Five Reasons Marina Lofts Should Be Nixed (And the Rain Tree Saved)

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The Fort Lauderdale City Commission will vote tonight on whether to allow a nearly 100-year-old tree to be moved so a developer can build a 960-unit apartment complex called Marina Lofts on the New River. The site is west of the Broward County Jail and the Downtowner saloon, near the Pirate Republic restaurant. The complex has been designed with one 33-story tower and two 28-story towers.

An agenda released last week show that the votes regarding Marina Lofts are the last things scheduled for today's 6 p.m. meeting at City Hall. The agenda item has two parts -- one vote on whether to allow the move of the tree and another to allow the building. Anyone who wants to speak regarding the second item "must be sworn in," the agenda reads. Otherwise, commenters should get three minutes, an assistant in Mayor Jack Seiler's office said Monday.

Here are five reasons why the commission should nix the project:

5. Nature > architecture. The building site has been controversial for various reasons but largely because there is a unique, nearly 100-year-old rain tree on the property. A previous incarnation of the City Commission declared in 1987 that the tree was such a treasure that it "shall not be removed or damaged" without the City Commission's approval. According to blogger/activist Cal Deal, the city's utility advisory committee, its sustainability advisory board, its historic preservation board, the county soil and water conservation district, the county historical commission, and the Sierra Club have all said the tree should not be moved. The city's planning and zoning board approved the project, yes -- but the board was instructed to consider solely the building plans and not to consider the tree.

Marina Lofts was designed by "architectural it-boy" Bjarke Ingels, but a million of him put together could never build a single living tree. Developer Asi Cymbal has hired an expert who says the tree can be moved down the street to a "Rain Tree Park" that he will create, but others believe the tree won't survive such a move. Cymbal has offered to put up a $1 million bond in case the tree dies. Cymbal has claimed he's a "tree hugger".... so why risk the move?

4. The scheduling of meetings seems to have favored the building. If the tree were to stand, the whole project would have to return to the drawing board. So logic would dictate that a City Commission vote about the tree should have been the first order of business.

Instead, plans for development moved along, and the P&Z board set a special meeting to discuss and vote on Marina Lofts' development plans back on May 14. But at that meeting, which went until 1 a.m., participants were surprised to find that the board was ordered to consider the building plans separate from the tree. Anyone who used the tree as a basis for his argument was marginalized.

The one-two punch of tonight's meeting -- vote on the tree at the 11th hour, then vote on the project -- leaves no time for city commissioners to do their own research or thoughtfully consider any concerns that may come up at the meeting. Jessica Kross, who organized a "Save the Rain Tree" petition said she will present more than 4,000 signatures to the commission during the meeting. The fact that the item is scheduled last on the agenda means that it could go late into the night, when people are tired or can't stay because of family/work obligations.

An assistant in Mayor Seiler's office said the city manager, along with the clerk, is responsible for the scheduling of agenda items. City Manager Lee Feldman has said he favors Marina Lofts. He did not return a call for comment Monday.

As former city commissioner Tim Smith points out, commissioner Romney Rogers has recused himself from voting, saying that a partner in his law firm represents the Water Taxi, which operates from Cymbal's property. Rogers represents the neighborhood where the project is located -- and where some of its would-be next-door neighbors, people living in the Esplanade condo, have organized against Marina Lofts. (Smith speculates that Rogers wants to run for mayor in the future and doesn't want to be on record voting for the project, just in case the tree dies.)

3. Fort Lauderdale doesn't need any more apartment buildings -- especially in the quaint neighborhood. Cymbal has said that units will start as "low" as $1,100 -- that must be for a studio, since floor plans show studios to three-bedroom layouts. Critics say that the neighborhood doesn't have the infrastructure to deal with traffic from 960 apartments and that the tall buildings will plunge the area into shadows. It doesn't take a census to see that there are plenty of apartments for rent in Fort Lauderdale and that Marina Lofts is not necessary. You could look at Craigslist or drive by the Waverly on any given evening and see how many lights are on. Cal Deal found that the Nu River Landing apartments still have dirt floors where retail was promised seven years ago.

2. There are still questions for Asi Cymbal. Cymbal came up in the New York real estate world under developer Shayla Boymelgreen and was a good talker even then. But Boymelgreen later faced multiple lawsuits for shoddy construction and disappeared. Cymbal, for the most part, managed to escape being associated with those failures and instead landed good press about how he'd grown up poor in Coney Island and made himself into a rich developer bro, investing in cool Miami restaurants and clubs and turning a sweet multimillion-dollar profit on some of his investments.

But critic Steve Sticht says he combed through Cymbal's portfolio and drove to building sites, only to find mostly incomplete projects. He worried Cymbal could push the project through the permitting stages, then sell it to another developer before it's built, thus nullifying any promises he makes -- like, say, low rents. In the past, New Times contacted Cymbal to ask him about these concerns, but he did not respond. It seemed he was meeting only with people who didn't ask tough questions

As we've seen, the city isn't always thorough about vetting companies.

1. The project is hideous-looking. Yes, Bjarke Ingels is a superstar; yes, his excitement is infectious; and yes, his firm has executed some amazing projects around the world. Asi Cymbal has been involved in trendy projects too, has kept a cool head in the face of adversity, and may indeed be a lovely guy in person. It's easy to see why the business community has a crush on them.

But just because they keep blathering about "iconic architecture" coming to Fort Lauderdale doesn't mean that this is it. Marina Lofts is downright fugly. The emperor wears no clothes!

The fact that it looks like it's torn and opens up to create a tunnel to the water -- that's innovative idea, for sure, but not a pretty one. This blocky design looks like it might fit in a concrete jungle like Berlin or Moscow, maybe -- but not a cozy green Fort Lauderdale neighborhood. Ingels has done innovative, sustainable designs -- like his house with gardens on the roof or a ski slope/waste incinerator -- so why couldn't he have designed a project that left the rain tree where it was and incorporated it? (He could have taken inspiration from these guys.) It's like Ingels saved all his good ideas for real cities and all we got was a big, post-apocalyptic box. Cymbal should demand a refund.

There is already a big concrete monstrosity on the water -- it's called Riverfront. The developers keep talking about "connecting Riverwalk"... but nobody wants to go to Riverwalk!!! [[Correction: Riverfront is a mostly abandoned shopping complex along the Riverwalk. The Riverwalk district also includes the Stranahan House, the Fort Lauderdale History Society, the Broward Center, and Cinema Paradiso. So maybe some people want to go to Riverwalk.]] Farmers' markets and bicyclists cruising around Marina Lofts as though it's Copenhagen is a sweet, idyllic fantasy -- but it's hard to imagine that really happening in our car-centric culture and in this tricky-to-access neighborhood.

For visual offensiveness alone, Marina Lofts should be nixed -- even if there were no beautiful old tree in the way.

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