Where the Condos are
South Florida is an invention. Even the landscape has been excavated, filled in, and moved around so that it more resembles tropical paradise than its swampy, mangrove-gnarled reality. People come here to refinish themselves too. Brooklyn hood Chris Paciello was, for a South Beach flash, the Liquid nightclub king who... Dated Madonna! and Partied with Jennifer Lopez! Then his thug-life past caught up with him. Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky used the ol' I-was-on-vacation-in-Florida excuse when the Valentine's Day Massacre went down back in Chicago. Then he settled into dotty old age walking his blind Shih Tzu down Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Sometimes you can work the whole cycle in the region, if you stay here long enough. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward smuggled arms to the enemy in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and then went on to become governor of Florida and gave our county its name.
Reinvention worked for all of them one way or another. So why can't a city chuck one image and dress itself uptown?
Since Prohibition, Fort Lauderdale has been known as "Fort Liquordale." At first, the name meant the town was hospitable to bootleggers. But after Connie Francis donned a bikini for the 1960 hit Where the Boys Are, the tag referred to the welcome mat the city laid out each spring for the party-hardy. Fort Lauderdale -- "The Spring Break Mecca of the Modern World," "The Town Where Happy Hour Begins at 7 a.m.," "The Spot Where Girls Welcome Spring" (in skimpy bikinis and with wet T-shirt contests). For decades, the name Fort Lauderdale stank with stale beer and suntan lotion, hormones and vomit, with the promise of sex.
There are pricey people moving in. Fancy people who are buying real estate with stratospheric price tags. It's going to be more taxicab and limo than Kronan Cycle. More Bal Harbour than wannabe hip. From coed writhing in a wet T-shirt to big-buck Xanadu, the transformation is almost complete.
Our skyline, those pint-sized, milk carton, 1960s-model buildings, will soon be engulfed. A new generation of condo skyscrapers is taking shape under a spindly flock of construction cranes.
The 30-story, smoked-glass-and-red-granite, linebacker-like AutoNation building at 100 SE Sixth St. will be a hefty baby brother to two new condo towers on the New River. The tallest building downtown in 2004 will be the 42-story Las Olas River House at First Avenue. With its two oblongish towers -- one of blue glass, the other silvery -- it will look like a giant Remington shaver. Next in height will be the Las Olas Grand -- a traditional rectangular, slender, nondescript 39 stories, topped by tiny turrets. And closer to the ground, a clump of blockish condo developments, such as the 22-story Symphony, are taking shape on the edges of downtown's quaint and pricey neighborhoods.
It's not just the look of Fort Lauderdale that's going to change. Starting next fall, in the first wave, thousands of new residents will begin inhabiting downtown in an influx of people that could reach 10,000.
That may mean there will be more people at the downtown library, at the art museum, and at performances of the beleaguered Florida Philharmonic. It may mean better food available for home delivery. But it will also mean more people at restaurants, longer lines, and more people on the road. Think traffic jams.
The hope of the city's powerbrokers is that women in evening dresses will glide along Riverwalk to see the ballet at the Broward Performing Arts Center. That the cafés on Las Olas Boulevard will be even more crowded with customers. That instead of driving to the beach, these new residents will hop on the Water Bus for a day in the sun.
But what we may get instead is an overpriced, underserviced, hellish gridlock.
It's late March, and the balmy breezes of a sweet, short spring are turning to swelter. It's hot -- a typical, subtropical day in South Florida. By the time I walk half a mile through downtown Fort Lauderdale to the construction site of the Las Olas River House, I'm covered in a thin film of sweat and feeling dehydrated.
I look up to see blue plastic sheathing over floor-to-ceiling windows and cranes lifting bars of concrete high into the air. They might as well be bars of gold. The starting price for a two-bedroom condo is $510,000. The most expensive unit is priced at $2 million. Las Olas River House is one of the swankest addresses in the new Fort Lauderdale.
Inside the sales trailer, air conditioning coddles a world that whispers of luxuries to come. Tropical palms sprout from the corners. A lush bouquet of flowers sits atop a cherry wood receptionist's station with a black marble top. I've bridged the divide between the old Fort Lauderdale and the new.
"Would you like something to drink?" a friendly receptionist named Kim asks. She disappears, then brings me a tall, ice cold glass of water.
Sales associate Bobbi Ocean breezes out to the foyer and extends a tiny, manicured hand to greet me. She is petite, effervescent, and buffed to a sheen, her short blond hair coiffed to perfection. But she's more sporty and yachting than high flown. She speaks in a friendly, warm, engaging, light, and fizzy tone, and with rapid-fire precision.
We walk into a rotunda finished in black marble (and the same deep brown cherry wood of the desk in the foyer). Set in the middle of it is a model of the future Las Olas River House. It shows a Y-shaped building with a 34-story, clear glass tower next to a 42-story one.
When it's completed, Las Olas River House will tower 440 feet into the air and fill a whole city block. Ocean says the building will look like a piece of blue crystal jutting into the sky with a smaller piece of clear crystal beside it.
In nooks fanning out from the rotunda, examples of interiors of the 280 units are laid out to whet buyers' hunger for luxuriant mama-coddling: black marble countertops in the kitchens, brushed stainless steel appliances, rough Italian marble in the bathroom, a bidet.
Ocean maneuvers me through the model room mockups. She uses the words "very upgraded," "very upscale," "very unusual," and "very high-end" a lot.
"It's a very upgraded interior package," she says.
Uniformed doormen "in full apparel," Ocean explains, will greet residents at the front entrance. "It will have a very Manhattan feel," she explains. Ushered from the street into a two-story lobby, residents will be overwhelmed by an oversized lushness signifying they've departed the ordinary world. A giant waterfall cascading over black granite will feed ponds with slate pathways and bridges running over them. Then she brings up the water thing again. "The whole idea is to bring the river into the building," she coos.
The idea is to make jaws drop.
With a private spa, bilevel spiral-shaped swimming pools, a fitness center, a small sundry store, office space, a dry cleaner, a travel agency, a housekeeping business, and Morton's Steak House on the ground floor, residents will never need to leave the building. "It's kind of like a self-enclosed city," I offer, mortified at the ability of the wealthy class to segregate itself.
"Exactly," she says.
"What about new urbanism?" I want to whimper in response.
She says people are clamoring to buy in. Scheduled to open in the fall of 2004, River House is already more than 70 percent sold, she says.
Las Olas will fill with boomers whose children have grown and whose real estate has mushroomed in value who want to move into town from the 'burbs or from manses in places like Weston and Coral Ridge. They want to walk to a fine restaurant, be closer to the buzz of an urban life, Ocean says. Professionals -- doctors and lawyers -- who want all that and to live close to where they work are buying in too. And the project is attracting buyers from other climes who want a second or third home in a beautiful waterfront setting.
She makes it sound like South Beach for boomers. But why not just buy a condo where this is a 24/7 lifestyle with the urbanity that Lauderdale lacks?
This is where Ocean gets serious.
Miami-Dade County, she explains, is disorienting. "It's a little intimidating and scary to a lot of people," she says, "including me."
"Too many beautiful young people?" I mutter to myself.
No. It's that pesky language barrier. Ocean complains that in Miami-Dade, the billboards are in Spanish. "I don't know what they are advertising -- a kitchen broom or a wrench," she says. "It's [North America], but it doesn't feel like home. It is very foreign."
Las Olas River House, she assures me, doesn't have the international buyers that Miami Beach attracts. "It's just a different quality up here. It's slower, safer, and it has far more of an American feel," she explains.
But what is it about downtown Fort Lauderdale that these well-heeled buyers find so enticing? Four blocks of outdoor cafés and funky gift shops on Las Olas? A hideous and touristy shopping center on the New River? The art museum? The library? The performing arts center? Most mid- to big-size towns have those. Must be the nerve-tingling excitement of living in a city that has the highest per-capita fatality rate for pedestrians in the nation (according to an April 22 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). It is more exciting than the suburbs...
"They are buying the lifestyle," Ocean purrs. "What it is really about is what is around the base of the building -- Las Olas Boulevard and the New River. It's just all about the energy that is created in a city when you can walk to movies, when you can walk to the Performing Arts Center... It's about having this lifestyle; it's about this energy around you."
I ask her if she thinks the city is prepared for these new arrivals.
"You know people talk about the congestion and the traffic and all that sort of thing," she says, a slight agitation creeping into her voice, "but the people who are in these buildings are not going to be touching their cars for weeks."
OK. They want to come here because they want to walk. Makes sense, but in order for Fort Lauderdale to be the kind of place where it's easy to move around safely on foot, a lot has to change. I worked up a sweat walking to Ocean's Las Olas office. Fort Lauderdale needs shade. And it must feel like the pedestrian, not the automobile, is dominant. And it needs mass transit so that you can move around quickly if you need to. Doesn't matter for the River Housers, of course. Ocean confided to me that her people won't use trolleys or buses. But for the rest of us...
The mayor must have a plan.
No one embodies the plain, decent, and Southern quirky side of Fort Lauderdale better than Mayor Jim Naugle. His mama arrived on a train in 1936 to be a school teacher at Fort Lauderdale High School. His family owned the Fort Lauderdale Paint Store. He once fixed up a house he owned in Sailboat Bend so that he never needed to use air conditioning, even in the hellish heat of a South Florida summer. And he has a concealed-weapons permit, although on the day we met in his City Hall office, he wouldn't reveal whether he was packing.
The Las Olas Lifestyle? This is a guy whose favorite outfit is a pair of khaki Dockers and a blue oxford dress shirt. "There are heights only a privileged few will ever reach," a brochure for Las Olas River House reads. That's just not our mayor. Still, he must recognize we need to do something quick to fix things up for the new downtowners.
First, though, he has to cross Broward Boulevard.
Six lanes of asphalt separate the piles of money rising up downtown from the... well, from the north side of the street. The sun pounds the pavement and then bounces around, intensifying the heat to a cake-bake, convection-oven readiness. And the noise is deafening: a constant wheerrrinng and arreeennnnng of automobiles.
Naugle stands on the sidewalk at the corner of Andrews Avenue waiting for the light to change. We will traverse a grim streetscape, which recently underwent a failed $1 million refinishing to make it more pedestrian-friendly.
"Come on! Come on!" Naugle yells as he sprints across six lanes of traffic. There's a white Honda Accord bearing down on me. Is the light red or green? I look up and see the red hand flashing. That signifies we still have time to get across, or maybe not... I think we just crossed on the red...
"That wasn't too bad, was it?" he asks once we reach the other side of the road.
Naugle wants to look at Fort Lauderdale from the top of the Andrews Avenue Bridge over the New River. He leads the way up a multistory stairwell painted the same Pepto-Bismol pink as the bridge. At one time, this may have given Fort Lauderdale's bridges a whimsical, Miami Vice air. Now it's grime-smeared, and the color seems putrid, like bubble gum stuck on pavement.
"Pressure-clean it," he says. "That's all it really needs is a good pressure-cleaning."
A bracing breeze blows across the bridge as we stop at the apex. Beneath us, the water ripples in the sun. "This is great, isn't it?" he trumpets. The view is sumptuous. Charter boats bob at the city-owned docks. Nearby, Riverwalk is awash with pedestrians on their lunch hour.
Naugle says he sees no contradiction between the antigrowth stance that helped him win reelection for the fifth time on February 11 and his support for the new skyscrapers, which already dominate the north side of the river. And he's proud that, though taxpayers shelled out $15 million for Riverwalk and the Museum of Discovery and Science back in the 1980s, today's developers are paying their own way. He likes Fort Lauderdale's emerging skyline. "Tall buildings downtown are a source of pride," he says. "You know your downtown is really growing up and everything."
The growth that Naugle opposes is the encroachment of condos into neighborhoods surrounding downtown. Several new townhouse developments, like the Symphony, 338 units on the westernmost edge of Riverwalk just east of Sailboat Bend, are too large for the mostly single-family neighborhoods beside them. Naugle originally voted for the Symphony, then opposed the project when the developer almost doubled its size. He lost the battle 3-2 when the project came up for a vote.
"That is an example of inappropriate development," he says.
But when Naugle looks at the Las Olas River House, he recalls that the property was once slated for office development. "The fact that somebody built a condo there," he says, "is what is termed 'smart growth' or the 'new urbanism' type of thing."
Of course, new urbanism is a little more than building residential. It's about the whole fabric of a community. It's about design that brings people together. It's about places that are people-sized, not pedestrian-deadly.
Naugle seems to think the city is great just the way it is. Slow the growth, give the city some time to catch up, and -- with a little pressure wash -- everything will be just fine.
And if negotiating downtown on foot seems difficult at times now, Naugle says, not to worry. The city aims to have transit and pedestrian improvements in place by the time the first buildings open in fall 2004.
But, I note, the plan for those improvements is incomplete at this late date.
Again, Naugle's message is not to worry. "If you put transportation in before the people are here," he says, "people will make fun of the trams or trolleys or whatever, because they are empty. You need to have transit come online when the demand is there."
Then Naugle poses a question. What is the one great amenity that you need in life?
Uh, I hate these trick questions.
"You need a grocery store!" he answers. He points out that just a few blocks from the bridge, a new Publix will soon open. (It opened in April.) "The most magnificent grocery store in all of Broward County!" he crows.
Naugle leads the way under the bridge to the store. We cut down an alley and pass a boarded-up building with graffiti sprayed on the side. "I'm that new shit in town," it reads.
"This is the nice part," Naugle jokes.
"So this wouldn't be a bad walk, would it?" he offers gamely after he peeks in the store window. "On a Saturday morning, say, from River House or the Water Garden with one of those little carts?"
Somehow, I say, it doesn't seem realistic that someone living in a $700,000 condo would climb the stairs of the bridge with a grocery cart bumping behind them and then comfortably pass the graffiti-covered walls.
Naugle imagines there will be phone calls to City Hall. A few complaints and the area will be cleaned up. And anyway, a lot of the new residents will probably do their grocery shopping online, he predicts. Publix delivery costs $7.95 per order for a $50 minimum. That's nothing when you pay a cool half million for an apartment.
"Every major city in Florida has a plan or a goal or a dream to have housing in their central business district," Naugle says. "Fort Lauderdale is the first of the big cities to accomplish it.
"Which is new urbanism."
I've begun to hate that phrase. Fort Lauderdale seems destined to become a yuppie paradise, gentrified beyond anyone's wildest dream. For us ordinary folks, there'll be a few shade trees, perhaps some trolley cars and more bike lanes, and parking lots on the perimeter. Nice.
If one person wants to metamorphose Fort Lauderdale, it is Tom Gustafson. The former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, now a private consultant, has thought about the process in mind-boggling detail -- block by block, curb by curb, bush by bush, inch by inch. And he is ready to deliver it with all the fire and brimstone and vision of a tent revival preacher.
The Downtown Development Authority funneled Gustafson $5,000 a month for ten months or more to study how to make the urban core more habitable. Fixing it all, he says, would cost $150 million. "The problem is that Fort Lauderdale is the most dangerous city in the nation for pedestrians and one of the most congested," he says, "and people think you can fix it by planting a few palm trees and a hedge."
Gustafson's work was to be incorporated into a downtown consolidated plan that the city has been working on for about a year. At a recent meeting, about 200 residents attended to talk about the walkability of downtown, its tree canopy, and mass transit. Some weren't impressed.
"They are only doing a master plan because we forced them to," County Commissioner John Rodstrom scoffs. "There wasn't a plan." He thinks the emphasis on walking is silly. "The reality is people are going to use their cars. They aren't going to walk. It's 100 degrees in the summer, and it rains like heck."
Gustafson disagrees. It's possible to persuade people to walk, he thinks, if you revise the downtown. Instead, the city is taking bits and pieces of his study and incorporating them into the master plan, and the DDA has stopped his work for the time being.
On this hot early-March afternoon, he's going to show me what it will take to render Fort Lauderdale a pleasant town to walk in. He stands on the side of NW First Avenue, a block from Federal Highway. He's facing a one-story shopping center with a Chicken Kitchen on the north side. Beyond the windows of the fast-food restaurant is a low hedge, a patch of grass, a sidewalk, more grass, and the street.
"I'll tell you what 'pedestrian friendly' means to a whole bunch of people," he says, raising his bushy, caterpillar eyebrows for emphasis. "It means that it looks pretty when you drive past it."
The scene in front of us, he says, is pedestrian-friendly. Pedestrians need shade from the summer sun, shelter from the rain, and sunlight for warming up on cold days, he shouts.
Then Gustafson reels off his revisions. He would add a second story with a balcony hanging over the sidewalk to block the sun from the first floor. The upstairs would house small businesses so that, as in New Orleans, the workers could talk to those on the street.
"That's important," he says. "You want to be able to have a conversation with the people up on the balcony."
Would the building owner really do all this work, I ask.
That, he says, just takes leadership. When he was speaker of the House, Gustafson rewrote the state's insurance, transportation, and criminal justice codes. He thinks this sort of high-intensity stuff is fun.
Part of the reason hardly anyone walks this corridor, Gustafson blazes on, is that it is inhospitable. "People will walk through an arcade, under an awning, under a balcony or a roof overhang," he rants. "It creates a walking environment, a three-sided cave where they're protected from the wind and the heat and the rain."
He urges me to join him in the middle of First Street.
"Let's have this same conversation right here," he says. "Tell me why you don't like it as much."
"Well, I can feel the sun..."
"First sun, right."
"If we were walking," he continues, "we would start to sweat.
He pauses for dramatic emphasis.
Then he screeches, "That car's going to hit you... You are starting to get uncomfortable because a car will kill you," Gustafson bellows, obviously enjoying my distress.
"And the next one is coming behind ya," he cries. "And it is going a little faster than you'd be comfortable with."
First Avenue isn't a busy road, and the cars have plenty of room to travel around us. Most of the drivers give us dirty looks and continue.
"The interjection of cars into this pedestrian zone has to be very carefully handled," Gustafson says.
He obviously finds this little exercise amusing.
Then he leaps back over to the sidewalk and points to the strip of grass that separates the sidewalk from the street.
"My question is what is the purpose of this grass?" he asks rhetorically.
"Uhhhh," I stammer.
"Nothing. Zero. Blinko," he shouts, triumphantly answering his own question. "It has some low-end uses," he admits. "In some people's minds, it's good for the ecology. But it is very substandard for dealing with pedestrian space. Highly substandard. Very overrated. What I see is a lot of unused space."
He would render First Avenue in brick or cobblestone to slow traffic. Widen the sidewalk and plant trees to provide filtered light. He would install a second story with balconies to provide shade over the sidewalk.
Gustafson has been talking for 20 minutes, and he has covered only one smidgen of the city. My head is swimming.
Dragging me along, he hustles over to Broward Boulevard, crossing the street into a grassy island in the middle. As cars whiz by, he marks off the width of the lanes. "Fifteen feet!" he yells.
"How wide is the average car?"
I don't know.
"Eight feet, seven feet, six feet," he answers his own question.
"Why make a traffic lane 15 feet? he queries. Again, he answers his own question. "So that traffic can go really fast!"
Gustafson would narrow the six lanes of Broward Boulevard. This would slow cars and gain room for a light rail line or a wide, like 20-foot-wide, pedestrian island.
Gustafson continues this analysis of Fort Lauderdale's streetscape as we walk through the plaza of the Citibank building (add vendors and small shops facing the courtyard) at Federal Highway and Broward (open the inside as a cut-through arcade for pedestrians). We continue down Second Avenue (use the first row of parking spaces lining the street of the parking garage for small shops and awnings) all the way to the Flowers and Found Objects shop at Fifth and East Las Olas (a little public park behind it because people need a place to stop and rest, maybe chessboards so that it is used a lot, and put a coffee stand on the corner).
At Federal Highway, the traffic entering Florida's only tunnel causes a deafening racket. Of course, Gustafson has figured out how to fix it. "Put a lid on it," he says. He would extend a roof over the entrance to the tunnel so that it would create quiet space. "That would greatly improve the walking environment," he says.
But changing the physical world is more complex than moving commas around on a body of law or making language more precise. As we've walked, he's added hundreds of small businesses to downtown.
When he suggests a barge or a ski lift to haul people over the New River, I'm so dazed by the nonstop verbiage that it makes sense to me. A ski lift!
And I just got a taste. He maps out places for parking on downtown's perimeter, identifies routes to carry passengers from Tri-Rail stations by mass transit into downtown, designates roads that could be turned into walkable pedestrian thoroughfares, and analyzes where small parks and trolley stations could be located.
His only problem? No one wants to listen. On February 25, the Broward County Commission refused to endorse the light-rail portion of the plan. Approval would have boosted the chances of winning federal funding, but the county commission balked. "If [narrowing lanes on Broward] was the plan, no one wanted it," Rodstrom says. "It didn't make any sense. And the whole thing just seemed thrown together at the last minute."
Gustafson wanted to do a pilot project on Second Street to help persuade the feds to fund the project, but the DDA put that on hold as well; its members want the county, the city, and the DDA to agree on a transportation plan.
Mayor Naugle says the problem with the Gustafson approach is that Fort Lauderdale, unlike other cities, is being developed bit by bit. It never had a blighted downtown to condemn.
But Gustafson is unfazed. And unlike Naugle, who believes that Fort Lauderdale works pretty well just the way it is -- with a little pressure-washing -- the former speaker still preaches wholesale reformation. "I apologize for this," he says after he jumps on his cell phone to make arrangements to catch a ride to the airport. "But it is in the details that people are losing their way. It is the details no one else wants to listen to."
On a recent, bright Wednesday afternoon, Gary Moore and Ralph Jackson, a pair of African-American men, sit on a sun-drenched bench on Riverwalk just east of Andrews Avenue. They are deep in conversation. Moore, a Miami artist, and Jackson, director of the Center for Community and Cultural Heritage at Florida Atlantic University's downtown campus, are talking about what makes a city vibrant when I approach.
Jackson, who often strolls over to Riverwalk from his office at FAU, just a stone's throw from Las Olas River House, finds downtown wanting. "It needs people here," he says. "We need to have more people downtown in order for it to work."
So when the new downtown dwellers start moving into the Symphony, Las Olas Grand, Las Olas River House, Summit Las Olas, the Venezia, the Waverly -- the city will come to life?
It's not just people. It's the kind of people, he explains. Most of the people moving into condos close to the New River, he says, will be monied and white.
He's probably right about that.
Moore and Jackson believe that segregation is a bad thing; they believe it on a deep level. It was bad for blacks, even though there were some advantages to black business owners and for the continuity of the community. And it's bad for rich people too, even if they seem to choose it.
"It's gentrification," Moore says.
"It will create a downtown that has no spirit, no heart," Jackson adds. "For that, you need to have a variety of people, a variety of incomes, a variety of cultures."
Instead, it will be a fancy monotone, but it won't be welcoming if you aren't landed and white. "We're eliminating cultures, fast," Jackson says, referring to the skyrocketing housing prices around downtown.
In Philadelphia, where Moore is from, he says there's a bustling city center where "black people, white people, Irish, Italian" all mix. "There is enough for everybody to do there," he adds.
One way to bring together everyone is activities such as free movies and jazz concerts in Huizenga Park. But the kind of small-scale, hip stores that make a place interesting probably won't happen downtown. High rents and big-bucks stores catering to upscale customers will make that impossible.
In Philly, Moore says, paved and landscaped boulevards connect black neighborhoods and fancy white ones like Society Hill to the urban core. "Not like here in Fort Lauderdale," Moore continues. "If you live on Sistrunk, there is no comfortable way to get here from there. You go through warehouses; you go through nothing."
Jackson doesn't want city commissioners to limit growth. He wants them to encourage development of middle-income and low-income housing in neighborhoods near downtown.
Of course, that's not where developers are clamoring to build. And if cities' leadership reflects the character of their citizenry, Fort Lauderdale may not be that inclusive.
What else do they think the city needs to be more habitable?
"Shade," laughs Jackson.
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