Elected Officials Safeguard $30 Million Taxpayer Investment
Three of five elected officials favored killing a downtown development deal Wednesday that would have lined the pockets of investors with millions in taxpayer dollars while potentially jeopardizing quality of life in Margate. A majority of commissioners said no to the sale of $30 million worth of taxpayer-owned land to a developer for $10 million, and no to nearly 1,000 apartments at the crossroads of Margate Boulevard and State Road 7. (Left: Vintage photo of once thriving downtown Margate at the NW corner of Margate Blvd and State Road 7) “The goal of the downtown is to bring people to Margate,” said Vice Mayor, Arlene Schwartz, adding that an apartment complex is not in the city's original vision for downtown. A longtime Margate resident and retired educator, Schwartz sat as city commissioner in Margate for three terms prior to running for office last November. A homeowner in the City more than 30 years and out of politics for 11, the former Broward County community school director ran for city commission again in 2016 to make a positive change, she proffered on the campaign trail. Ultimately, Schwartz was part of a majority Wednesday that voted to restore the city’s original vision of downtown Margate, which focused on leisure activities such as dining, shopping and entertainment, and one that would attract Margate residents and visitors young and old. “My suggestion would be that we terminate this contract,” Schwartz said of a development deal approved by elected officials in 2016 that favored apartments over leisure space 3-1, and which fostered the wholesale of 36 acres of taxpayer-owned land to a developer for a third of its market value. Since 2006, the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) has been purchasing land with tax dollars from private owners in a three-block radius of the crossroads, demolishing buildings and replacing them with sodded lots. In all, taxpayers have spent roughly $33 million buying land from the private sector over the past ten years. Margate Mayor, Tommy Ruzzano, and City Commissioner, Anthony Caggiano, agreed. “For me this is a dead done deal and I would like to see the CRA attorney see how he can get us out of this thing,” Caggiano said.
Like Schwartz, Caggiano was elected in November by a wide margin of voters to change the direction of downtown. The two walked door-to-door for months getting feedback from residents and similar to a survey conducted by redevelopment officials in 2013 most didn’t want apartments (right). Now in his second term after running unopposed last November, Ruzzano - now Chair of the city's CRA - has bucked the development deal since its inception last July. A business owner and contractor by trade, Ruzzano has been outspoken against selling city-owned land at a cut rate to developers. In particular as the deal has the city paying millions of dollars for its own community center and public spaces after taking a significant loss on the land sale. “We went 66 percent less than market value. That is crazy. To say that we lost $20 million, we probably lost more than $20 million,” said Ruzzano, who prefers that taxpayers and the City maintain ownership of downtown parcels and offer long term commitments to suitable businesses, the same option a developer might make, but without the developer. “We are in a unique position to move forward by giving great leases,” he said. “There are private public partnerships. They’re alive; they’re thriving. They [businesses] would love to come here." While all five elected officials have agreed on a community center and a band shell or amphitheater of sorts for downtown; Commissioners Joanne Simone and Lesa Peerman were opposed to severing ties with developer New Urban Communities - the company selected to move the downtown project forward. The two favored the sale of taxpayer-owned land at a discount, along with granting New Urban the right to build at least 750 apartments downtown. Simone said she didn’t think downtown lands were worth more than $10 million - this after agreeing to purchase a third of an acre of land on behalf of taxpayers for twice its fair market value less than two years ago. “Nobody is going to pay any more for it,” Simone said. “That’s how I look at this piece of property; nobody is going to pay any more for it.” Elected with Ruzzano in 2012, Simone already took part in breaking one downtown development deal and didn’t want to break another. She and others dumped a developer for the second time in four years in 2014. “No developer will want to even touch Margate. Because I’m sure they’ve been following what’s been happening and the deals that have been agreed to and have been broken time and time again. Nobody will come here,” Simone said. “And if you want to put a shopping center on this piece of land, it’s going to be another strip shopping center with revolving doors [where businesses are going to open and close].” One concern of residents familiar with the downtown project is the impact hundreds of apartments might have on State Road 7 traffic between Atlantic Boulevard and Coconut Creek Parkway during peak hours. Neither downtown developers nor redevelopment officials have a concrete plan on how to deal with motorist congestion. “People talk about traffic and they don’t want the traffic from the apartments. You will have less traffic from apartments because people that live in the apartments - number one, will leave in the morning and not come back until the evening, so there will be no traffic [sic]. If they do live in the city center hopefully they’re going to go to those stores and they will be walking there, so they’re not going in their cars,” she said. “If you have a strip mall on that piece of property, you are going to have more traffic, because people are going to be driving to and from [stores] all day long.” Simone agrees with developers that without apartment density downtown businesses will fail. She accused colleagues on the dais of putting the future and fate of Margate at risk. “I personally believe that the decisions being made by this board are putting Margate in real jeopardy.” Sitting next to Simone on the dais and elected in 2011, Peerman played a role in dispensing with two downtown developers - the first in 2012 as seen in “Back to the Drawing Board Again in Downtown Margate.” Both times, Peerman objected to an abundance of apartments on downtown parcels, but since has changed her mind. She became unhinged at the Wednesday redevelopment meeting and screamed at fellow elected officials for doing the same thing she's done twice in the past. (Click to view city audio/video of redevelopment agenda item 6A). “You’ve killed the project - congratulations! You’ve killed the project - congratulations!” Peerman shouted. “Now what!” she yelled. Chamber of Commerce official and Fellowship Living CEO, Rick Riccardi, had a similar question. “We spent so much money and so many years getting to this level and all hear now is you’re going to vote to stop it. They [developers] can tie this property up for as many years as they want. What’s the plan to do with the property? Are we back to ten years ago when we’re just going to have an empty lot out there? “What is your plan, what is it going to look like? What is the other side of this other than to stop it? Riccardi’s wife Susan additionally objected to severing ties with New Urban. “This is not representational of the entire city. There are people in this city that want this downtown. Because what you want is a lot of vacant space that does nothing except put carnivals on it,” she told elected officials. “You’re selling people a bill of goods when you say we just lost $20 million. That’s selling a bill of goods, that’s misrepresentation, and you know it. You know how real estate works.” Conversely, longtime Margate resident, Manuel Lugo, wants the project to go away. “No way, no how is selling this land for $10 million and taking some $20 million loss in the public interest,” Lugo said, adding that the deal violates state statutes. “Fight this thing. End this contract. You’ve got great ideas; you’ve got good people backing you up in the community. Peerman disagreed with Lugo. Similar to Simone, the two-term commissioner felt $10 million was adequate for land with a market value of $30 million or more, and which potentially could attract upwards of $150 million in investment by the private sector, according to developer projections. “In other words the land is worth what someone will pay for it. That’s been repeatedly repeatedly [sic] said and I don’t know how to say it anymore,” she said. Peerman encouraged developers to sue the city. “Spell my name correctly in the lawsuit please,” she laughed maniacally. “We’re going to court. You [fellow commissioners] are going to court. They’re developers and can go their way and keep their lawyers in Margate for years to come. And the land will be tied up for years to come.” The Mayor took exception to Peerman’s comments. “Maybe you should be sitting with them, because everything you say is for them,” Ruzzano said. Peerman snapped back. “Everything I say are facts [sic]. Facts don’t change whether I’m sitting there or here. ” To that end, New Urban appears to have lawyered up and is no longer talking directly with elected officials in public - a hostile position for a developer to take. Attorney for the city’s redevelopment agency, David Tolces, said litigation wouldn’t be “inexpensive, but it’s better than placing the CRA in a position of potential liability,” he told elected officials. “If your desire is to try and walk away let’s see if we can negotiate something. That would be my suggestion. We might be able to reach some kind of agreement once I find out what they [developers] want.” While developers have yet to own the land, the development agreement they have with the city is binding to a degree. So while elected officials directed the redevelopment attorney to sever ties with New Urban, developers have in their agreement until August to submit a site plan the majority of elected officials may like. “They still have the opportunity if you deny this site plan to come back and submit a new one,” Tolces said. Having received a developer site plan review addendum that identified compliance issues with New Urban site plans two days prior to the Wednesday meeting, Schwartz called such short notice “disingenuous” while Ruzzano said the developer is playing cat and mouse with city center plans. “More than 900 units is not a downtown area. To come back with 1016 units last month and then to come back yesterday with 1001 units and to come back today [Wednesday] with 922 is a slap in the face,” said the Mayor. Ruzzano said there is nothing the developer can do to change his mind about restoring the city’s original vision of a downtown. He doesn’t believe the development agreement presently on the table gives Margate residents what they want and without apartment density proposed by New Urban developers cannot make a sufficient profit margin to sustain the project. “The reason we’re up here is because we were elected by the people, and I’m going by what the majority of people say,” said Ruzzano. “We’re [the city] not going to get what we want. We’re going to get what they [developers] want.”