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Owners of The Diplomat Golf Resort & Spa in Hallandale Beach, Florida
Seeking Zoning Change to Develop 500-unit Hotel

By Doreen Hemlock, Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Feb. 25, 2010--The owners of The Diplomat Golf Resort & Spa in Hallandale Beach will ask Broward County on Thursday for a zoning change to develop a 500-unit hotel and up to 950 residences on a waterfront property that now features an underused golf course and smaller facilities.

Estimated to cost at least $500 million, the project is one of the largest resort and residential developments proposed in today's weak economy. Many others have been placed on hold because of reduced spending by travelers and limits on credit for new hotels and homes.

Planning the investment is the Plumbers & Pipefitters National Pension Fund, which owns the golf property and the 998-room Westin Diplomat Resort in nearby Hollywood. Both properties now are managed as one and represent the largest resort complex in Broward County.

Within Hallandale Beach, some resident groups worry the project will bring more traffic, out-of-scale condo towers and weaker property values. They want more input and further government review.

But Mayor Joy Cooper, an early critic, said the Diplomat's owners have adapted plans to address key concerns. She now backs the project as a way to boost the area economy, ensure the viability of the 93-acre property and keep the green space of the golf course, "one of the jewels of our city."

The City Commission approved a zoning change for the land on a 3-2 vote in December.

Central to the investment is a zoning change from "commercial recreation" to "Local Activity Center," allowing more uses and increased density. The site now relies mainly on its 18-hole golf course as draw for hotel guests, club members and the public. But slowing demand for golf and limited hotel and residential units linked directly with the course make the course unprofitable, the owners say.

Current zoning would let the owners close the course if they wanted, said Fern Kanter, executive vice president of Capital Hotel Management, asset managers and investment advisors to the pension fund.

Plans call for upgrading the golf course, building a 500-room resort and adding up to 950 residences including high rises, townhouses and single family homes. Owners also would add 3,000 square feet of neighborhood retail space, keep the existing 48-slip marina and develop a public park and public walkways by the waterway and golf course, among other improvements, Kanter said.

Development would take five to seven years to complete, once approvals are in place.

Cooper said the Diplomat's owners have addressed many concerns. They've scaled back the number of residences initially planned on the site, to 950 units from a high of 1,388 units. They've agreed to build the hotel to eco-friendly standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council. And they've agreed to pay upfront to improve roads and parking on the entranceway to the property.

Owners say they'll also build the resort and most condos in the middle of the property where the existing hotel and clubhouse are, addressing concerns raised by some neighbors. Plus, they'll hide parking structures from view behind townhomes to keep the streetscape along Diplomat Parkway.

"We worked with the city of Hallandale Beach and the community for over two years to refine our plan, so that the design would be in harmony with established development patterns and neighborhoods," Debbie Orshefsky, land use counsel, said in a statement this week.

Yet some neighborhood groups seek far more community input and a more transparent process.

Luis Paredes, president of the United Condominium Associations of Hallandale Beach, said he's concerned the Diplomat has made "no commitment" on the number of stories or units in the high rises nor how it will obtain input from the city and the community to further refine plans. He aims to ask the Broward County Planning Council on Thursday to deny the zoning change request, have the Diplomat re-apply and "get it in writing to review," according to a draft of his testimony.

The plumber's fund bought the golf property in 1997 and three years later, upgraded the course and added the 60-room hotel, spa, tennis, meeting rooms and a clubhouse.

The fund expects the new expansion will employ about 1,000 people during construction and several hundred people when complete. It should generate about $10 million to $15 million in ad valorem tax revenues to the city and county yearly, the group said.

Kanter said the owners know that project financing is very tough to obtain today, but they want to get approvals in place to be ready to seek loans later, "when we see a market recovery in sight."

Doreen Hemlock can be reached at dhemlock@SunSentinel.com or 305-810-5009.

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Copyright (c) 2010, Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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