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2/17/04 - Palm Beach Daily Business Review

Broward's redevelopment capital program will blaze a trail in Florida, but which city will join in taking initial steps?

by Terry Sheridan

Armed with a new funding plan, Broward County is about to become a redevelopment partner with several of its cities. For planning and development professionals, the initiative poses a critical test of whether county and municipal officials can mend their fractured relations over urban policy.

City officials in Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood believe their proposed projects may be the first to help define the outcome.

In Fort Lauderdale, the city's community redevelopment agency has asked the county to expand its district by about 200 acres.

In Hollywood, city officials are embarking on a project to redevelop the U.S. 441/State Road 7 corridor that they hope will qualify for county funding.

But leaders in both cities fear they will be ostracized because their CRAs differ from how the county wants the agencies to operate. They aren't alone. Of Broward's 29 municipalities, 12 have at least one CRA; three have agencies under consideration.

CRAs are public entities that raise money for redevelopment projects through bonds and property taxes. The taxes collected in a CRA district are frozen in the year the district is created. After that, the agency may keep up to 95 percent of new taxes generated by development and property value increases. The funds must be reinvested in the district through a process known as tax-increment financing.

County Administrator Roger Desjarlais has long made clear that he disapproves of existing agencies because they use tax-increment financing that retain funds that otherwise would go to the county.

The county's new funding program pointedly intends to end such financing. Approved last week, the redevelopment capital program - the first in Florida - allows the county and cities to team up on financing. The county will invest an initial $10.3 million from its general fund and expects to provide $100 million or more within a year or two through unspecified investment vehicles.

One criterion for county funding in CRA districts requires cities to depart from traditional tax-increment financing and adopt the county's plan, which includes interlocal agreements that lay out how the cities may use the money.

But some city officials say they are receiving contradictory information about the county's intentions under its new program. Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Dean Trantalis said he wants to believe what Desjarlais and County Mayor Ilene Lieberman told him during last week's County Commission meeting. But he has his doubts.

"They indicated that this [new program] was not intended to supplant but to augment, and that as long as we abide by the rules for CRAs as originally created, the two programs should not interfere with one another," he said.

But that differs from what county staff said about the CRA's chances of expanding its district, he said.

The extension would encompass Fort Lauderdale's South Middle River area from Sunrise Boulevard to 13th Street, and from Ninth Avenue to the Florida East Coast Railway tracks.

"We've been told by county staff that they don't intend to grant the extension and that they didn't even think the area proves slum and blight [a required criteria for redevelopment districts]," said CRA director Kim Jackson. "If you drive that area, the slum and blight couldn't be more apparent."

If the county has had a change of heart, "it happened at that moment [in the meeting] because up to that moment those weren't the signals we were getting from the staff," Trantalis said. "I'm wondering if members of the commission are being fully apprised of the intentions of the program."

Desjarlais said late last week that he hadn't yet seen the expansion plan, and that it would go through the normal process.

"If you left it up to me personally, I wouldn't approve it," he added. "But I won't do anything to artificially interfere with it."

Hollywood officials, on the other hand, fear that their huge U.S. 441/State Road 7 plan will be jeopardized in the county's eyes because the city has two community redevelopment agencies, though neither encompasses the corridor.

City Manager Cameron Benson said that the city's extensive master planning of its main corridors makes it a prime candidate for county funding.

"We're ready, we're planned - all the things that the county has used as criteria to infuse funding in certain areas are here," he said. "So if the county is truly interested in doing it ... they need look no further."

The city's U.S. 441/State Road 7 corridor plan, in fact, includes what planners call "pulse nodes." The name suggests precisely what the planning concept intends: High-intensity development at key intersections, likely tied to mass transit links. Multifamily housing and parks would lie along the corridor in between those intersections.

The plan would dramatically remake the highway's nonstop row of strip shopping centers and other commercial buildings that run in a nondescript blur from one intersection to the next.

A six-month development moratorium for the corridor, effective last month, will give the city time to canvass specific proposals for the highway.

"[U.S.] 441 is the catalyst project for the county's new plan," said Jacqueline Gonzalez, Hollywood's economic development director. "We want to be their pilot program and increase the county's and city's wealth."

The city's goal, in fact, is to identify development for the U.S. 441 corridor that is "so significant the county has no choice" but to be a partner, said Neil Fritz, commercial corridor redevelopment director.

The concern, though, is that the county has a bias against cities with traditional redevelopment agencies, Benson said.

Late last week, Desjarlais indicated that Benson's concerns may be well founded.

"Based on good public policy, I would think we'd want to partner with cities that need it the most rather than those that have captured significant tax-increment dollars," Desjarlais said. "We have made it no secret that this investment program has always been intended to replace tax-increment financing."

Besides, several projects are in the pipeline ahead of Hollywood, he said. Though Desjarlais didn't give specifics, he said Lauderdale Lakes, Oakland Park, Lauderhill and an unincorporated area in Central Broward are on the front burners.

In Lauderdale Lakes, redevelopment administrator J. Gary Rogers said he was unaware of any plan that's a frontrunner for the county's participation. The city's 3-year-old, 551-acre CRA, primarily along U.S. 441 and Oakland Park Boulevard, was among the latest to be created under the traditional guidelines.

The cities that appear to be embracing the county's program, in fact, are merely going along with it to ensure they can set up a redevelopment agency, Rogers said.

"The message from the county is, 'If you want to get your CRA, support this thing,' " he said. But he added that the county's criteria for projects aren't yet clear.

Beyond differences over funding CRA districts, the county and cities seem to disagree over their respective roles in redevelopment. Part of what fuels this disagreement is the fact that Broward is one of only two counties in the state whose charter gives control of land use to the county.

City officials who participate on a redevelopment panel of VisionBroward, an ad hoc group of public and private sector leaders who discuss general economic issues, have sent a "leave us alone" message to the county.

Created last year by a consortium of economic development groups, VisionBroward's 600-plus members are exploring quality-of-life issues that affect the county's future.

"We're saying to leave the local issues as local, and let the county help us with countywide land-use standards to help with schools, transportation - issues that the county needs to take a leadership role in," Rogers said.

Garbage incineration, the airport and seaport, parks, the library system and countywide transit needs should be the county's focus, said Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Carlton Moore, whose district includes the city's CRA.

"For a government entity that I thought basically did a poor job in developing what was theirs to develop to tell Fort Lauderdale or any other municipality how to do their development is just unnecessary," he said.

But County Mayor Lieberman and Desjarlais disagree with the message from VisionBroward's redevelopment group. Lieberman said the group is out of step with the rest of the VisionBroward groups, whose members better represent a wider range of opinions.

"Five years ago, we started inviting city managers and elected officials to discussions about redevelopment, and people refused to show up," Desjarlais said. "Now that our board has passed a resolution that gives us one more tool for redevelopment, people are uncomfortable."