By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
In Fort Lauderdale, and especially in the Sistrunk neighborhood, the WAVE streetcar plan was little mourned when it derailed 10 months ago.
But for two Downtown Development Authority (DDA) insiders, the end of the line hit home in a personal, financial way.
DDA board members Alan Hooper and Tim Petrillo invested more than $18 million in real estate beside or near a planned “Loop” route along North Andrews Avenue at the northern WAVE terminus, near high-end Flagler Village, according to property records.
The timing of those deals raises concerns about a possible conflict of interest that was not made public. They were done after 2014, when the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) board – actually the Fort Lauderdale City Commission – added the Loop to the WAVE route and decided to pay for it with public money that might otherwise have gone toward improving the predominantly African-American Sistrunk area immediately to the west.
Hooper and Petrillo’s land buys, through their Fat Village Properties LLC, ended when the WAVE was scuttled in May 2018. One deal that closed four months later apparently had been in the works for some time. Another in August 2016 is owned by Rio Nuevo LLP, a limited partnership of which Hooper is identified in corporate records as the general partner.
‘Doesn’t pass the smell test’
“The thing is, it doesn’t pass the smell test, the basic smell test of what is ethical in government,” CRA consultant Frank Schnidman said.
He described city commission appointees to the DDA board, like Hooper, as public officials. The DDA focuses on business development. The city also has three CRA districts whose overall mission is easing the blight of poverty.
“The city was using CRA money to pay for the Loop, and Hooper was investing to personally benefit from the expenditure of public money,” Schnidman said. “That is not what a public servant does.”
Hooper responded to questions in an email. “Any local will tell you that my partners and I have been redeveloping in and around the Fat Village area for around 20 years. We didn’t just start buying properties,” he wrote.
He also stated that “owning and leasing real estate is specifically excluded from what constitutes a financial conflict of interest as a DDA board member.”
Asked for his authority for that assertion, Hooper did not respond.
Schnidman, a former DDA executive director, addressed the issue. “You have to have an interest in real estate to be on the board, but that doesn’t mean you can use the position for personal benefit,” he said.
Petrillo did not answer similar emailed questions.
Successful track record
Hooper has a successful track record in Fort Lauderdale. A builder of both residential and commercial projects, he was a force behind the Himmarshee entertainment district. His company website boasts he was Fort Lauderdale Citizen of the Year in 2006 and in 2008, Downtowner of the Year. Hooper and Petrillo, who head The Restaurant People, developed and manage a string of popular spots including Yolo and Boatyard.
Both are past chairmen of the DDA, the 54-year-old, state-authorized taxing district that sets spending priorities to promote economic development for the business core of Fort Lauderdale. At every turn of the WAVE story, the authority played the role of informal lobbyist for the streetcar line.
After more than a decade of preparation, the city finally killed the WAVE because the cost had ballooned to $225 million for outmoded technology. “Just about everybody realizes that the WAVE… is not going to be appropriate for our city,” Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis, who campaigned as a WAVE opponent, told WLRN public radio.
Earlier this year, the WAVE unwinding process benefited property owners in the DDA’s taxing district. They were reimbursed for five years of special taxes, plus interest, totaling $10 million.
In contrast, the end game hurt Sistrunk residents, whose northwest CRA district lost at least $1.67 million in blight-fighting dollars due to city leaders’ reimbursement choices. “I’m still annoyed that the CRA isn’t getting all of its money back, but downtown property owners are,” Schnidman said.
The city had pledged $7.5 million from northwest district funds to build the Loop. Throughout the run-up, Sistrunk advocates protested that the streetcar would barely reach the area’s outer edge, let alone provide mass transit for commuters who live more than a few blocks west of Andrews Avenue.
The Loop would burden mostly poor, mostly black residents with funding transit for white riders. This unfairness “bears consideration beyond that of headways, route efficiencies, and future real estate development plans,” Sistrunk activist Marie “Ms. Peaches” Huntley wrote in a June 11, 2017 email to Broward County commissioners.
Huntley, who mentors disadvantaged youth, said recently she hadn’t known about Hooper’s Loop investments. But she wasn’t surprised “he had a set agenda. It speaks to what’s going on in Fort Lauderdale,” she said. “If you don’t have the money to talk, then your voice doesn’t need to be heard.”
The founder and president of Hooper Construction was an early, vocal champion of the Loop. At a July 23, 2014 meeting of the northwest CRA advisory board, Hooper predicted the extension would lure about $7 million in investment over four to five years. The minutes do not indicate whose investment he was talking about.
With a condo and offices in Flagler Village, Hooper represented his fellow property owners at the advisory board meeting. After touting the Loop addition, he urged the board to take it to CRA leadership.
Clearly they did, and the rest would have been history–if not for the WAVE’s derailment before a single track was laid. A reported $33.7 million had already been wasted on lobbying, consulting and other preliminaries.
Hooper took the defeat personally, judging by a video the anti-WAVE civic group Lauderdale Tomorrow posted on Facebook. It shows Hooper berating city commissioners: “When we sign an agreement…what I don’t expect is that we renege on that agreement,” he scolded.