A Revolting Development
He remembers the crack dealers and the prostitutes, the drifters sprawled along the little side streets off Fort Lauderdale beach, the 70-year-old tourists being propositioned, and all the local residents who stayed away.
"The city forgets," Roger Handevidt snarls. He owns the Orton Terrace Apartment Motel in the north beach area between Bayshore Drive and Sunrise Boulevard. As president of the Fort Lauderdale Beach Civic Coalition, he's spent years going to meetings on beach redevelopment and didn't much care about the one this week on "vision planning." The idea that the beach risks being overrun by developers is "bullcrap," he says; the beach needs more hotels and high-rises, or risks returning to the past.
"Ten years ago no one wanted to come to the beach. It was terrible -- and that can happen again."
Toward the south end of Fort Lauderdale beach, Elliott Pritch talks about traffic jams and gambling boats and the high-rises taking shape across the Intracoastal. He's president of the Harbor Beach Homeowners Association. His vision is focused on the present and is dark.
"They're just cramming things in," he says. "We don't want another Miami Beach. There ought to be a moratorium, take a hard look at what we're doing. Now we have a shotgun approach."
Those opinions represent the extremes of the debate taking place this month over the future of Fort Lauderdale beach from Las Olas Boulevard to Sunrise Boulevard. It is being driven by last week's vote to protect from development the city parking lot at State Road A1A and Las Olas Boulevard, this week's "vision planning" exercise sponsored by the city's Beach Redevelopment Board, and next week's City Commission vote on a 26-story hotel/retail complex at A1A and Poinsettia Street, the site of Evangeline and Mistral restaurants.
Part of the debate is fueled by the fear that the blocks north of Las Olas will eventually be consumed by the mammoth offspring of BeachPlace, the 100,000-square-foot entertainment/shopping complex that has created parking and traffic problems since opening in January.
The deeper issue is whether the beach should be a place primarily for tourists or for residents, or for some ideal combination of both. It revolves around such questions as: Is too much development better or worse than not enough? Can you have classy sidewalk cafes without ugly high-rises? If you want the money the tourists bring -- and a sophisticated national image to attract good jobs -- does that mean you have to drive around an hour looking for a parking place? One thing is clear as the debate begins: Right now Fort Lauderdale is getting what it wanted ten years ago.
"The current vision is to create a beach redevelopment zone to build a world-class destination resort," says Chris Wren, the city's planning and zoning manager, and that's beginning to happen. Whatever problems there are today, he said, are because "we've got people going to the beach. Five years ago the problem was no one was going to the beach."
Wren believes some of the curb-development pressure comes from Fort Lauderdale residents who went to the beach after BeachPlace opened, got caught in traffic, and couldn't find a place to park. Wren says the city already has plans to lessen the parking problems and suggests an in-depth study would probably find ways to improve traffic flow.
"This isn't rocket science, folks. Other world-class resorts have solved these problems," Wren says. The deeper question is whether to change the vision. "If the vision is to be a world-class resort, what does that mean? Some want to scale back."
That's the core question.
"Personally I'm in favor of development, but the right kind of development," says Ina Lee, who heads Travelhost Magazine of Fort Lauderdale and is a member of the city's Beach Redevelopment Board. She was the driving force behind Wednesday's "vision" session where city officials, neighborhood leaders, developers, and business and property owners spent the afternoon at the Sheraton Yankee Trader listening to "invited visionaries" talk about the beach in the year 2020, then divided into small groups to talk some more. That's supposed to be the first step toward a new "beach action plan."
The goal, according to Lee, should be finding a balance between the tourism of Miami's South Beach and the quality of life of beach-area residents. "South Beach is wildly successful, but the growth has not been managed properly."
Lee hopes this week's vision talk will begin a process that leads to "alignment," which is vision-speak for getting conflic-ting power groups to agree on a realistic plan for the beach.
The key word is realistic.
There will be talk of placing more restrictions on beach developers -- such as greater setbacks or more stringent parking-space requirements. But the economic reality, warn those who have tried to do such deals, is that there's no way Fort Lauderdale beach is going to be lined with cute little three- and four-story, European-style hotels as in South Beach.
"For hotels you probably can't build less than 200 rooms and get financing," said Laurence A. Maurer, an executive at the Riviera Ocean Resort Hotel who's worked on assembling beach parcels for development. The high cost of oceanfront land, demolition of the existing structure, and all the current beach-construction requirements mean you have to have large proj-ects to make a buck, Maurer says. "Without significantly higher density, the economics just don't fly."
What the beach debate really comes down to, say the developers, is what "world-class" hotels and image will do for Fort Lauderdale. Will it create economic vibrancy, a stronger, more diverse economic base with world-class jobs, as well as the weather has? And in exchange are Fort Lauderdale residents -- and voters -- wil-ling to put up with traffic jams and building shadows on the beach?
"There is a price to development. There are tradeoffs," Maurer says. "The question is, what does the community want?"
That will be debated Tuesday, November 18, when the city commission decides whether to approve a 26-story hotel complex called "Poinsettia by the Sea Hilton Grand," proposed for the area now occupied by the restaurants Mistral and Evangeline.
Poinsettia by the Sea, in the euphemism of the city's planning and zoning staff, is "very urban in scale": rising 254 feet -- almost as tall as BeachPlace -- but sitting on only one acre instead of three. The city planning and zoning board, after discussion that the building was too big for the site, tied 3-3 on project approval, which meant rejection. The developer, Miniachi Enterprises, is appealing the board's decision at Tuesday's city commissionmeeting.
What has created opposition to the proj-ect is the fear of BeachPlace Reborn -- another mammoth project spewing forth cars and devouring sunlight.
While Poinsettia is big, it is not Beach-Place. The tower is 100 feet narrower; there will be 93 hotel suites and 80 time-share units, compared with BeachPlace's 384 time-shares; and only about 24,000 square feet of retail/restaurant space, compared with 96,000 for BeachPlace.
There are two other significant differences. First, Poinsettia proposes 558 parking spaces, which is actually eight more than the city requires. BeachPlace received a monster-sized break on parking; it was allowed to provide 422 fewer spaces than legally required. The other difference is that Poinsettia will sit back farther from the streets than BeachPlace, have wider sidewalks, and looks, at least in the developer's color sketches, like it was designed by someone who had actually seen a tropical beach.
Ronald Mastriana, the lawyer for Poinsettia's developer, says they are ready to discuss "minor modifications" to satisfy commissioners at Tuesday's meeting. But he also notes that Poinsettia didn't just suddenly spring forth. The property sits in a Planned Resort Development District; it's in keeping with at least eight studies and plans and bond projects going back a decade.
"It's very interesting to think years ago we spent $1 million on a study and $10 million on improvements," Mastriana said, "and the kind of development we wanted on the beach was exactly like this."
And on little Orton Street, Roger Handevidt remembers what the beach was like when those decisions were made. The beach is so much better now.
"Some people are inconvenienced by a little bit of traffic," Handevidt said. "Name a warm-weather resort that doesn't have traffic. Traffic is a sign of life. If you want a dead area go to Fort Myers.
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