A War of Addition

A legal battle between developer Ron Bloomberg and Beach officials over the fate of the city's cultural campus has both sides fuming

Adding fuel to the fire is Bloomberg's quixotic challenge to the ballet project, which drags on and on. "He is nitpicking over technicalities rather than working with the city," Nancy Liebman says. "It's in his own best interest to have this cultural campus work properly. Maybe this is how he learned to do business, by agitating to get what he wants. But I don't think he's going to win anything with this. Even if he won some portion of his lawsuit [against the ballet], what is the city supposed to do? Do we tear down the ballet because we didn't have ownership that we now have? Why is it to his advantage to have that single parcel of vacant land across from his beautiful building? Wouldn't it benefit him as well as the city to have a public parking garage there?"

Bloomberg points out that it also would benefit him to put a retail/office building next to the cultural campus, and that the city should be prepared to pay him a fair price to take those rights away from him.

His complaint against the ballet took a hit in November 1998 when the circuit court judge dismissed the case -- not on the facts of the suit, but on a technicality. Undeterred, Bloomberg directed Price to appeal to the Third District Court of Appeal.

When the city dropped its eminent domain lawsuit on the Chevron property, another bit of legal ugliness in Ron Bloomberg's life also seemed to fade from view: the cross-claim filed by Patricia Bush's heirs. Although the claim has not been filed as a separate lawsuit, and might never be, the damage to Bloomberg's already-dismal reputation at city hall has been done. He is now portrayed not only as the Philistine and profiteer, but as the kind of guy who defrauds little old ladies.

Patricia Bush might take exception to being called a little old lady. She's only 68 years old, after all. Still, reached by phone in Ocala, she freely describes her health problems: "I've got a bad leg, had my knee replaced twice. I've got a bad heart, diabetes, arthritis everywhere. I'm almost housebound: I've got an electric cart, a walker." She is also on medication.

The cross-claim her two heirs (a nephew and a family friend) brought against Bloomberg's corporate entities asserts that the developer didn't secure their permission before signing his agreement with Chevron. In addition they charge that Bloomberg, "through fraud, overreaching, and duress," took advantage of Bush's poor health in December 1996 to get her to sign away her rights to him in the event of eminent domain proceedings against the Chevron lot.

Bloomberg vehemently denies any misconduct in his dealings with Bush. When he first investigated the property in 1993, he says, it appeared likely that Chevron would eventually simply terminate their lease with Bush. So, instead of negotiating with Chevron, Bloomberg began negotiating with Bush, in hopes of buying her lease from her once Chevron was out of the picture. According to another of Bloomberg's attorneys, Gary Brooks, Bloomberg was offering Bush roughly $140,000. Bloomberg and Bush entered into a contract in 1994.

By early 1997, though, Chevron had changed its stance, and instead of canceling its lease with Bush, the company began to field offers to sell its sublease, which was supposed to last until Bush's ends in 2042. When Bloomberg got wind of this, he began negotiating with Chevron.

In August 1997 Bloomberg bought Chevron's interest in the property. Bush is now, in effect, his landlord, collecting $500 in rent from him every month for the property. Brooks says Bloomberg has amended his agreement with Bush to allow him the right to buy her out at any time, for an amount based upon how many years would remain on the lease. But she still believes Bloomberg took advantage of her at a time when she was more addled by her medication than usual. "I begged Chevron not to give their lease to him, because of all his wheeling and dealing with me," Bush recalls. "He was willing to buy it from me, and then all of a sudden he wasn't."

When told that the city has shown little or no interest in dealing with Bloomberg over the parcel, Bush is not surprised. "He is a bad guy," she says, then laughs softly. "He's a smooth talker. You talk to him and you think, Oh, this poor man, everybody's mistreating him."

Although the cross-claim died in the courts when the city dropped the eminent domain suit, the city resurrected it in an attempt to block Bloomberg's planned office building on the Chevron site.

That building received design-review approval on November 10, 1998. On December 21 the city filed a special-master appeal of that approval, arguing that Bloomberg didn't actually have "site control" of the property when he submitted his plans. The appeal appears to rely heavily on the questions raised by Bush's heirs about Bloomberg's conduct.

It also offers an ironic echo of Bloomberg's challenge of the ballet building. Just as Bloomberg charged that the city didn't own the land when it got DRB approval for the ballet project, the city is now charging that Bloomberg didn't own the Chevron parcel when he got DRB approval for his office building. The city's appeal is scheduled for a special master hearing in late April.

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