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There Goes the Neighborhood

It used to be only about the trees. Victoria Park values its green canopy, its rare South Florida shade above all else. Earlier this year, residents beat back Florida Power and Light's designs on trimming or removing trees along the neighborhood's grand 17th Avenue. During a recent monthly meeting of the Victoria Park Civic Association, angry residents were ready to open the war chest and retain an attorney to do battle with FPL. Even back when Jeanne Dawson Lalli moved to the neighborhood almost 25 years ago, trees were the main concern. In fact, the Victoria Park aesthetics committee she now chairs was formed primarily to deal with arboreal issues.

Now, however, Lalli looks outside and sees plenty of trees. Today, the committee's quiet concern is the suburban invasion of Fort Lauderdale's core by massive homes and townhomes that have steadily replaced smaller cottages and bungalows. When Lalli drives down her street now, she sees sprawling two-story houses, replicas of tract homes way out in West Broward. But these are in quaint Victoria Park.

"Goddamn it," she says, the easygoing lilt in her voice dimming momentarily, "why do the people who like that want to live here?"

Nearly three years ago, New York City-based Fox News employee Jon Schwenzer decided to relocate south. During a Sunday-afternoon visit to Victoria Park, he found tree-lined streets dotted with small, attractive homes in a neighborhood entering the final curve of an upward arc. At that point, small three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes were still less expensive than Greenwich Village studios. To Schwenzer, Victoria Park offered a real bargain.

"This is as close to history as we have down here," says the barefoot Schwenzer, clad in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt in front of his 1939 home. With its white tile roof, blue stucco, and eye-pleasing landscaping, his house is a perfect urban retreat, just a ten-minute walk to Las Olas Boulevard. "I was attracted to the area because of the nature of the neighborhood. In just the past two years, I've seen these suburban-style homes taking up the lots. It's not only changing architecture; it's changing the type of people that live here."

Schwenzer's three-bedroom, one-bathroom home is cozy but not small, with French doors leading to a private, tropical back yard and a small, blue pool. Cedar ceilings, polished wood floors, an old fireplace, and graceful arches over doorways contrast with sleek, modern lighting fixtures and leather couches. A yellowed aerial photograph of Fort Lauderdale's downtown hangs in a hallway.

"Look up and down the block," Schwenzer says, squinting in the afternoon sun. He points to a house across the street with old beige paint and an unattractive awning. It's a mirror image of his own, almost exactly what his house looked like before he spiffed it up to the tune of $30,000. "I just took it and brought it back to life again. It looked kind of frumpy when I got it, but it doesn't take much to go from bland to cute." He glances across the street again. "That one was sold, and it's going to be torn down." In Victoria Park, the lot alone is likely to be worth the $245,000 Schwenzer paid for his house nearly three years ago.

Another 1939 home next door to Schwenzer's sold soon after he moved in. The developer who purchased the home tore it down to build a new one. A nearby neighbor who had lived in her home for 70 years was in tears, Schwenzer says. "And the guy who sold the house that was torn down was so apologetic."

Construction started on the new house, built by local builder Glenn Wright. A Porta-Potty stood next to Schwenzer's front yard for a year and a half, he gripes. "I feel sorry for those guys across the street. They're going to have to live their first two years just like I did, next to a construction zone."

Next door to Schwenzer sits the wide, one-story home that's so new, it looks like a vanilla-frosted wedding cake in a glass case. Twice the size of Schwenzer's home, the big box has remained vacant for a year. A silver-haired gentleman in a new BMW slows to take a look.

"All my adjacent neighbors agree that they hate it," Schwenzer says, pushing aside his boyish, dirty-blond hair and peering through the front door. The empty house looks exactly like the front page of a newspaper's Sunday model-home pull-out section. Parrots cackle overhead, but inside and out, the house is as sterile as a walk-in clinic. "I mean, it looks like a Walgreens," Schwenzer says. "For $600,000, you think they'd give you a fireplace. It should be a little baby Taj Mahal. But you can see that they spared no expense to be cheap."

Schwenzer sees that the solitude and feel of his street is about to change in a most deleterious way. Today, the small homes offer charm and curb appeal.

"And then you see this thing with its fiberglass columns out in front and its Styrofoam molding," he says, looking at the house on NE Ninth Avenue, still unoccupied. "It looks like a storage shed." He turns away, disgusted. "It's almost like a bait and switch. I wouldn't have bought a house next to one of those new monstrosities. They're exploiting our location, using our resources as a way of making a profit."

Victoria Park's streets were laid out during the short-lived land boom of the 1920s, but only a few wood homes were built among the muck, sand, snakes, and palmetto. Between the 1930s and '50s, they began to fill in with small masonry dwellings. This phase of development also included its own tear-down-and-rebuild element: In the '50s, some homes were leveled for the construction of multifamily apartment buildings adjacent to homes built in the 1920s and 1930s.

During the 1970s, many structures fell into disrepair and the neighborhood turned shabby, but a decade later, young professionals, including many gays, started buying and sprucing up the properties, turning them around rapidly. An annual home tour now brings people who pay to walk around the neighborhood, generally to borrow ideas on renovating and landscaping and to see older homes that have been restored and improved upon. But Schwenzer doubts if the new house next door will ever win inclusion on the Victoria Park home tour. "You think they're going to pay 15 bucks to look at that house?" he scoffs. "You don't have to go far to see a development of 300 homes just like that."

Glenn Wright, who estimates he's built nearly 20 homes in Victoria Park in the past 24 months, grows noticeably stiff when words like monstrosities are used to describe his work. Another term of derision that he's heard lately, McMansion, makes him even angrier.

"Who are they directing that at, me?" he asks testily. "I think that's inappropriate. I really do," he says, clucking his tongue in disappointment. "The characterization of what other people do with their money on their property in a derogatory fashion, as long as they're not violating codes, is thoroughly inappropriate."

The neighborhood's McMansion opponents concede that Wright and other developers who have found a gold mine in Victoria Park's location, housing stock, and skyrocketing value are completely within their rights to build what they're building.

"This is America," Lalli says. "I don't think there's any way of controlling Glenn Wright. He has the right to build these houses. But drive around and look at them. They're all the same. For the money that he's charging for them, goddamn it, couldn't he design something better than that?"

That said, the $600,000 Wright home next door to Schwenzer is bound to add to the value of Schwenzer's much older, smaller home.

"Maybe it is," Schwenzer barks, "but I'm not a land speculator! I'm sitting here in my house. If the community becomes a suburban cookie-cutter development, then we've lost everything that the whole neighborhood was purported to have. I'm going to live here the rest of my life as far as I'm concerned, and I don't want to be boxed in by somebody who's changing the neighborhood without my permission."

The market is transforming Victoria Park's character from small starter homes toward houses that are bigger, taller, gaudier, more ostentatious, and more expensive, loaded with every conceivable comfort. Historically speaking, its 50- and 60-year-old homes don't contain any George Washington-slept-here significance. Still, Broward County, one of the most suburbanized counties in the country, has few unique, older areas like Victoria Park.

The neighborhood's placement near downtown, Las Olas, and the water made it desirable. Now that desirability threatens Victoria Park's older properties. Developers, caught in a feeding frenzy as every South Florida city approaches build-out, keep gobbling up the old and spitting out the new.

"There's an appreciation that should be gleaned from what exists already," cautions Chris Eck, who heads the Broward County Historical Commission. "People are finally starting to recognize that some of these homes have historic value. If we lose that, then we'll be indistinguishable from the rest of the county and from the rest of the United States, and I think that will be a tremendous loss. Really, what it's doing is stealing the fabric of what ties the community together right out from under us."

Indeed, some architects and builders, intent on keeping alive the original spirit of Victoria Park's housing stock, have put energy into preserving and restoring older homes. Some, like Fort Lauderdale contractor Scott Strawbridge, have philosophical reasons for eschewing new construction. He has seen Victoria Park begin to fall victim to the domino effect that eliminated many of the smaller homes in the Rio Vista area. "It's too late for anyone to do anything about it" in Rio Vista, he says.

"We have a firm belief that there's a lot of good architecture and good inventory in the area," explains Strawbridge, who has worked on such local landmarks as the Stranahan House, Bonnet House, and Butler House. "I've been accused of being the contractor who fixes houses with dental tools. Well, OK. Then you've got Glenn Wright who fixes houses with a bulldozer. Even though I don't agree with the mass and the scale, God knows there's a market for what he's selling. This is what the people want. Sometimes you feel like the Dutchman with his finger in the dike, but somebody's got to say something."

Some builders update Victoria Park's older homes in keeping with the original footprint. And not all the new homes, Lalli points out, are ugly. In fact, just a few streets over is her "favorite McMansion of all the McMansions." The owner, she relates, "had someone come in and landscape with something besides Glenn Wright's two wussy palm trees, so it did look nice."

For his part, Wright sees few older homes in Victoria Park worth renovating.

"I just think you start harming the ambiance of them, and that starts detracting from what people would want to preserve. It's a Catch-22. I don't know how you improve something when it's that small. I just simply don't know where you'd start. Eventually, they'd become antiquated to the point that people would have a hard time living in them."

Still, he has a soft spot for the dying breed of older homes.

"They're worth preserving somehow, but the homes are so small that they don't work in today's large, spacious, air-conditioned environment that people want," says Wright, a busy man with a habit of adding the phrase "if you follow what I'm saying" to the end of every other sentence. "So you've got these magnificent, small buildings that are antiquated from a use point of view. They're absolutely functionally obsolete, but they're architecturally magnificent. It's a shame, because I think over time you'll see them disappear. People say they're pretty, but they're simply too small."

Wright knows at least one way residents can help save historic homes. "If they want to control what happens on a contiguous piece of property, then they should buy it when it comes on the market," he says, frustrated. "Unless they're prepared to buy the property and prevent what someone else is legally allowed to do with it, I don't understand what the complaint is."

If renovation is too slow and expensive to halt Victoria Park's ignominious slide into suburbanity, another remedy may provide more sweeping protection: historical designation. In fact, such action increases property values just as tangibly as new construction.

In Fort Lauderdale, any building that is 50 years old or older is eligible for historic designation as long as it hasn't been modified or fallen into substantial disrepair. Through the neighborhood civic association, a homeowner can apply to the city's quasi-judicial Historic Preservation Board, established in 1975. The board votes on these applications and submits its recommendations to the City Commission, which has the final say.

Though Fort Lauderdale is in the process of updating its historical register of older homes, the city has only one full-time preservation planner. Until a community advocates designating certain properties or neighborhoods for preservation, even a home built in 1910 -- the age of Victoria Park's oldest property -- could be demolished, assuming the owner meets all the other criteria of the law, explains Eck.

"Until the city gives resources to the historic preservation board they've created, they're going to continue to lose properties," he says. "Victoria Park won't be regulated until it's been cited officially that portions of [the neighborhood] are historic. But until that application is brought before the board and passed, those properties won't be regulated. People should begin to realize that if they don't act now, often what drew them to particular neighborhoods will be lost."

Commissioner Tim Smith, among the city's most vocal advocates for saving historic structures, recently asked for research into local landmarks like the Yankee Clipper Hotel and the Floridian Restaurant. And while he says he'd be happy to see Victoria Park or any other older neighborhood in his district win better protection, he's waiting for his constituents to organize around the issue. "There may be other ways to do it other than declaring areas historic with the same restrictions as Sailboat Bend," Smith says. "But I tell you, if that neighborhood was in favor of it and they wanted to do it, I'd give it strong consideration."

To demolish or update a historic structure in Fort Lauderdale, a developer must request a Certificate of Appropriateness for Alteration, Modification, or Demolition. The City Commission votes on whether to approve the changes to the property. In March, the commission approved four applications to alter and issued permits to demolish three historic structures in Sailboat Bend.

Four years ago, Victoria Park resident George Hunker and his neighbors on 17th Road, a narrow alley lined with eight tiny wood-frame bungalows built in the 1920s, applied for historical designation. The city granted it for each property. A good thing, says the white-bearded Hunker, because too many old homes in the neighborhood have already been lost. He doesn't welcome the new development. "I'm not pleased at all," he says, "because it won't be Victoria Park anymore. It'll be Boca."

Wright doesn't like the idea of historical protection for Victoria Park.

"I think there'd be massive wrangling about what constitutes 'historical.' And I think anything that deprives anybody of their right of usage is against the law. You get into the issue of stepping on somebody's right to do what they are allowed to do with the land that they own, and I don't think that's appropriate. You shouldn't go there, if you follow what I'm saying."

Anyone bemoaning the fate of Victoria Park should look to the example of Sailboat Bend. In the mid-1990s, a majority of Sailboat Bend residents voted and took steps to designate the area as a historic district. After a lengthy process, the city passed a preservation ordinance that strictly limits what can be demolished and constructed in the neighborhood as well as what alterations can be made to existing structures. Any such proposed changes must be brought before the Historic Preservation Board. The old swing bridge on the North Fork of the New River is operated manually. An operator leaves the tiny shack (built in 1925), slowly ambles to the middle of the bridge, and moves the lever that turns the bridge from a turntable in the middle of the river. Boats can travel up the river as far as Broward Boulevard, and cars can drive across from Sailboat Bend into Riverside Park. Both neighborhoods contain an eclectic blend of some of Fort Lauderdale's oldest homes. Riverfront estates, 1970s-era flophouse apartments, rickety convenience stores, and pine-hewn homes with guest cottages peek from bougainvilleaed back yards and large lots overgrown with palms, pines, vines, and saw palmetto.

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."

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."

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."

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.

"I think they're lifted up by the new housing," he declares. "You're protecting the older stuff of value by building new homes around it. A vibrant housing economy will protect the real pretty homes. They'll sell for enough money that you can't afford to buy them and tear them down."

In 50 years, will Wright's turn-of-the-century architecture be seen in the same light that Victoria Park's 50-year-old homes are now?

He thinks for a moment before he bursts out laughing. "That would be nice," he says. "But, uh, I think the nature of what people like is changing quickly."

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