Dianna Cahn Staff Writer
September 3, 2007 Monday
Palm Beach Edition
Riviera Beach:
When city commissioners agreed last week to hold a discussion to rework the city's $2.4 billion redevelopment plan, they were met with a surprising response from what has long been an embittered community.

The audience applauded. And commissioners could barely contain their excitement.

"This really is a magical time," said Chairman Shelby Lowe, one of three city commissioners voted into office in an electoral upset in March. "The city is opening up. We've been fighting for this for the past eight years."

Then he turned to the audience filled with residents, many of whom have been fighting City Hall for all that time, and said, "Now, if you don't get involved, shame on you."

Looking back on a decade of immovable poverty and blight, Riviera Beach is now on the cusp of what many hope will be a new beginning.

The last administration was cited in a state audit with squandering millions of dollars, much of it through its Community Redevelopment Agency, which drew up grandiose plans, employed high-priced consultants, but got little accomplished to revive this waterfront city, the only city with a commercial port in Palm Beach County.

What plans did emerge - the $280 million redevelopment of Ocean Mall and its beachfront surroundings on Singer Island - infuriated residents who wanted to keep the beach from being privatized and overbuilt. Lawsuits pitted citizens against their own government, which sided with developer Catafulmo Construction.

Now, federal prosecutors are investigating the audit's findings.

"We are reviewing it," acknowledged Assistant U.S. Attorney Drew Lourie after the legislative review committee passed the report to the state attorney, who then gave it to federal investigators.

"If I am being investigated by the state attorney and one day I hear it's been referred to the federal level, I am not having a good day," said state Rep. Carl Domino, who pushed for the audit and is on the review committee. "So many issues. So many unanswered questions."

Since the city drew up its master redevelopment plan in 2001, it has been plagued with controversy.

The plan was broad, focusing on two separate areas of the city. One was the Ocean Mall project on Singer Island. The other, Harbor Village, was 400 acres of blighted city property along the Port of Palm Beaches and the Intracoastal Waterway.

Neither sat well with residents. Harbor Village called for the city to buy up large swathes of property through its power of eminent domain, raze buildings and sell to developers willing to build into the vision. Hundreds of inner-city residents would have been relocated.

"It's impossible to fathom how all this would work," said Anthony Gigliotti, president of the Singer Island Civic Association. "There's not enough money in these transactions. They were blowing smoke."

Harbor Village was dealt a giant blow in early 2006, when state legislators voted to outlaw the use of eminent domain as a redevelopment tool.

Meanwhile, a battle was brewing over the Ocean Mall project, where the city spent millions of dollars on consultants and plans, and sided with developer Dan Catafulmo, who wanted to build a towering hotel on the beachfront property and lease the land for 99 years.

Fuming residents organized the Public Beach Coalition, gathering signatures for a referendum on whether to limit the beachfront property lease to 50 years, and the height of the proposed building to 5 stories. Catafulmo sued, arguing that the referendum was illegal. The group countersued and won.

The group also conducted its own financial audit of the CRA, and passed its findings on to state auditors.

"The CRA was acting as if it was a private person spending money any way they want," said Bill Contole, one of the group's leaders.

The state auditor general came back with a scathing report in December 2006, just months before the March referendum, when residents not only passed both issues, but ousted Mayor Michael Brown and three sitting commissioners.

While Catafulmo still has a lawsuit pending, the most bitter of contentions were defused.

Residents and their new leaders were ready to get back on the same page last week when Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council director Michael Busha stood before the commission and said the design brainstorming session would take input from all residents. "The city is really a diamond in the rough," CRA director Floyd Johnson said. "I believe this can be something that is going to be a sustainable situation for this city for generations to come. We just have to get off of square one, see a vision, move ahead, and make sure we have the community in step."

Contole, who a year ago was in pitched battle with City Hall, was just as enthused.

"It's kind of exciting to hear people talk like that," Contole said. "For the first time in eight years, we are hopeful."

Dianna Cahn can be reached at dcahn@sun-sentinel.com or 561-228-5501.