By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
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By New Times Staff
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It used to be only about the trees. Victoria Park values its green canopy, its rare South Florida shade above all else. Earlier this year, residents beat back Florida Power and Light's designs on trimming or removing trees along the neighborhood's grand 17th Avenue. During a recent monthly meeting of the Victoria Park Civic Association, angry residents were ready to open the war chest and retain an attorney to do battle with FPL. Even back when Jeanne Dawson Lalli moved to the neighborhood almost 25 years ago, trees were the main concern. In fact, the Victoria Park aesthetics committee she now chairs was formed primarily to deal with arboreal issues.
Now, however, Lalli looks outside and sees plenty of trees. Today, the committee's quiet concern is the suburban invasion of Fort Lauderdale's core by massive homes and townhomes that have steadily replaced smaller cottages and bungalows. When Lalli drives down her street now, she sees sprawling two-story houses, replicas of tract homes way out in West Broward. But these are in quaint Victoria Park.
"Goddamn it," she says, the easygoing lilt in her voice dimming momentarily, "why do the people who like that want to live here?"
Nearly three years ago, New York City-based Fox News employee Jon Schwenzer decided to relocate south. During a Sunday-afternoon visit to Victoria Park, he found tree-lined streets dotted with small, attractive homes in a neighborhood entering the final curve of an upward arc. At that point, small three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes were still less expensive than Greenwich Village studios. To Schwenzer, Victoria Park offered a real bargain.
"This is as close to history as we have down here," says the barefoot Schwenzer, clad in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt in front of his 1939 home. With its white tile roof, blue stucco, and eye-pleasing landscaping, his house is a perfect urban retreat, just a ten-minute walk to Las Olas Boulevard. "I was attracted to the area because of the nature of the neighborhood. In just the past two years, I've seen these suburban-style homes taking up the lots. It's not only changing architecture; it's changing the type of people that live here."
Schwenzer's three-bedroom, one-bathroom home is cozy but not small, with French doors leading to a private, tropical back yard and a small, blue pool. Cedar ceilings, polished wood floors, an old fireplace, and graceful arches over doorways contrast with sleek, modern lighting fixtures and leather couches. A yellowed aerial photograph of Fort Lauderdale's downtown hangs in a hallway.
"Look up and down the block," Schwenzer says, squinting in the afternoon sun. He points to a house across the street with old beige paint and an unattractive awning. It's a mirror image of his own, almost exactly what his house looked like before he spiffed it up to the tune of $30,000. "I just took it and brought it back to life again. It looked kind of frumpy when I got it, but it doesn't take much to go from bland to cute." He glances across the street again. "That one was sold, and it's going to be torn down." In Victoria Park, the lot alone is likely to be worth the $245,000 Schwenzer paid for his house nearly three years ago.
Another 1939 home next door to Schwenzer's sold soon after he moved in. The developer who purchased the home tore it down to build a new one. A nearby neighbor who had lived in her home for 70 years was in tears, Schwenzer says. "And the guy who sold the house that was torn down was so apologetic."
Construction started on the new house, built by local builder Glenn Wright. A Porta-Potty stood next to Schwenzer's front yard for a year and a half, he gripes. "I feel sorry for those guys across the street. They're going to have to live their first two years just like I did, next to a construction zone."
Next door to Schwenzer sits the wide, one-story home that's so new, it looks like a vanilla-frosted wedding cake in a glass case. Twice the size of Schwenzer's home, the big box has remained vacant for a year. A silver-haired gentleman in a new BMW slows to take a look.
"All my adjacent neighbors agree that they hate it," Schwenzer says, pushing aside his boyish, dirty-blond hair and peering through the front door. The empty house looks exactly like the front page of a newspaper's Sunday model-home pull-out section. Parrots cackle overhead, but inside and out, the house is as sterile as a walk-in clinic. "I mean, it looks like a Walgreens," Schwenzer says. "For $600,000, you think they'd give you a fireplace. It should be a little baby Taj Mahal. But you can see that they spared no expense to be cheap."
Schwenzer sees that the solitude and feel of his street is about to change in a most deleterious way. Today, the small homes offer charm and curb appeal.
"And then you see this thing with its fiberglass columns out in front and its Styrofoam molding," he says, looking at the house on NE Ninth Avenue, still unoccupied. "It looks like a storage shed." He turns away, disgusted. "It's almost like a bait and switch. I wouldn't have bought a house next to one of those new monstrosities. They're exploiting our location, using our resources as a way of making a profit."