the purpose of most business, to make money?" Randazza asks. "You can't say that a developer is greedy? It's insane."

If Stranahan House supporters have crimped Icon's sales, Gary Schwartz hasn't noticed. Or maybe he's just a really good actor.

A playful pug named Daisy and offers of Perrier greet visitors inside the Icon sales center at 500 E. Las Olas Blvd. Fashion-forwardness is all around, even before the name-dropping starts — Kohler faucets, Franke sinks, Jado rain showerheads. Schwartz, one of five salespeople, glides toward the entrance. His chiseled face and dazzling blue eyes could dress up a white T-shirt, but today he's in long sleeves, a green silk tie, and perfectly cut Hugo Boss black pinstriped pants.

Schwartz is the picture of understated sophistication. His banter moves seamlessly from economics to art to literature. His charisma is infectious. It shouldn't surprise that he once performed major roles in Broadway productions of Kiss of the Spider Woman and Fiddler on the Roof. And, he says, he's sealed 21 condo contracts since he joined the Icon team in January.

"We're dealing with a real strong international market right now — we've been profiling buyers from 15 different countries," he explains. "So it's a really sophisticated, very cosmopolitan group of people that are buying."

The sales team is eight contracts shy of having sold half of the 272-unit building, he says.

"We're competing with international markets like Monaco, because of the year-round great weather, because of the waterways," Schwartz continues. "So if we're competing on these levels, which we are, then our pricing per square footage is a bargain."

Icon units start at $567,900 — for 870 square feet.

Stranahan House supporters worry that the landmark will be swallowed by the high-rise. Next to Icon, "the Stranahan is just going to look like an equipment shack," says James Carroll, a lawyer for the nonprofit that runs it.

For Schwartz, though, the proximity of the little house is actually a selling point. Icon is paying tribute to it. "The greatest cities have the old juxtaposed against the new," he says.

The Related Group isn't just moving expensive condos. It's selling cachet, and much of that is built around Jorge Pérez, the company's founder and chairman. Under Pérez's direction, the Related Group has "redefined the South Florida landscape," according to its website, with more than 55,000 apartments and condos.

Pérez started his career as an urban planner for the City of Miami and switched to development in the late 1970s. Forbes magazine now estimates his net worth at $1.8 billion.

There's a captivating portrait of Pérez in the Icon sales center. He's on the beach, looking relaxed but confident with a tan suit jacket slung over his shoulder. His gaze is penetrating. His handsome, tanned face seems to suggest: You could be like me.

You'd just need a tough hide when the neighbors come calling.

Pérez's Related Group is also butting heads in Coconut Grove, just 25 miles south of Fort Lauderdale. The developer wants to build three 310-foot-tall condo towers on 6.7 acres of bayfront land there that it is purchasing with a partner for $96 million.

Many neighbors aren't happy about it. Directors of the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens are chief among the discontented. The condos, they argue, will spoil the view from Vizcaya's Renaissance-inspired gardens. And the rezoning of the land to high-density residential use will pave the way for further development near the landmark estate.

"The threat to the neighborhood, and the threat to Vizcaya, goes beyond the current project," says John Hinson, a vocal opponent of the towers. "It establishes a precedent for future additional buildings even closer to Vizcaya."

Hinson, himself a high-end developer, has known Pérez for years. He's also a director for the Vizcayans, a nonprofit group that supports the museum. When acrimony over the site erupted, Pérez called on Hinson to work out a compromise, Hinson says, but they failed to see eye to eye. Now they're duking it out in court.

"I've known Jorge Pérez for decades, and until this issue, I've always described Jorge as my friend," Hinson says. "And he now describes me as a tree-hugger, and to him that is a pejorative...

"I told him this project is fine; it's just in the wrong place. And that he should have more respect for the community."

Pérez did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Hinson has heard about the Related lawsuit against the Stranahan House supporters, so he realizes that he too could be sued. But he says that possibility won't silence him.

"I think that I'm doing the right thing, and if I'm doing the right thing, I don't believe there will be adverse consequences."

The April suit singles out one Stranahan House supporter by name: Scott Strawbridge. A contractor by trade, Strawbridge got his first taste of preservation work in 1983 through odd jobs at another historic Fort Lauderdale property, the Bonnet House. That gig led to other projects, including work at the Stranahan House.

Feeling that Icon was too big for the site and that the project had gotten approvals in closed-door meetings, Strawbridge rallied against it. "The beefs that we have, and always have had, have to do with the fundamental right to due process," he says. "This is also about the First Amendment — it's about my right to question the government."

Still, Strawbridge is unnerved by the lawsuit. When he first got wind of it, he says, he broke out in shingles that spread from the left side of his chest clear across his back. The Stranahan House has an insurance policy against such litigation, but Strawbridge, a recently divorced father of two, had to seek separate legal counsel. He's less worried about mounting legal costs than a seven-figure verdict against him. "I'm not a millionaire," he says.

"Truthfully," he adds, as if to reassure himself, "what are they going to do — take $100 from my paycheck for the rest of my life?" He throws his arms in the air. "When the stakes are that high..."

Strawbridge has tried to coax others to keep voicing their concerns about Icon, he says, but it's a tough sell. He feels alone in this fight.

"I wonder how other people feel — are they going to stand up for their neighborhoods?" he asks. "I'm not going to be silenced like that."

For the first time in years, Stranahan House Executive Director Barbara Keith is hesitant to speak about Icon. The lawsuit has made her cautious enough to suggest that lawyers should be the only ones talking about the rift between the little, 106-year-old house and its aspiring neighbor.

Keith, who took over the day-to-day operations of the historic home in 1992, says she worries that a crane could fall on the house while the high-rise is under construction. Or that, once built, the tower will cast an unrelenting shadow on the property.

"This is the only place to preserve the roots of this city," she says. "People have said 'Move it down the river' — but the land is just as important as the building."

The Icon site, like much of downtown Fort Lauderdale, once belonged to Ivy and Frank Stranahan, who were among the first to settle in the area. But when Frank died in 1929, he left Ivy with a pile of debt. The widow deeded most of the block where her home sits to a single creditor, Edith Burnham.

For decades, a small grocery store and a parking lot occupied the Burnham parcel. Stranahan directors first expressed interest in acquiring the land in the early 1980s, but it was not for sale. They returned almost yearly but were brushed aside with tales of multiyear leases for the Hyde Park Market. So the Stranahan folks were taken aback, they say, when they read a 1998 article in the Sun-Sentinel reporting that the Hyde Park Market property had been sold.

According to county property records, the parcel went for $2.5 million; currently, the land has an assessed value of more than $18 million.

Once plans emerged for a high-rise, the Stranahan directors began rallying the public. Fort Lauderdale voters sided with the preservationists, approving an $8 million bond issue to help buy the land for a public park. An anonymous donor kicked in $2 million. The Seminole tribe pledged $3 million. The state offered $6.6 million through Florida's open space initiative.

But $19.6 million wasn't enough for the developers.

The city tried to take the land through eminent domain but lost in court. Threatened with endless litigation and legal bills, the Fort Lauderdale City Commission backed down in 2004. Among other concessions, the developers agreed to modify Icon's design to accommodate an 11,000-square-foot plaza between the Stranahan House and Las Olas. But Stranahan House supporters still didn't want the high-rise.

This year, they argued that the entire block deserves landmark status because Seminoles used to camp and trade on the land. The Stranahan House won historical designation for the Icon site first from Fort Lauderdale's Historic Preservation Board, then from the City Commission.

Hall says his clients expected that Icon's design would be scrutinized for compatibility with the Stranahan House, but they didn't expect such "ferocity" from opponents. So they went to court to put up an equal show of force, as they see it.

"I think this continued opposition has been — I'm not going to go as far as to say 'bad faith,' but it has been designed for one thing, and that is to delay, delay, delay, hoping that our clients would give up," Hall says. "Sell the property. Just go away and leave everybody alone."

But Don Hall and Jorge Pérez and Gary Schwartz have no intention of going away. The likely return on their effort is still too good for that. And they're not alone. Rather, it's the preservationists and some city commissioners who seem to be at risk of being swept away by the future.

Visible to the west of the Stranahan House is the 38-story, 211-unit Las Olas Grand. The peach-colored Mediterranean revival condo complex was completed in 2004. Its lowest-priced unit right now is one with two bedrooms, two baths, and 1,900 square feet — for $719,000. Las Olas Grand residents are following the Icon fight with proprietary interest, as the outcome could affect their investments and their views.

Mel Harrison lives on the 17th floor of Las Olas Grand. He bought his unit on the south side of the building so that Icon, if it's built, won't block his view. Asked what if anything he'd like to see in its place, he said, "I think it could be a lower-level building, with maybe a Whole Foods or a high-end deli."

Some Las Olas Grand dwellers say they'd prefer to see a park on the Icon site, while others worry that a public space will attract vagrants. Few, however, seem to be concerned about the crowded fate of the Stranahan House.

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