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Sun Sentinel - 3/15/05

Long-delayed Sistrunk project challenged by federal agency

By Brittany Wallman

FORT LAUDERDALE · A major public-private development on Sistrunk Boulevard in the works for 14 years is in jeopardy because of concerns from U.S. Housing and Urban Development staff.

Federal officials say a deal between the city and the Milton Jones Development Company may not meet HUD's standards for a fair and competitive deal, because the firm was the sole bidder in 1991 and so much time has passed without the first brick being laid, according to internal city documents.

HUD officials also indicated they would quash plans by family developers Milton, Barbara and Sean Jones to add condos to the project originally planned as merely a grocery store and retail plaza, on the southeast corner of Sistrunk Boulevard and Northwest Seven Avenue/Avenue of the Arts.

HUD staff voiced their concerns a month ago, when several members of the city's legal, housing and development staff met with the federal authorities to inquire about whether Jones could also build market-rate condos on the land. It is where, decades ago, the homes and businesses of poor black residents were condemned and demolished using federal funds.

The land in question -- a large vacant patch wrapped around Church's Fried Chicken restaurant -- belongs to the city but was purchased with federal Community Development Block Grant funds intended to help the poor.

The Joneses built the large Regal Trace apartment complex next door, also on public land, and offered all the units at prices affordable to low- and very-low-income residents, even though only half had to be affordable. Milton Jones wanted HUD's permission to add two 15-story residential towers on the city land he would get for free at Northwest Seventh, with no affordability requirement at all.

Several HUD officials in the Southeast Regional Office in Miami raised concerns about the deal, according to a summary of the meeting written by assistant city attorney Robert Dunckel.

Because of the HUD money, the land "must be disposed of in such a manner that must be fair, open and competitive, with an even playing field for all," Dunckel wrote, summarizing the opinions of HUD officials.

HUD officials and the Joneses could not be reached for comment.

HUD hasn't given the city an official decision in writing, and City Manager George Gretsas said he and the mayor would meet with the federal officials soon.

"HUD has to take an official opinion," said Gretsas. "Whatever they decide, they decide."

For years the city has worked toward a full-service grocery store for the area's under-served black community. The Milton Jones Development Corporation has held favored status to build the market because the developer was the sole bidder in 1991 who was interested in the land.

Asked by city staff about adding condos, HUD officials said the national goal for the development was "job creation," Dunckel wrote, and the parcel "would have to be restricted to a commercial component only."

But HUD apparently went further, frowning on the deal even if it remained as a grocery-retail complex.

Dunckel's summary said HUD staff "cautioned that ... they even had further reservations as to whether going forward with the commercial development some 13 years after the [request for proposals] was issued, with only one party submitting a bid, was consistent with the manner in which a parcel purchased with [federal] funds should be disposed."

Mayor Jim Naugle said Jones could possibly provide a percentage of affordable units as part of a residential tower, and then repay the federal government for the portion of the land used for market-rate condos.

If the city or Jones opts to repay some of the federal funds, current HUD regulations dictate that it be at current fair market value, according to Dunckel's memo.

Brittany Wallman can be reached at or 954-356-4541.