Broward News

After Another Marathon Meeting, Fort Lauderdale Moves Forward With Controversial Bahia Mar Zoning Plan

Around 2 o'clock this morning, following an eight-hour gauntlet of a public hearing, the Fort Lauderdale City Commission tentatively approved a zoning ordinance that would clear the way for the redevelopment of the publicly owned Bahia Mar property on Fort Lauderdale Beach and the construction of two 29-story towers. The ordinance will be up for a final vote on June 7. Dean Trantalis was the only commissioner to object.

Just after 9:30 last night, Harry Nathan Yagoda, a traffic engineer, stood in front of the commission in a navy blazer and begged commissioners to shoot down the proposal. “The reports are defective!” he said of traffic projections. He alleged that there was something suspicious about the analysis: “Something else is cooking here.”

Over hours of testimony, the meeting morphed into something out of Rod Serling's nightmares — scores of residents repeated similar concerns about traffic, beach shadows, sea-level rise, and moral rectitude, in what felt like an endless loop where reality had folded in upon itself.

Since February, the Bahia Mar plan has been the eye of what amounts to a political hurricane in Fort Lauderdale. According to Michael Mayo at the Sun Sentinel, private businesses have operated on the property since 1959, when Palm Beach socialite Patricia Murphy began operating the Candlelight restaurant on the property.  Three years later, she was awarded a no-bid 50-year lease, the terms of which gave the city very little control and very little cut of profits made from businesses on the land. The lease has since been sold and extended. 

Now, a DoubleTree hotel stands on the site. In 2014, Miami superdevelopers Jimmy Tate and Sergio Rok bought the current property lease, which runs through 2062. The developers pitched building two 39-story skyscrapers there and adding a public promenade and shops. They are seeking a revamped 50-year lease, with a 50-year option to renew. Mayor Jack Seiler has argued that at least with a new lease, the city would get a bigger cut of profits made on the land, including 1 percent if the lease changes hands, and 1.1 percent of any condo sales. He has said that a main concern is keeping the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show as a tenant. (Its organizers first were lukewarm but recently expressed support for the redevelopment plan.)

Beach residents treated the words “39-story towers” as if the city had proposed building a permanent Insane Clown Posse theater show in the middle of the beach. On February 2, more than 70 residents spoke out against the project at a public meeting that stretched from 6 p.m. until 4:30 the next morning. Some residents complained that the land was being handed over to private developers, many of whom had donated to some of the City Commission members. Others complained that the towers would cast shadows on the beach and gunk up the city’s roads with even more traffic. More still predicted that the entire resort area could be underwater by the time the lease  is up.

By the end of that February meeting, a visibly weary Mayor Jack Seiler had been battered into submission, and the commission agreed to force Tate and company to chop the project’s height. (According to Broward blogger Buddy Nevins, Tate then sent the City Commission a rambling email excoriating Commissioner Dean Trantalis, the project's loudest critic within the city government.) The proposed towers will now only stretch 29 stories into the sky, and will house 576 condominiums.

To build, the land needs to be rezoned to allow residences on the property. The city claims it can do this by naming the new Bahia Mar project an "innovative development," though city residents have ridiculed the plan as just an "upgraded DoubleTree hotel."

Last night’s zoning meeting became another public forum to attack the plan from all sides. Though the development team, led by spokesperson Robert Lochrie III, seemed confident that the updated plan would satisfy the City Commission, a horde of Fort Lauderdale residents pilloried the plan. 

Jeff Weinberger, a local activist for the homeless (who, full disclosure, has written for New Times), spoke out at the meeting, demanding that the city shelve the project in favor of added space for the homeless.

“While the city is going to lease public land for condos in what’s an impending flood zone, it's not giving an inch of space for homeless people to be safe, or have a public restroom," Weinberger told New Times. He then echoed those sentiments in front of the commission.

A handful of members from Broward's Black Lives Matter Alliance spoke out — Jasmen Rogers, of the Alliance, asked the city to guarantee that poor, black residents from the city's Northwest side be chosen for many of the site's jobs.

Another resident accused the City Commission of executing the deal in a backroom, against the public's wishes.

"This project is predatory capitalism personified," she said.

Charlie King, an outspoken gadfly who attends many city and county meetings, wound up as the night's final public speaker. King turned to the throng of people gathered to protest the project.

"I wish this many people came to the budget meetings," he said. "Usually, it's just me."

Before the vote, Trantalis spoke out loudly against the proposal. He accused the proposed "innovative" zoning change as a way to skirt around the existing zoning laws.

"I don’t want to see Manhattan on Fort Lauderdale Beach," he said. "Manhattan on Fort Lauderdale Beach is an absurdity." He added: "There are opportunities here, but as it sits tonight, I cannot support this."

Before the vote, Seiler effectively told his critics that when it comes to allegations of any backroom deals, they should put up or shut up.  "If anyone has any allegation, bring it forward," he said.