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Palm Beach Post - February 19, 2007
They wouldn't pay, so they didn't get to play
By Dan Moffett
Few stories are more revealing of West Palm Beach under Mayor Lois Frankel
than the tortured relationship between the city and Northwood
Renaissance, a not-for-profit group trying to build affordable housing
in the city's north end.
That relationship came to a portentous
turning point after a July lunch last year. Mary Brandenburg, former
city commissioner and current state legislator, sat in a meeting room
with four Renaissance members. For two hours, she advised them on how
to improve relations with Lois Frankel. To get their long-stalled
project moving, they would have to support the mayor's reelection
campaign, Rep. Brandenburg said. And that would take more than just
"We couldn't believe what we were hearing," says
Carl Flick, president of the Renaissance board. "It was like Mary had
gone over to the dark side. She told us if we wanted to get anything
done, we should take out our checkbook and support the mayor. The
phrase she used was 'pay to play.''"
Mr. Flick and the others
told the story to a state grand jury investigating city business. Rep.
Brandenburg has said that she was trying only to promote goodwill and
that her words were distorted out of context. She certainly had no idea
that she was naming a grand jury.
The "pay-to-play grand jury"
that two weeks ago criticized conflicts of interest and inside dealing
at City Hall took its name from the accounts of Rep. Brandenburg's
visit. Mayor Frankel never did get the "goodwill" check, and
Renaissance has not gotten its project moving.
In theory, the
relationship between the city and the not-for-profit developers should
have flourished from mutual need, if not outright desperation.
Affordable housing in West Palm Beach is so limited that firefighters,
teachers and government workers are moving elsewhere. The city also has
blighted north-end neighborhoods as decayed as any in downtown Miami.
four years, Renaissance has tried to work with the city and build a
mixed-use housing complex with 60 moderately priced condominiums and
shops on a vacant, sometimes nasty block. In theory, the city should be
an enthusiastic partner. In theory, the Village Centre complex should
have been built months ago, and a smiling Mayor Frankel should have
posed for cameras while cutting the ribbon.
None of that has
happened. The project has undergone repeated revisions and reviews. The
developers change their drawings to accommodate an objection from the
city, and then the city complains about something else - parking,
alleys, utilities, price points, landscaping. Contact with city hall is
intermittent or nonexistent. Iran has a better chance of hearing from
Dick Cheney than Renaissance has had of getting city staff on the phone.
one remarkable e-mail exchange in September, the developers needed 19
messages to set up a meeting to discuss Village Centre with Paula Ryan,
the city's former economic and community development director. Their
offices are five minutes apart. At one point, an angry Ms. Ryan
threatened Executive Director Terri Murray with the electronic cold
shoulder: "Please stop e-mailing me. I will put your address in my
block folder. This conversation is going nowhere."
request for meetings led to requests from city hall to make requests
for the request: "Please schedule a meeting with (staff) to arrange a
meeting," Ms. Ryan wrote, then added, "I am losing patience with this
constant battering and accusations."
Three years ago, Mayor
Frankel hired Kim Briesemeister from Fort Lauderdale as director of the
city's Community Redevelopment Agency. Ms. Briesemeister was no fan of
the Village Centre plan or, for that matter, Northwood Renaissance.
"Our years of troubled relations with Briesemeister are a result of
intentional and collective stonewalling from her office and the
mayor's," Mr. Flick says. "Their strategy has always been to deliver a
lethal blow to Northwood Renaissance by stopping its mixed-use
developments in the Northwood Business District."
long memory for political slights helps to explain the developers'
treatment. Ms. Frankel's predecessor, Joel Daves, was an enthusiastic
supporter of Northwood Renaissance and even supported using eminent
domain to help the group acquire property. Some Renaissance board
members - including Mr. Flick - backed Mr. Daves in the 2003 election,
and Mayor Frankel's victory came with lasting repercussions.
was an overall impression that the north end supported Joel Daves for
mayor," Ms. Murray said, "and I think Lois believed that included us,
too. But our organization did not endorse a candidate."
differences also figure into the impasse. Ms. Briesemeister built a
career in Broward County working with ambitious, for-profit developers
who aimed at the high end of the real-estate market. Northwood
Renaissance operates at the other end. "What we have are two competing
goals," Mr. Flick says. "Ours is affordable housing, and the city's is
to increase revenue by raising the tax base."
between the city and Renaissance have the look of incompetence, if not
sabotage. In September, the developers were set to close for a
low-income buyer on a Model Block home on 33rd Street. The day before
the closing, the city cited an accounting error and said that
Renaissance owed it another $25,000. In December 2005, the city
abruptly told Renaissance that the site plan for Village Centre had
expired, though both sides had been negotiating over the project for
months without mention of the problem.
City staff could have
renewed the site plan with a phone call or two but instead used the
administrative technicality as leverage to change the Village Centre
project - from 84 rental units, to 60 condominiums for sale -
satisfying Ms. Briesemeister's contention that the neighborhood needed
buyers, not renters. Gone, too, was a plan to build a Publix to anchor
At Ms. Briesemeister's insistence, Renaissance agreed
to give back to the city purchase options on several properties, so she
could use them to entice commercial developers. Renaissance agreed to
give up the options in exchange for city support of Village Centre and
other projects. There's little doubt that City Hall got the better of
In terms of symbolic shaftings, the ultimate affront
came in December, when Renaissance sponsored Jeanetta Watts'
application for a $40,000 second mortgage through a city-run program
that enables low-income residents to buy a first home. Ms. Watts, a
29-year-old single mother who works as a nurse at the Palm Beach County
Jail, was eight months pregnant at the time.
Renaissance invited the mayor and drove Ms. Watts in a limo for the
ribbon-cutting ceremony. Mayor Frankel gave her a set of oversized keys
and congratulations. There were smiles and photos.
A week later,
the city told Northwood Renaissance that Ms. Watts' loan had been
rejected because of a technicality. While she was buying the house, she
intended to lease the land from the developers. Ms. Ryan called Ms.
Murray and said the city would pay only if the buyer owned the land.
The mayor said the city had no choice "but to follow the law." Ms. Ryan
"This was just another example of how
difficult those people are to work with," said Ms. Ryan. "They came at
the last minute and without telling anyone what was going on. Northwood
Renaissance isn't professional or competent."
Ms. Ryan is
launching her criticism from a precarious place. Her work for the city
ended last month after auditors found problems with a program to repair
hurricane-damaged roofs. Last fall, a housing project Ms. Ryan
developed in Hillsborough County went bankrupt.
Briesemeister accuses the developers of "having good intentions and
trying hard" but not performing up to standards. That analysis is
condescending and difficult to defend. Ms. Murray and Northwood
Renaissance have won numerous awards from banks, builders, trade
organizations and government agencies. To pay for Village Centre,
Renaissance qualified for $9 million in Housing Tax Credits from the
Florida Housing Finance Agency. The credits are extremely difficult to
get and highly sought by developers. Yet, at the insistence of Ms.
Briesemeister, Renaissance had to return the credits to the state,
unused, as Village Centre foundered in a bureaucratic limbo and the
city pursued commercial investors. None has committed.
Renaissance developers, meanwhile, are on call again to testify to a
second "pay-to-play" grand jury that will investigate where the other
one left off. The fate of the condo project remains uncertain, but
Renaissance is close enough to begin advertising for preconstruction
Before the buildings can come out of the ground, the
city must pay the $900,000 it promised to make the financing plan work.
"That's a lot of money," Ms. Briesemeister says, "and we have to look
out for the taxpayers."
Ms. Murray and Mr. Flick tried to meet
with Ms. Briesemeister two weeks ago, but she canceled, saying that an
assistant failed to schedule enough travel time between appointments to
fit Renaissance in. Ms. Briesemeister lives in Broward County and runs
her own consulting firm there.
On a conference call, Ms. Murray said, Ms. Briesemeister "seemed positive" about getting final approval soon.
"She did seem to hint that there might be an issue about the parking ... "