Residents at foreclosed Bella Vista project seek answers

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Georgia East

Published May 17, 2010

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A view of an overgrown field is not what Tiffani Brown thought she'd have now three years after moving into a townhouse in Bella Vista.

"I expected to have shopping plazas with stores,'' said Brown, who paid close to $200,000 for her three-bedroom unit. "It's still deserted.''

 

Brown and other residents say they're disappointed with the lack of progress and upkeep at the 32-acre community on Oakland Park Boulevard just east of State Road 7.

As recently as 2006 it was billed as the city's largest downtown redevelopment project, with 72 condos, 110 townhomes, 18,000 square feet of retail and office space, and, in the middle of the complex, two acres of open space for a public commons.

 
To date, about 80 townhomes have been built. A $6 million regional library and business center, partly subsidized by Broward County, is slated to open June 19, though the builder United Homes at Lauderdale Lakes Inc. failed to provide some promised parking spaces.

But at the housing community clubhouse is closed, the pool has a wide-open gate and no lounge chairs. And on a recent weekday afternoon, no one was staffing the on-site sales office.
    

Last month a bank filed foreclosure proceedings against the builder, United Homes at Lauderdale Lakes Inc., for about $28 million in outstanding principal and interest, according to the bank's attorney.

"We're all trying to figure out what's going on,'' said Germice Jones, a two-year resident. "Are they just going to give up on the property?'' United Homes Chairman Tony Mijares did not return six calls for comment.

  
The developer still supports the project, said Abbey Kaplan, a Miami-based attorney representing United Homes at Lauderdale Lakes. In this economic climate, it's extremely difficult to sell residential real estate, he said.

"This developer has not abandoned the project,'' said Kaplan. "Considering the global economic downturn, the owners have done everything that they can to sell the property to other developers and to complete the development as planned.''

Bella Vista is certainly not the only project that has been impacted by the economic downturn. Foreclosures have devastated neighborhoods throughout the country, and many builders have put the brakes on new construction until there are signs of a strong rebound.

Similar mixed-use town-center projects in Miramar and Davie, for instance, have either been delayed or scaled back.

But in smaller cities like Lauderdale Lakes, where Bella Vista was designed to serve as an anchor for other redevelopment, there's a lot riding on its success.

Residents of neighboring communities say they worry if parcels remain vacant at Bella Vista for long, abandonment will give way to blight.

 

Already vacant townhouses are scattered throughout the community. On a recent weekday a woman walking through the neighborhood to spread her Jehovah's Witness message said she wasn't sure she should ring the bell at certain homes that looked abandoned.

Some city and regional leaders say it's just a matter of time before the vision of Bella Vista is realized.

 
"We came to the market with this project just as the bad news started to hit,'' said Gary Rogers, the city's community redevelopment agency director.

 

But Rogers said residents don't have to worry about any drastic changes to the community they bought into. The title of the property is tied to certain designs and uses that cannot be altered without the city's approval, he said.

The streets interconnecting the parcels have already been built, he said, and there will be no building on the allotted green space.

Rogers still sees it as a place that will eventually have a coffee shop and small businesses like a dry cleaner, a place that could be a draw for young professionals and empty nesters.

"It was designed as the place to move up to,'' he said.

The State Road 7 corridor, where Bella Vista is located, has tremendous potential, according to Carla Coleman, executive director of the Urban Land Institute's Southeast Florida/Caribbean district. The institute advises communities like Lauderdale Lakes on how to move from a suburban to a more downtown-driven community.

"It may take 15 to 20 years, but that's going to be Broward's downtown,'' said Coleman.

With plans to make that area a major transit hub, the neighborhood will continue to be a magnet for working families, she said.

"The plans are solid, but it's going to take more time.''

Lauderdale Lakes Commissioner Eric Haynes said developers other than United Homes are expressing some interest in the project.

For now, however, City National Bank of Florida is trying recoup the money it loaned United Homes to build Bella Vista. With the matter now in court, legal wrangling could further delay completion.

Robert Frankel, the attorney representing City National, said the foreclosure was filed after more than a year of negotiations with United Homes officials.

"We're not letting them off the hook,'' he said.

Bella Vista residents express both sweet and sour feelings. Many who have young children are looking forward to the new library opening next month.

And with so much vacant land, there isn't a lot of noise, one resident noted.

Mimi Pierre, who recently rented a Bella Vista townhouse, said she plans to explore buying in the community.

"I like that you can have a business right here and walk a few doors down to your house,'' she said.

But not everyone is willing to wait it out.

Nicole Simms said every time she drives into her community and sees the rendering at the entrance of what the completed project was supposed to look like, she's reminded of unfulfilled promises.

She said United Homes has been slow to follow through on needed repairs in her unit, making matters even worse.

Kaplan, the lawyer for United Homes, said he could not respond to any questions about upkeep at the site.

"We're paying for services that we're not getting,'' said Simms. "I can't hold on to promises, and nothing is occurring.''

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