Frank's Plantation

It was envisioned as a well-planned community in a rural setting. Too bad long-time mayor Frank Veltri couldn't make it happen.

And so the biggest dream of Broward's city of dreams vanished in the process.

Along University Drive heading north toward Sunrise Boulevard, one can see one apartment complex after another, all of them upscale, with fountains and landscaping, leading to a Holiday Inn, then to a Denny's, then to a strip mall full of stores. Across University is the massive Motorola plant, where thousands work, and across Sunrise is another huge strip mall, with many businesses -- and quite a few empty stores, including a hulking former Publix with its front ripped out, forming a dark mouth that exposes the gutted innards. Mounds of garbage line the wet cement floor, countless wires dangle from the stripped ceilings, where the skeleton of a sprinkler system remains. Outside, dumpsters spew twisted metal, torn-out insulation, and more wire.

Another store is set to move in to the gutted building, and it may last or it may not. Back down University is the king of Broward's failed business dreams, the grand, white Fashion Mall complex, which has always been plagued by a high vacancy rate and has decreased in value from $150 million at its inception a decade ago to less than half that today. Further south is the vast Fountains Shoppes complex, which has a dozen stores with nothing in them, about 30 percent of the total, including a few large, empty, corner anchor sites.

City councilman Lee Hillier, Veltri's staunchest critic, says the vacancy signs are omens that the danger to which Veltri referred, of University Drive falling downward as Sawgrass Mills thrives, is quickly becoming reality.

While the retail areas are less than packed, the roads are jammed. Plantation has serious traffic problems -- studies commissioned by the city show that both University and parts of Sunrise have an "F" traffic rating, the worst rating given, in terms of crowded roads. At rush hour the cars jammed on the roads barely move, with frequent, long stops.

Eighty thousand people live in Plantation and tens of thousands more commute to work there. In just nine square miles of Plantation -- from University Drive west to Hiatus Road and from Interstate 595 north to Sunrise Boulevard -- lies well over six million square feet of office and retail space. That's roughly equivalent to three Empire State Buildings (a fact which provides some insight into why downtown Fort Lauderdale's skyline is less than impressive). Another Empire-size skyscraper's worth of offices is either being built or planned in the same area. Motorola, American Express, Kemper, Cigna, Florida Power and Light, and BellSouth all have either regional or national headquarters there. And then there is the Broward Mall, that weakening "magnet" which has had, as Veltri said, the most profound impact of any development in Plantation, devouring business from older shops and stealing the glory from the original town's center, the Towne Mall on Broward Boulevard east of University. The Towne Mall was supposed to be Plantation's version of downtown; it was doomed to fall short.

The nine-square-mile area is called "Jacaranda," and it used to be called Gulfstream, after the Gulfstream Land and Development Corporation, which bought it. It's also called urban sprawl, which wasn't what Plantation had envisioned itself to be. Or at least not that kind of urban sprawl, the overcrowded, cookie-cutter kind. While Plantation -- with its close proximity to Fort Lauderdale -- could never truly be a small town, it was supposed to be like one, even as it served mainly as a bedroom community for people who worked in Fort Lauderdale.

Now much of Plantation has been subsumed by what it was trying to escape, that vast, South Florida chunk of supermart America that -- like it or hate it -- lies somewhere between city and suburb.

Exactly how it happened is an untold story, and Frank Veltri played a leading role.

Veltri's first good look at South Florida was at 5000 feet, flying in his American-made AT6 war-training plane over the Everglades in 1942, where he could gauge his speed by how fast the drainage canals passed below him. Veltri, then 30 years old, was a hobbyist pilot in his hometown of Nashville before nabbing a job as a civilian flight instructor for the British Royal Air Force. A son of an Italian-born immigrant tailor named Rocco, Veltri found his new job far more exciting than his previous one as a hotel bookkeeper.

Veltri was married at the base and after the war got a job at First Federal Savings and Loan of Miami, where his number-crunching skill allowed him to work his way up the ladder. He and his Moore Haven, Florida-born wife, Genevieve, and their three children got a house in a large development in Dade County but quickly realized it wasn't for them. As was typical in Miami's housing developments during the booming postwar years, the homes were close together, cramped, without enough yard for the kids. The Veltris desired a different kind of place, a rural place. In Plantation they found it.

In the late '40s, a millionaire scion of a St. Louis shoe empire, Frederick C. Peters, decided to build homes on the 10,000 acres of ranch and swampland he'd financed ten years earlier through Veltri's savings and loan (a $350,000 mortgage). The corpulent, deeply religious, world-traveling Peters decided to create a rural alternative to Dade County suburbia, and his original ambition was to introduce a farming cooperative where the residents would grow their own vegetables to sell at a community-owned produce market.

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