There Goes the Neighborhood

As potentially historic homes fall to new construction, will red-hot Victoria Park still be so desirable?

But city-enforced protection doesn't extend to the south side of the swing bridge. Unless Riverside Park follows Sailboat Bend's lead and successfully lobbies the city for historic designation, its housing stock, like that of Victoria Park, will remain vulnerable. While Riverside Park looks to be a perfect candidate for historic designation, some of its older homes have been declared historic, others have not.

It's in this tucked-away neighborhood, wedged between the north and south forks of the New River that Franni Howe-Southern owns an entire acre of undeveloped land. Built in 1914, her turquoise, pine-paneled cottage (believed to have been used as migrant quarters for a pineapple plantation) is the only structure ever built on it. The rest of the parcel has never been cleared. In more recent times, a front porch and a kitchen were added, making the house itself ineligible for historic designation.

"It's a magnificent piece of property," says Howe-Southern, who rented for five years before she bought the land in 1997. "It's truly one of the last Old Florida outposts on the east side of Broward County. It's the way it always was."

Oodles of charm: Jon Schwenzer (top) and his 1939 bungalow. Developer Glenn Wright (bottom) declares, "Over time, you'll see these [small houses] disappear."
Joshua Prezant
Oodles of charm: Jon Schwenzer (top) and his 1939 bungalow. Developer Glenn Wright (bottom) declares, "Over time, you'll see these [small houses] disappear."

As patchy as their fabric now is, Sailboat Bend and Riverside Park have remained largely untouched by the McMansion trend. But many of the more decrepit apartment buildings in both neighborhoods have been razed, and massive, block-gobbling townhomes have replaced them. A huge condominium complex now being built at Las Olas and SW Seventh Avenue in Sailboat Bend is sure to change the feel and the pace of her neighborhood as well, Howe-Southern contends. But she probably won't be around to see it.

Health problems, she explains, are forcing her to sell her land and leave Broward. Her annual blues fest, Frannipalooza, was held in her sprawling back yard until the crowds grew too large. For the past few years, it's been staged at various venues across the county. But this Labor Day, she will host a final back-porch bash.

Her usually peaceful patch will be full of the sounds of acoustic instruments, insects, laughter, and moonshine drinkers for the last time.

"An acre of land in downtown Fort Lauderdale is pretty rare," she says. "I had a developer offer me a big, huge chunk of money" -- she won't say how much -- "and I turned it down."

Though historic designation has muted the rumble of bulldozers and backhoes in neighboring Sailboat Bend, a drive around reveals that some of the more derelict structures on the edges of the historic zone are already being replaced with townhomes that fit four on a lot where one old home formerly stood. One unit can go for more than $350,000.

"I really do hate to see that happen here," Howe-Southern says with a sniff and a cough. "I'd love to see someone buy [her parcel] and not develop it. Or at least single-family homes. I'd prefer that."

No matter what happens, she knows that her wild acre won't last long. In the midst of a popular location caught in the final throes of build-out, it's only a matter of time. "I'm not particularly crazy about the idea at all," she says. "But I'm sure that's what will happen eventually. It's a trend."

Lucky for her, she won't be here to see it. There are too many people in Broward County for her comfort, she says, and she can't get the medical care she desires. So Howe-Southern plans a move north, maybe to St. Augustine.

"It may be 10 to 20 years before they're experiencing what we have here," she guesses. "Growth without thought."

In 1956, newlywed Dawn DiMartini and her husband bought a vacant lot on the water in eastern Victoria Park. They hired an Italian architect/builder to construct a three-bedroom, two bathroom stucco fortress. "The price of building it then was nothing, and the price of the lot was next to nothing," she recalls. "Believe me, if I had to go out and buy it, I couldn't afford it. The way things have appreciated in Victoria Park is astronomical."

The DiMartinis could have bought the house next door for under $20,000, but Dawn thought it was "crappy. It didn't even have closets," she grumbles. The neighbor who owns it told DiMartini he's sunk more than $1 million into the house.

"It's losing a lot of its character," DiMartini says of the neighborhood she's lived in for a half century.

But today's McMansion builders and buyers want loud, block-rocking bangs for their big bucks. And unless a neighborhood is designated historic or is bound by rigorous zoning, developers can build almost anything they want. A two-story, five-bedroom, three-bathroom stucco trophy home. A half-block of townhomes. Even if an older cottage or slightly decrepit Dade County pine bungalow has to go first.

In the area of 17th Avenue and Victoria Park Drive, monolithic homes have begun to displace the block's original one-story inhabitants. The blame can't be placed solely on developers but also on public demand. New buyers in Victoria Park want to eat Weston-sized cake and still be able to walk to the Floridian for biscuits and gravy. But grumbling persists.

"These developers and crazies are coming in and destroying our wonderful homes that have so much ambiance," mourns resident and real estate agent Pat Mayers. "I'd like to see somebody come in and buy one of our wonderful older homes and put some money into it. Rather than these monsters, where you can reach out your window and touch next door. Or you can take all the privacy away from someone in their back yard by peering down at them."

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