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2/19/03 - Daily Business Review

Future of much-maligned Broward stretch of U.S. 441 at stake as county administrator pushes for focused effort

By: Terry Sheridan

In a plan already drawing sharp criticism from some municipal officials, Broward County intends to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a massive redevelopment of the seedy U.S. 441 corridor.

The effort, not yet approved by county commissioners, promises initially to create controversy and turf wars about redevelopment efforts already underway along the highway's 29 miles in the county.

County Administrator Roger Desjarlais, who wants the county to take the lead in redeveloping the corridor, said he will ask the County Commission next month to approve the creation of a 60-employee Department of Urban Planning and Redevelopment to oversee the effort.

Department staff, which will report to Desjarlais, will serve double-duty in other departments, including planning, code enforcement and economic development.

"The genesis of this is really the realization that redevelopment will determine the quality of life 15 or 20 years from now," Desjarlais said.

He said he wants the county to overhaul its comprehensive plan to include new land uses and population densities, infrastructure investments and a property value analysis.

A primary goal is how to better cluster larger groups of people, who in turn will require and make better use of public transportation.

During the last 20 years, rising property values and new construction have fueled much of the county's tax base growth, he said. But new construction will slow as the county reaches build-out in about 2010. Continued tax base growth will rely on redevelopment, and the properties most in need are within the U.S. 441 corridor, he said.

According to the county's plan, the corridor includes the length of U.S. 441 from Palm Beach to Miami-Dade counties, and stretches from I-95 westward to near Florida's Turnpike.

The 30-square-mile area includes about 3.5 square miles of unincorporated land. Much of it is populated with decrepit homes and commercial buildings long in need of refurbishing ù "a hodgepodge of stupidity," as North Lauderdale Vice Mayor Gary Frankel described it.

Under the still-sketchy plan, much of that would be replaced with mixed-use development fed in part by public transportation such as express bus service. The county plan's financing for those efforts would come from several investment strategies, Desjarlais said, but he declined to discuss specifics.

"After a lot of conversation and watching redevelopment efforts throughout Broward, there is a clear history of redevelopment that we aren't convinced is as successful as it should be," he said, "and I am up to my eyebrows with new store facades and brick street pavers and all that bullshit that calls itself redevelopment."

"This is an option for cities to partner with the county but it isn't just about dollars," said Broward County vice mayor Ilene Lieberman, whose district includes the U.S. 441 area. "It is about services we can provide and relocate, and our relationship with federal and state sources. But that means we have a voice, too. You don't just take the money and run."

Increased mixed-use along the highway, perhaps even building residences atop vacant malls or warehouses, would encourage people to live and work in the same area, she said.

Other county commissioners could not be reached for comment.

Though in its infancy, the county's effort has brought mixed reactions from local communities and development insiders.

That's largely because the highway stretches through 14 cities that agreed to jointly remake the corridor into downtown Broward. The effort, known as the State Road 7/U.S. 441 Collaborative, began in 1999.

And many cities in the corridor have or are proposing community redevelopment agencies, or CRAs, public groups that raise redevelopment funds through bonds and property taxes. The agencies get to use the bulk of taxes generated by development and property value increases on improvements.

'The spine of the county'

Desjarlais' longstanding opposition to the agencies and their property tax financing is widely known.

In Hollywood, City Commissioner Fran Russo figured the county's plan is rooted in control and job preservation.

"The county is losing its unincorporated areas to cities, as cities incorporate them," said Russo, who is also a member of the State Road 7/U.S. 441 Collaborative. "I don't know whose idea it was to have unincorporated areas incorporated by 2012, I think it is, but they [county officials] manufactured their own demise."

Lauderhill City Commissioner Leanna "Lee" Mirsky, who chairs the U.S. 441 group, takes a tougher stance.

"My city is gung-ho on rehabbing the corridor and we've bought properties along 441 to control how it looks," Mirsky said. "The other cities are starting to step up to the plate. And we don't want the county telling us what to do."

The collaborative, intended to remake U.S. 441 into an economic and transportation corridor, was formed in part because of a lack of planning along the road.

If the county had made its move along the highway at the beginning of its decline decades ago, the resulting seediness and hodgepodge of buildings and uses could have been avoided, Mirsky said.

"When everyone did a mass exodus to cheap land in the west, they forgot about what was important," she said. "It [U.S. 441] should be the financial zone of the county and the spine of the county. We have to reclaim it. The county and Roger are late."

Margate Vice Mayor Joseph Varsallone sides with Mirsky. He said the county "should be working with us and not creating a new entity to overshadow us. There's been something going on in this county for some time, and it's that the county is trying to take control of the cities."

On the other hand, Tamarac Vice Mayor Edward Portner and North Lauderdale's Frankel welcome the county's effort ù and its muscle.

Portner said the county's bigger voice and bigger pocketbook could ensure that every city is involved in the highway project.

"There's a lot of things that have to be done, like transportation, road reservations for bus lanes ù there was talk of light rail that I'll probably never see," Frankel said. "If Roger wants to move in on the thing, let's see what the organization says. I'm not a party to a fight, but to working together."

Plantation, which created a CRA in 2000 for the redevelopment of U.S. 441, expects to spend $20 million over 30 years for the improvements.

With funding from grants and a special taxing district, the city has spent about $2.5 million since 2000 on work that has included street widening and refurbishing sanitary sewers, said city redevelopment specialist Rachel Bach, who also is a member of the collaborative.

Later this month, the city will begin soliciting proposals from developers to participate in the city's new Catalytic Investment Strategy, a $2.1 million bond fund targeting land assembly and mixed-use redevelopment, said Marcia Berkley, city planning director.

So the county's new plan, as Bach gently put it, might work better for cities that haven't accomplished as much along U.S. 441.

"We're not going to say we won't take assistance," she added, "but we have a pretty clear plan and we're moving forward in the right direction."

For his part, Desjarlais is fully aware the county's redevelopment plan could be contentious.

"The challenge," he said, "is in being a positive influence in a way that gets a buy-in from the cities to invest with us, or us with them. We want to partner with those who want and need it, and for those who don't need it, all the better."

For now, he and the cities apparently have a common goal for U.S. 441 ù smarter clusters of density, increased mass transit and higher property values.

Still, Desjarlais is impatient for results. "Let's just stick a damn shovel in the ground," he said.

What he fails to understand is just how lengthy a process redevelopment is, said Lisa Maxwell, redevelopment director of Lennar Corp.

"It's premature to say that the cities' and CRAs' plans have not reaped a great deal of visible redevelopment," she said. "Frankly, we're at the stage where that is now starting to happen."

Lennar, in fact, expects to begin construction late this year on a townhouse project on five acres near U.S. 441 and Sunrise Boulevard in Plantation. The 68 units will be priced from $160,000.

"I think the entire corridor has incredible promise," she said.

Initially, the county's plan is shaping up as the next range war of the millennium, Maxwell said.

"In the end, though, it won't happen that way," she added. "The cities will rightfully protect what they've worked so hard to put in place. And the county will have to respect that the cities have worked so hard. à I think that however the county decides in its infinite wisdom that they want to assist, their assistance would be welcome."

Developer Charles Ladd of Barron Real Estate, who co-owns a shopping center on U.S. 441 in Margate, put it this way: "Politics, sausage and redevelopment ù you don't want to watch any of it being made. You have a bunch of cities and a county and this corridor, and it won't be easy. But it has to happen."