Glades Grab

Developers gobble up a section of the River of Grass to build an outrage of a project

The development is an abomination, a blight on South Florida, a bitter insult to Mother Nature herself. And like all bad projects, it is being greased through City Hall with the basest lubricant there is: cold cash.

The monstrosity in question is the aptly named Everglades Corporate Park, about ten stories of hotel and office space slated to be built in Sunrise, the first such development ever to be built on the west side of the Sawgrass Expressway.

Today, it's a parcel of raw land next to a wide canal at the foot of the Everglades. Tomorrow, if the developers and lobbyists have their way, it will be a monolithic hotel towering over the wetlands, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of square feet of office and commercial space. The now-picturesque canal will be built up with a seawall.

The project, to be located just north of Sunrise Boulevard, is an aesthetic monstrosity, and it will sit on a stage overlooking the River of Grass. It is an egregious violation of the near-sacred if unofficial boundary line between the Everglades and humanity that is the Sawgrass Expressway. And so far, it has quietly slinked toward its awful conclusion, shepherded along by a compliant City of Sunrise.

Spearheading the assault on our good senses is the developer, Kentucky-based Sawgrass Investors, and its team, which consists of the high-powered Ruden McClosky legal and lobbying firm and a former Coral Springs mayor, Rhon Ernest-Jones, whose firm is engineering the project.

In their bid to obtain a key zoning change and avoid environmental scrutiny, they have been busy stuffing a couple of key Sunrise commissioners' pockets with cash for their reelection campaigns.

It's a time-honored, perfectly legal, and terribly sleazy strategy — and a vote taken last month on the zoning change indicates it is working.

The development is an aberration, as its owners were given unique development rights when the Sawgrass Expressway was built in the late 1980s. It is flanked by conservation land on its west, north, and south boundaries.

Previous attempts to build there have thankfully languished as zoning battles ensued and development approvals expired.

But even as the land has remained unpaved, the size of the planned project has ballooned. In 1994, the county approved a plan to build a 200-room hotel on the 22-acre site. In 2000, the developer at the time, 70 Inc., asked to replace the hotel plan with 450,000 square feet of office space.

The next year, the county approved a new plan to build a whopping 800,000 square feet of offices on the triangular piece of land.

That plan expired in 2005. By that time, Sawgrass Investors had purchased the land, and this year, the developer pumped up the project with steroids, producing a scheme that dwarfs the others.

The company has proposed a project that includes a 350-room hotel, 634,000 square feet of offices, and 30,000 square feet of commercial space. The county approved the plan in April, though planners warned that it was so large that it might have to go through a rigorous Development of Regional Impact study. The county, in a development review report issued in March, also found there was a "moderate probability" that an Indian burial site is located on the land and recommended that the developer conduct an archaeological survey.

Even as those crucial issues loom over the project, the city is accommodating the development team at every turn. City planners recently went so far as to create a new zoning category for Everglades Corporate Park. Called B-7, the new zoning squeezes all of the development onto the rather narrow piece of land.

The new category has been tailor-made for the development — and its wording is about as outrageous as can be found in any arcane ordinance. It states that because of the parcel's "unique locational considerations," it shouldn't have to follow the city's "development standards, setback requirements, and landscaping standards."

Why should developments in the area get such special treatment? The ordinance explains that because there aren't people living nearby, only Everglades land, "such requirements are less important."

Right. What's going to live by it? A cherished and unique ecosystem of flora and wildlife? Screw it and them.

The ordinance goes so far as to say that the location "justifies landscaping standards which are suited to compact and urban office park" requirements.

So in the eyes of the derelict City of Sunrise, building a giant development on the Everglades is the same as building something in a crowded city.

The commission voted on January 22 to create the B-7 category, but it has yet to officially apply it to the Everglades Corporate Park. A vote cast by the City Commission this past November 25 to start that process, however, passed by a 4-1 vote. The only nay vote was cast by Commissioner Sheila Alu, who appears to be the only person in City Hall who opposes the project.

It wasn't the first time Alu had voiced opposition to the project. Remember the county's warning to the developer that it might need to have an environmental Development of Regional Impact study done because of its massive size? Well, the city tried to bypass that with an amendment to designate the Everglades Corporate Park land as "suitable for more intense office use" than previously allowed. The intention was to allow the development to sidestep the state's scrutiny.

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