In case you hadn't noticed, Fort Lauderdale is in a real estate frenzy not seen since the 1950s, when the Coral Ridge Development Co. unloaded $2 million worth of residential lots in nine minutes and 35 seconds. Skyscraping condo towers! Developers shoehorning apartments on top of apartments on modest downtown sites! Pricey townhouses squeezed onto lots where two-bedroom, one-bath retirement bungalows once stood!
At City OK Tires, owner Stefan Bertone says he doesn't need to peer up at the spindly cranes balanced over the upwardly advancing downtown skyline for proof. He doesn't even need to step outside the service bays of City OK Tires, 404 NW First Ave. He sees the evidence -- all day long -- right there in his shop. When you're in the tire biz, you mark spikes in new construction by the corresponding increase in tires punctured by debris.
You ask Bertone if he has been extracting more hardware lately. "That's a joke," he says. "I've got a little display here if you'd like to see it..."
Bertone has lined his office windowsill with the odd things he has pulled out of tires: a railroad spike, drywall screws, a pair of needle-nose pliers, a 3/4-inch wrench, a masonry drill bit, two broken keys, the caster off a chair. "And I just save the prizes," he says.
He picks up the caster, weighing its concentrated bulk in his hand. "The guy said, 'I've got a thump in my tire.'"
It's the same all over downtown Fort Lauderdale. Slow leaks. The flippity-flop of cars traveling on deflated tires. Cars making slow, spongy turns into tire dealers' parking lots.
At Goodyear Auto Service Centers at 11 N. Andrews Ave., assistant manager Despein Solito says 10 to 15 customers a day have been bringing their cars to the shop with flats caused by roofing nails or drywall screws. That part of his business has about doubled in the past few years, he says. "It's definitely related to all the construction," Solito says. "You go through it, you are going to puncture a tire."
At Tires Plus, 201 N. Federal Hwy., ser- vice manager Charlie Rozzelle saved one example to use as a dramatic sales device. A customer drove over a nail-gun cartridge on a nearby street. It exploded and flung 20 nails into the tire. Rozzelle uses the tire, impaled by more pointed objects than a voodoo doll, to try to pitch road-hazard insurance. (Most customers don't opt for the policy, he concedes.)
Although punctured tires would seem welcome in the tire business, the thought of it makes Bertone angry. In 20 years in the tire business, he has seen the cost of punctures up close. He recalls a Rio Vista customer who recently bought four new tires for his Ferrari at $980 a tire. The man drove home to Rio Vista, just southeast of downtown, and put the car in his garage. Two days later, he was back. One of the tires had been ruined by a nail. "We pay our tax dollars to keep the roads clean," Bertone says, "and it's not happening."
Bertone is a hardliner on flats. He compares the hazards of road debris to widely reported design defects in cars like the Ford Explorer. Though it hasn't received the attention, he says, a punctured tire can be just as dangerous.
Say a commuter to Fort Lauderdale picks up a roofing nail downtown on the way to work, Bertone says. Because of the way modern tires are engineered, he might not even notice it. Even after a full day at the office, the tire will still be ride-able, Bertone says. "You get off work, hop on I-95, and the tire builds up more and more heat as you drive," he says. "That could cause the sidewall to explode. I've had customers doing 360s on the Interstate. All because of a drywall screw. It's an extremely dangerous situation."
Older tires usually just go flat or lose so much air that you can feel the tilt, he says. But it's one of the oddities of modern automotives: A tire can be "flat" without losing so much air it won't ride. "The problem is people are still living in the 1960s," Bertone says, "and the engineering has moved way, way beyond them."
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According to the city's Construction Debris Mitigation Policy, issued to builders doing construction in the city, construction companies are required by city ordinance to sweep streets and sidewalks adjacent to construction sites on a daily basis. The policy also warns that city building inspectors will visit construction sites to make sure "debris and noise are being properly and timely addressed" if adjacent property owners express concerns. In other words, clean up after yourself.
Sounds good, but from Bertone's point of view, such laws aren't well-enforced. "The problem is that the city, the county, and the state aren't doing their job," he says. Bertone suggests looking in the bed of any roofing truck. "I guarantee it will be covered with roofing nails." And then, he says, roofers ride around with the tailgate hanging open. "I've worked construction, so I know. Construction workers are like demented children in a sandbox. They leave messes everywhere."
Bertone's most startling find was a live bullet. He fingers the shell gingerly. It's the second one he has found in a tire, he says; the other one the customer took as a keepsake. "All it had to do was hit the road hard enough and the thing would have exploded," he says.
Making sure that the construction site for Las Olas River House stays clean is the job of gate tender Richard Powell. He sweeps the street daily. "Yes, ma'am, I do," he says. "My company is big on safety." Told about a Gemini customer who had six drywall screws in a single tire, Powell pauses, then gestures toward the opening in the fence leading into the construction zone. "A lot of times I see people who don't want to turn around [make a U-turn], so they try to back in here. If you did that, you'd run over something. There's all kinds of stuff on the ground in there."