|By Sally Apgar, South Florida
Sun-SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Dec. 23, 2006 - --In the glow of television cameras, Riviera Beach officials wielded pens emblazoned with the Catalfumo Construction and Development logo to sign contracts Friday with the developer to build a controversial $280 million hotel and retail complex on the municipal beach.
"This is the most important signing in the history of Riviera Beach," Mayor Michael Brown said.
Brown has championed the redevelopment of the 33-year-old Ocean Mall as the first step in the city's long-envisioned yet hotly debated $2.4 billion revitalization. Brown and other supporters hope the project will provide jobs, increase tax revenues and draw tourists.
"This beach is the biggest eyesore of a municipal beach in all of Palm Beach County," said Brown. "Just a few yards from the ocean we have a property that looks like a slum. But this project could transform the personality and attitude of the city."
Critics such as Bill Contole, an attorney and resident of Singer Island, said the dramatic signing in front of the media was another city maneuver "designed to deprive the people of the right to vote" about the future of their only public beach.
"This is outrageous," said Contole. "They are trying to sign enough deals with Catalfumo so they can turn around and tell the people that it's too late and the project is going [forward]."
Dan Catalfumo, president and founder of Catalfumo, the lead developer of the project, said, "This is a great day. This has been three years and one month in the making. The city stood its ground. And we have had stamina beyond belief."
The contracts were signed in accordance with the Community Redevelopment Agency's 4-1 approval Monday night to lease the public beach to Catalfumo for 50 years so his group can build 60,000 square feet of stores and restaurants in the old Ocean Mall on Singer Island and a 28-story Marriott resort hotel in the southwest corner of the parking lot for the 11-acre municipal beach.
"This project will take public beach property and give it to private individuals, leaving a postage stamp bit of beach for the people," Contole said. "This is like the City of New York being allowed to build private condos in Central Park."
The contract with Catalfumo was signed the day after a group that is seeking a public referendum on three issues that could block the development sued the city for rejecting its petitions. The Public Beach Coalition wants the court to force the city to put three questions on the March 13 ballot.
One question would allow voters to limit the height of buildings on the beach to five stories, which would doom the resort hotel. A second question would limit the use of the beach to tourism and recreation, which would prevent activities such as the sale of condos to private individuals. Critics have said the project includes private condos, but Friday Catalfumo said that was not true.
The third question would limit the city's power to lease the beach to 50-year leases.
The coalition's petition drive to get the three questions onto the ballot was triggered last October when the City Council amended the city charter so that it could lease the beach for 99 years, up from 50 years. The coalition said it was illegal for the council to amend the charter without a vote of the city's citizens.
Catalfumo initially told city officials he could not secure financing for the project without a 99-year lease. Since then, he has backed down to 50 years. At Monday's council meeting that approved the beach lease to Catalfumo, the developer was also given an option for a 99-year lease if the coalition's ballot question failed.
On Wednesday the coalition was enraged when the City Council, based on the recommendations of City Clerk Carrie Ward, determined that many of the signatures were invalid and rejected the petitions. The coalition countered that the signatures are valid and the petition process is legal under state laws that supersede municipal law.
The coalition filed its suit against the city Thursday to get a court to put the questions on the ballot.
"They want to put a mega-building, a towering monster structure on the beach," said Contole, a spokesman for the coalition. "This is beyond the issue of public beach access. This is about depriving the people of the right to vote."
Sally Apgar may be reached at 561-228-5506 or at email@example.com.
Copyright (c) 2006, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
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