Conceptual drawing of proposed downtown on Margate CRA webpage
After Commissioner, Joanne Simone, requested that fellow elected officials reconsider their denial of expanding development rights along State Road 7 in Margate, commissioners agreed to keep the agenda item open for discussion at a future city meeting.
“The city needs revenue to survive, where is this revenue going to come from if we don’t allow development? And that’s what we have done. We’ve stagnated development to the point that nobody will want to build here,” Simone told colleagues at last week's city meeting. “In my opinion we have just crippled our city.” ________
Simone, along with Commissioner Lesa Peerman, favored expanding development rights at a January meeting. The two support approval of nearly 1,000 apartments spread across four city blocks in Margate's downtown plan. Three other elected officials: Mayor, Tommy Ruzzano; Vice Mayor, Arlene Schwartz; and Commissioner, Anthony Caggiano do not. The three were vocal on the campaign trail against an abundance of housing in the downtown plan - Ruzzano ran unopposed and Schwartz and Caggiano won seats by sizeable margins.
All five city commissioners sit on the Board of Directors of the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), a quasi-municipal government outsourced to a private company and that collects TIF revenues from nearly a quarter of the City’s taxpayers. The Agency oversees downtown development.
Notably, Ruzzano - nor Schwartz or Caggiano, have indicated opposition to developing a thriving downtown. But all have implied they are not getting adequate or accurate information from City/CRA officials or the developer on matters of timelines, deadlines, flexibility and who owns what properties and when. All have publicly stated they do not favor selling 36-acres of city (taxpayer) owned land valued at $30 million for $10 million, and all say they favor downtown development as a destination for residents and visitors. Not as a city center comprised of 90% rental units and 10% commercial space.
Moreover, a developer agreement was signed by city officials prior to site plan submittal by developer's. A plan that boasts $150M in value.
Ruzzano has objected to selling the land at a discount from the start. He continues to refute the idea of sacrificing $20M in value while still having to pay for public facilities such as the community center, band shell and other public places downtown.
For Schwartz and Caggiano, the development deal in place was signed prior to their getting elected to office in November. The two were shut out of development talks when predecessors on the dais elected to push development through before newly elected officials were sworn into office. The two have been vocal about not selling the land at a discount, as well as what they perceive as unbearable traffic congestion and overcrowding along the State Road 7 corridor if developer don't agree to change plans.
“I hope they’ll [developer] work with us,” Schwartz said. He [developer] asked me what I’d like to see; reduce the density. He said okay. He never came back with that, he showed us all the community center across the street. He said he would like to work with us and I would like to see that. Because so far he hasn’t.”
On the other side of the development fence are Simone and Peerman - a minority vote unless they get one of the other three to flip. The two believe a Margate downtown cannot survive without a dense urban population to support businesses. They say if the city breaks the signed deal with the current developer, then no developer will want to come to the city and taxpayers will be subject to lawsuit.
“Do you really understand the ramifications of the decision that was made?” Simone asked about a previous move to limit development along State Road 7 in Margate. “The developer has a signed contract. He can sue the city and the CRA for these apartments.”
In past developer plans, Peerman was opposed to residential density, downtown, but hasn't commented about dense urban living recently.
Caggiano, who was asked to abstain from discussing and voting on State Road 7 development the week before Simone's request, said there was no reason to force development until commissioners meet with downtown developers to see if they are willing to reduce the number of apartments in the city center project.
“I don’t have faith. This is being rushed in front of us before our meeting with the developer, as opposed to after the meeting with the developer. So I don’t have a problem waiting 30 of those 60 days. I don’t think we need to do it immediately, I don’t know what the rush is and I don’t see any reason why we should rush,” he said.
Caggiano and others learned during the meeting that the city had 180 days to decide - not 60 days.
“Since you have 180 days why are we worried about the clock?” Schwartz asked city staff.
Advocating for the downtown project with hopes that planners can alleviate potential traffic congestion, Simone expressed concerns about traffic on her own street during a Site Plan review of a housing project proposed by Lennar Homes in 2013. Lennar was approved by the city’s P&Z to build 125 townhomes next to her Royal Palm single family development.
“I don’t understand the thinking on this [limiting State Road 7 development], we are going to be the laughing stock of the county of every city around by not passing this. They’re going to say ‘what are you people thinking about’ you are crippling your city and you don’t even realize it? You are stopping development and you don’t realize what you’re doing.”
Simone continued, seemingly overlooking millions invested in Margate in recent years.
Also opposed to the Lennar deal in 2013, Margate resident and school principal, Stacy Angier, took a pro development stance for more housing units on State Road 7.
“Don’t stifle growth in Margate and that’s what you did last week,” Angier told commissioners. Angier's church purchased land where Lennar was looking to build townhomes, costing city coffers a few hundred thousand in property taxes yearly because houses of worship are exempt.
Margate resident and business leader, Susan Riccardi, expressed her pro development views to elected officials. She suggested that commissioners speak to elected officials in other cities who are passing mixed-use urban projects successfully.
“Before decisions are made by people who have no experience in business, particularly in development, I would expect my city government to be talking to those people who have done this before and have had success,” she said. “To be represented a group of people who do not understand how to grow a city is very disturbing to me.
”Riccardi said nobody will touch this city if this [increased housing units on State Road 7] doesn’t pass. She compared development in Margate with that of Las Olas Blvd in Fort Lauderdale, which continues to populate urban centers.
“It blows my mind that this is not being grasped. I am a taxpayer and I deserve better,” she said.
Peerman told Riccardi that commissioners who attend Florida Redevelopment Association conferences have talked to elected officials in other cities. Ruzzano added that he too has spoken with commissioners in Parkland, Coconut Creek and other Broward cities who shared that city staffs are pushing for overdevelopment based on county plans, not city plans.
Longtime Margate homeowner, Marcy Bernstein, spoke to jobs for people in Margate and revenues to be gained from commercial property owners; taxes on goods and a lively destination.
“How about bring some businesses to this area. If you have more businesses people will want to shop in the area. People will come in from other cities to shop. Then you can build apartments if you want to. Right now I don’t feel its time,” she told elected officials. “When I first moved to Margate it was beautiful. We had lots of businesses. We didn’t have any open stores. We had condos. We had houses. We don’t need more apartments right now. Businesses are what we need.
”Margate homeowner, Rich Popovic, said elected officials are in over their heads.
“I’m going to tell you right now you don’t know what you’re doing, I don’t care how many things [conferences/workshops] you go to - you don’t know nothing,” said the 25-year resident. "You’ve got no skin in the game. You don’t know what it’s like to lose $20 million dollars. You don’t have a clue. Nobody wants this [downtown/development] in Margate. You don’t understand that? Nobody wants it. Get out of it. You won’t have these arguments or pressure anymore. Say ‘We don’t want this anymore.’”
“It’s really easy. Then you can go out and get what you want,” he told commissioners.
Commissioners agreed not to decide on Simone's request unless the item is reconsidered by either the Mayor or Vice Mayor at a future meeting. The two prevailed on the item at a January city meeting and as such are the only elected officials who can restore the discussion to the dais.