By Michael E. Miller
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Laura Mutti's circa 1930s clapboard house might be what one would find at the end of a Florida fairy tale: metal jalousie windows, Dade County pine floors, a peaked roof, and a brick fireplace. Outside, a lilac bougainvillea bush spills over the front archway and half a dozen coconut palms dot the back yard. After living in Massachusetts and tiring of its bone-biting winters, Mutti and her other half, Bill Farnzen, bought their bungalow just north of downtown Fort Lauderdale.
But the attractive abode they reside in today is a far cry from what it was 15 years ago when they purchased the Flagler Heights lot. "When we came to this house, there was nothing [nearby] but sugar sand and broken glass. That was it," says Farnzen, who along with Mutti refurbished and landscaped their home themselves. The couple, along with a handful of other hopeful homeowners, are committed to rejuvenating the struggling community, one plank at a time.
Still, the fairy tale may dissolve into a nightmare if their property is snatched from them. Seemingly coveted by Marlins owner John Henry as a possible site for a proposed and as yet unfunded $400 million ballpark, the Flagler Heights area is one of six suggested sites along with Davie, Miramar, Lauderhill, the Miami River, and Bicentennial Park in Miami.
Yet with city councilmen and property owners in Davie thumbing their noses at the idea of a stadium in their mostly rural community and with Miami voters' long-held and recently reconfirmed disdain toward tax hikes, Flagler Heights' chances of avoiding the selection process are dwindling.
"If the stadium is built in this neighborhood, we would not be able to live here," says Mutti, who cites traffic, noise, exhaust fumes, and general pandemonium as some of the more nefarious side effects a downtown stadium would bring.
Both Farnzen and Mutti are appalled at the idea of dismantling a neighborhood they and other residents feel is improving, and the Marlins aren't their only problem. While homeowners have been tiling their driveways and painting their houses, they're also battling media reports that the stadium is their flagging neighborhood's sole savior. Local press like the Sun-Sentinel has overlooked their efforts, editorializing only the advantages of a Broward ballpark and in stories lumping the Flagler neighborhood into one undesirable and distressed "swath." Mutti moans in exasperation. "They referred to this [neighborhood] as 'rehabbed cottages [and] hovels,'" she says. Farnzen is incredulous about the Sentinel's and other Broward stadium boosters' willingness to abandon and bulldoze their neighborhood. "As if rehab was bad. What's so bad about something being rehabilitated? How can they defame that? It's insane."
The Flagler Heights area is roughly bounded by NE Fourth Street to the south, NW First Avenue to the west, Progresso Drive to the north, and Federal Highway to the east. Long-time locals recall how the community was prosperous just a few decades ago, a place where well-heeled northerners wintered and where many of the cottages boasted chauffeur's quarters. Absentee property owners and cheaply developed multiresidential buildings then contributed to the area's downward spiral into crime and neglect.
According to Kevin Lynch, another local homeowner and vice president of the Flagler Heights Civic Association, the land is zoned as an urban village, a mixed-use hamlet that would ideally combine mom-and-pop stores, artists' lofts, and the chance for car-enslaved Broward residents to work and shop within walking distance of their homes. If the neighborhood becomes stadium-slotted, as numerous city business leaders hope it will be, the intended residential feel will be squashed by a ballpark that would cover an estimated 10 to 12 acres and seat approximately 45,000 beer-swilling and hot-dog-chomping fans.
"We as a civic association want development that's going to assist in bringing in a residential aspect to the core of Fort Lauderdale. I don't think the stadium can do that," says Lynch. "I want to be able to enjoy this neighborhood, and I don't want to wake up on a Sunday, if I'm taking an afternoon nap or lying in a hammock, to ta da DA TAM DA DAAAAAAAA!!!! Crack!"
Like Mutti and Farnzen, Lynch bought and lovingly refurbished his home, adding oak and pine floors, colonial windows, a sturdy deck, and a lush garden that includes orchids, ficus hedges, orange heliconia, and even white doves, which he breeds in his open-air side carport. "I set them loose in the neighborhood when they get big enough," he says and gestures toward a pair of fuzzy mauve fledglings nestled at the bottom of a cage.
Despite Lynch's optimism about the area's renaissance, he admits that renovating the neighborhood from urban blight to bohemian enclave has not been easy. And the task is far from over. "I would drive home, and there would be a crack dealer over here, three over there. I used to set my alarm for two o'clock at night and get up and walk out in the middle of the street and say, 'Get outta here,'" he says.
Part of Lynch's solution to rampant crime has been to help jump-start the civic association, which had waned and virtually vanished before he moved into his home a year and a half ago. As a realtor Lynch began to sell surrounding properties to his friends and other credible buyers. Originally from Boston, Lynch scorns Fort Lauderdale's inability to value the area: City leaders "don't realize what they've got -- an opportunity to have an urban core. The way you displace criminals is to resurrect neighborhoods. They must have their head up their butt."
Perhaps this cranial positioning is the reason that, thus far, no one from the city, including Commissioner Tim Smith, whose district includes Flagler Heights, has officially spoken to the civic association about the stadium proposal. Smith, who has vocalized his support in the press for a downtown stadium, speculates that dialogue with a would-be crushed community is premature. "I haven't gone to speak with [the association] because it's not a government proposal," he says.
He's not the only one keeping mum. Neither city manager Floyd Johnson nor the Marlins management has spoken with residents or returned calls from New Times, although Fort Lauderdale mayor Jim Naugle did concede that the Flagler Heights neighborhood was one of the more difficult of the proposed Broward sites. "It's the site with the most challenges," he admits, referring to the number of different property owners (just shy of 100) and the onslaught of traffic a baseball stadium would draw, clogging already congested arteries like I95, Broward Boulevard, and Sistrunk Boulevard, the latter of which runs through Commissioner Carlton Moore's district. Moore has vehemently opposed the proposed downtown site, perceiving it and its subsequently hellish traffic on game days as a bane to his constituents' communities.
Despite problems with transportation and community impact, not everyone linked to the area is loath to support the idea of a neighborhood ballpark. Mike Farber, a resident and landlord in Flagler Heights, believes the stadium might be a one-chance-only deal for a community in dire need of economic development. "It's not every day that the opportunity for a significant public amenity comes along," he explains.
Farber, who describes his own residence as a quaint house with low property taxes, says that he as well as a majority of other Flagler Heights property owners are open to considering fair offers for their land, and he feels that the contingent of anti-stadium property owners is not an accurate representation of the collective community's interests. "People should keep an open mind," he states.
Theoretically, if the Flagler Heights site is approved and a majority of landowners do accept appraiser-guided offers, the city will likely enforce eminent domain to remove the remaining property owners, and the condemning authority -- be it the Downtown Development Authority, the county, the Community Redevelopment Agency, or the city itself -- with the help of a court, would decide the final sums to be presented to the area's holdouts.
With a city manager -- who has not spoken to civic leaders -- about to present his mystery recommendations for a stadium to the commission on September 8, the fate of the Flagler Heights community lies in precarious, if not uninformed, hands. And as proposals and negotiations drag on, some homeowners might be less inclined to restore a property that might be doomed for demolition. Farnzen feels that this is precisely what the city wants.
"They try to discourage people from fixing up their houses because they want the properties to remain worthless so they can grab the land. It's obvious that this land is worth a king's ransom, and they want it for nothing," he growls.
"We're not a bunch of nitwits. We know what we've got here, and they're not going to get it."