There Goes the Neighborhood

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

In Victoria Park, where original homes were almost exclusively single-story, the emergence of two-story homes and three-story townhomes has changed the scale and feel dramatically. The townhomes, with a more imposing footprint, sometimes do the most damage to the neighborhood's fabric. A 1920s home with guest cottages at NE 15th Avenue and Fourth Court that belonged to one of Fort Lauderdale's early judges was razed two years ago to build a multi-unit complex. Like most of the teardowns and scrape-offs in Victoria Park, that demolition was approved by the city. Perfectly legal. The Victoria Park aesthetics committee has drafted design guidelines for new construction, but they're unenforceable. The vast majority of what's going up in the neighborhood requires no variances or exemptions in zoning. So older homes keep vanishing.

"I don't want to be painted as the Realtor who's knocking down houses," says Jacquelyn Scott, another Victoria Park homeowner. She plans to wreck her waterfront home built in the 1950s and replace it with "a beautiful, brand-new home." The new house will be big: two stories, taking up most of the lot. That's just the way it goes, Scott explains.

"You can't build a single-story home," she insists. "It's a no-brainer. It has to be two stories. This is a piece of waterfront property. If you look at what my lot is worth, you can't afford not to put a nice, big house on it."

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."

Why not add on to the existing structure?

"If I restored the house I'm in, it would cost $225,000," she explains. "And in the end, I would have a perfect, functionally obsolete, 1497-square-foot house where I couldn't even have a king-sized bed in my master [bedroom]. It's far, far, far better to start from scratch."

But many residents wonder if the new construction is going to pass the test of time, as their well-constructed bungalows have.

"I don't think they would have lasted as long as they have if they were built shabbily," Dawn DiMartini says of the older homes in Victoria Park. "The cement homes built in the 1940s last storm after storm after storm," Mayers notes. "These new things don't."

Moreover, McMansion opponents feel that the new homes destabilize the sense of community that helped give the areas desirability before its prime location took precedence.

"This is an old-fashioned neighborhood," DiMartini says. "Everybody is friendly. We have dinner parties at each others' homes. I wouldn't ever move out of here. When I die, one of my sons will come in the back door, hang up his coat, and live here. That's how much I like the neighborhood."

But she also notes that Victoria Park's reputation as a neighborhood for young professionals is changing rapidly. "I could probably sell this house for $650,000," she says. "I can't see how any young couple could possibly afford to buy it."

Wright sees it differently: "A 1200-square-foot home is pretty exclusionary," he notes. "New construction pretty much invites everybody, a cross section of society, into the neighborhood. And that's what you want."

Pat Mayers isn't convinced.

"You can't replace the charm. Our lovely neighbors from Weston," she says with wet sarcasm, "got out there in paradise in their big cement mansions and decided they didn't really want to be in no-man's land. I'm not against people having big homes. But if you want a big home, go over to Harbor Beach! Go over to the Landings and buy yourself a big, beautiful home! It blends in there. Don't destroy the ambiance and integrity of Victoria Park."

Jon Schwenzer wants the neighborhood civic association to send Wright and his ilk a signal that enough is enough. He's written a scathing letter to the association that so far has not appeared next to the RE/MAX ads, lasagna recipes, and poems in its monthly newsletter. And he's still bitter that the association's former president, John Albee, quashed any debate that decried new construction.

"Victoria Park has some tremendous character, and it needs to be preserved, but where were the preservationists when the preservation was needed?" Albee asks today. "I tend to agree with the other camp that says we need new development. And I think that's reality: Fort Lauderdale and Victoria Park will be rebuilt, one lot at a time."

Schwenzer wants to try to derail that worst-case scenario. "There's not much to stop developers from doing exactly what they want to do," he complains, "but I think the first step is to raise our voices and say, 'Hey, they're not welcome here.' These developers have built the same crap that they build en masse out in the suburbs and they're sticking them here, and they add nothing to the neighborhood."

"It's interesting that people would object to anything that would revitalize the community," Wright counters. "I love Fort Lauderdale, but I feel like I'm in this mad race to keep it a vibrant part of what goes on here. Hopefully, the new houses will help protect the value of the older homes that are [of] magnificent architectural importance. But they're not going to be protected if they're surrounded by garbage and junk.

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