By Terrence McCoy
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By Deirdra Funcheon
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Victoria Park's streets were laid out during the short-lived land boom of the 1920s, but only a few wood homes were built among the muck, sand, snakes, and palmetto. Between the 1930s and '50s, they began to fill in with small masonry dwellings. This phase of development also included its own tear-down-and-rebuild element: In the '50s, some homes were leveled for the construction of multifamily apartment buildings adjacent to homes built in the 1920s and 1930s.
During the 1970s, many structures fell into disrepair and the neighborhood turned shabby, but a decade later, young professionals, including many gays, started buying and sprucing up the properties, turning them around rapidly. An annual home tour now brings people who pay to walk around the neighborhood, generally to borrow ideas on renovating and landscaping and to see older homes that have been restored and improved upon. But Schwenzer doubts if the new house next door will ever win inclusion on the Victoria Park home tour. "You think they're going to pay 15 bucks to look at that house?" he scoffs. "You don't have to go far to see a development of 300 homes just like that."
Glenn Wright, who estimates he's built nearly 20 homes in Victoria Park in the past 24 months, grows noticeably stiff when words like monstrosities are used to describe his work. Another term of derision that he's heard lately, McMansion, makes him even angrier.
"Who are they directing that at, me?" he asks testily. "I think that's inappropriate. I really do," he says, clucking his tongue in disappointment. "The characterization of what other people do with their money on their property in a derogatory fashion, as long as they're not violating codes, is thoroughly inappropriate."
The neighborhood's McMansion opponents concede that Wright and other developers who have found a gold mine in Victoria Park's location, housing stock, and skyrocketing value are completely within their rights to build what they're building.
"This is America," Lalli says. "I don't think there's any way of controlling Glenn Wright. He has the right to build these houses. But drive around and look at them. They're all the same. For the money that he's charging for them, goddamn it, couldn't he design something better than that?"
That said, the $600,000 Wright home next door to Schwenzer is bound to add to the value of Schwenzer's much older, smaller home.
"Maybe it is," Schwenzer barks, "but I'm not a land speculator! I'm sitting here in my house. If the community becomes a suburban cookie-cutter development, then we've lost everything that the whole neighborhood was purported to have. I'm going to live here the rest of my life as far as I'm concerned, and I don't want to be boxed in by somebody who's changing the neighborhood without my permission."
The market is transforming Victoria Park's character from small starter homes toward houses that are bigger, taller, gaudier, more ostentatious, and more expensive, loaded with every conceivable comfort. Historically speaking, its 50- and 60-year-old homes don't contain any George Washington-slept-here significance. Still, Broward County, one of the most suburbanized counties in the country, has few unique, older areas like Victoria Park.
The neighborhood's placement near downtown, Las Olas, and the water made it desirable. Now that desirability threatens Victoria Park's older properties. Developers, caught in a feeding frenzy as every South Florida city approaches build-out, keep gobbling up the old and spitting out the new.
"There's an appreciation that should be gleaned from what exists already," cautions Chris Eck, who heads the Broward County Historical Commission. "People are finally starting to recognize that some of these homes have historic value. If we lose that, then we'll be indistinguishable from the rest of the county and from the rest of the United States, and I think that will be a tremendous loss. Really, what it's doing is stealing the fabric of what ties the community together right out from under us."
Indeed, some architects and builders, intent on keeping alive the original spirit of Victoria Park's housing stock, have put energy into preserving and restoring older homes. Some, like Fort Lauderdale contractor Scott Strawbridge, have philosophical reasons for eschewing new construction. He has seen Victoria Park begin to fall victim to the domino effect that eliminated many of the smaller homes in the Rio Vista area. "It's too late for anyone to do anything about it" in Rio Vista, he says.
"We have a firm belief that there's a lot of good architecture and good inventory in the area," explains Strawbridge, who has worked on such local landmarks as the Stranahan House, Bonnet House, and Butler House. "I've been accused of being the contractor who fixes houses with dental tools. Well, OK. Then you've got Glenn Wright who fixes houses with a bulldozer. Even though I don't agree with the mass and the scale, God knows there's a market for what he's selling. This is what the people want. Sometimes you feel like the Dutchman with his finger in the dike, but somebody's got to say something."
Some builders update Victoria Park's older homes in keeping with the original footprint. And not all the new homes, Lalli points out, are ugly. In fact, just a few streets over is her "favorite McMansion of all the McMansions." The owner, she relates, "had someone come in and landscape with something besides Glenn Wright's two wussy palm trees, so it did look nice."