By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
With a mentholated cough drop in his mouth, Frank Veltri sits at his old kitchen table in his old house in old Plantation. Beside him, on a table full of files and city papers, are five or six tightly twisted wrappers, the vestiges of the lozenges he's already consumed. Veltri's tough, blue-veined, 86-year-old hands twist up the latest wrapper with a controlled and determined nervous energy, the bare, rounded tips of his fingers revealing nails bitten to the bitter, blood-touched quick.
Veltri's slow Southern stammer quickens as he speaks of rising and falling fortunes, of development and downfall, and of the similarities between human beings and insects.
"It's like fireflies. You know what a firefly is? They're those lightning bugs," the former mayor says, his voice rising and his ancient eyes hardening with resolve. "People are like fireflies going into a light to pick up its energy. Are people magnetized that they tend to go to development areas where the buildings are bigger and newer? Why do you think people don't go to State Road 7 anymore? They go to University Drive. Why? Because it's a magnet. The Broward Mall is a magnet that pulls people into it. Now there's Sawgrass Mills and the arena out farther west, so that's where all the people are going now."
Then he says, rather darkly, that University Drive -- grown in the past 25 years from an empty, edge-of-the-boondocks road to become one of Broward's main streets -- may be next on the blight bandwagon.
"The danger is there," says the white-haired politician, leaning back in his hard-backed chair.
Veltri knows about these things. He ran Plantation -- Broward's geographic center and one of the county's most heavily populated cities -- for the past 24 years and spent six years prior to that as a councilman. Before stepping down on March 12, Veltri was the city's strong mayor, its manager, its guide, and as he likes to put it, its "CEO." He was lauded in local daily newspapers at the time of his retirement. Under Veltri's rule the city ballooned in population from 15,000 to 80,000, the total assessed property value rose from about $150 million to well over $3 billion, and the city budget climbed from $500,000 to $90 million. There wasn't a single major scandal in the city, which has a low tax rate and higher-than-average property values.
Yet Veltri says he really didn't want the city to turn out this way.
"I would've made this city all one-acre lots and minimal commercial places," Veltri declares.
The cycles of boom and blight, of megamalls battling for the firefly people, wasn't supposed to be a concern of Plantation, which bills itself as the "City of Dreams." It was all planned out by the early '50s, how this city built on drained freshwater swamp and farmland would retain its "rural" nature as it slowly grew. It was supposed to feel like a small town instead of the overgrown suburbia much of it has become.
That dream still lives outside Veltri's kitchen door -- past the rebel flag license plate hanging in the carport of his aging and weathered four-bedroom, faux-brick bungalow. It's on Veltri's quiet, bucolic acre where no traffic to speak of breaks the peaceful, slow passing of time. He bought his piece of Plantation in 1953, the year his city was officially born, and there are more than 260 other acre-size home sites between the turnpike and University Drive, where remnants of the original dream can be found.
The founders, who included a multimillionaire and an esteemed architect, knew when the idea of Plantation began to germinate in the '40s that central and western Broward was about to experience a growth bonanza and would eventually be packed with large stores, corporate headquarters, and office buildings. So in 1954 the founders announced to the world their plan that would make Plantation different, a place where future developers would bend to the city's will, rather than the other way around.
Forty-six years later there's not much left of that dream; a once-unified vision has resulted in a schizophrenic cityscape. University Drive and areas west of it are crowded with thick urban sprawl; the eastern border, State Road 7, is depressed and blighted; and the far west provides the final insult to Plantation's first hopes: It's an unhappy mixture of regional superstores and "horse community."
Veltri says he would have liked to have stuck to the plan and kept down the precipitous growth west of University but then declares, "Nobody has that kind of power." So much for a strong mayor. Veltri is ambivalent about the growth he helped create. He says it messed up an ideal blueprint but then also says it was "all good." Then he claims he wishes it weren't there. Yet he welcomed it into his city.
It all makes more curious his role in Plantation's transformation, his balancing act of allegiances, which, in the end, saw him join the developers and the wheeler-dealers rather than beat them.
"If he'd have liked to have seen it less developed, it would have been that way," says 35-year Plantation resident Charles Cannon, a business owner, community activist, and vice president of the city's Gateway 7 Advisory Board. "He's strong enough he could have done about anything he wanted. Him and his developer friends have done nothing but waive, waive, waive city rules and let everything get through."