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In Defense of Marina Lofts in Fort Lauderdale

Growing up in the westerly suburbs of Fort Lauderdale, I learned to accept that much of my adolescent and young adult life would be flat: low, flat stretches of land covered in Malvina Reynolds' "little boxes" that all look just the same; strip mall plazas filled with chain restaurants and fast-food joints; sprawling shopping malls taking up several square miles of space; and the thousands of middle-class families inhabiting the bland, homogenized, carved out wetlands of Greater Fort Lauderdale.

If I ever wanted to take in a breathtaking skyline, get drunk off the buzzing energy of a busy sidewalk, or challenge myself to explore all the people, food, and culture of a city, I'd have to escape North. At the very least, I could head east on 595 and see what might be bubbling "downtown."

See also: Five Reasons Marina Lofts Should Be Nixed

It's about time Fort Lauderdale recognizes its potential for greatness. There's so much about the city that already makes it a fantastic place to live: loads of waterfront property and easy ocean access, open spaces and lush greenery, eclectic businesses and nightlife, and of course the weather. What it lacks is bold vision and the raw, creative energy that typically comes when thriving young professionals congregate and set their minds toward similar goals.

Despite resistance, Fort Lauderdale is changing. An influx of innovative and out-of-the box businesses are spreading south and across the city from the downtown core, public transit is expanding, our art museum's got a new, high-profile director, and a renewed interest in the area has developers teaming up with world-class architects to bring a whole new level of international attention to our own little Venice.

See also: Marina Lofts Wins Approval; Rain Tree Will Be Moved

Developer Asi Cymbal's latest project, the Marina Lofts on the New River, has been the subject of controversy ever since renderings of Danish "starchitecht" Bjarke Ingels' striking, three-tower design were released and plans to relocate a 100-year-old tree on the lot were announced. Last week, New Times published a piece on "Five Reasons Why the Marina Lofts Should be Nixed." And while it made valid points, in lieu of last week's decision by the city commissioners to move forward with the project, I'd like to propose an alternate perspective to some of the comments being made by critics of the Marina Lofts.

"We love our rain tree, and nature"

The noisiest activists against the Marina Lofts have come in the form of tree-hugging protesters, who've been rallying over the last year to save a national "Champion Tree" located on the grounds of the property, a nearly 100-year-old Rain Tree that was declared protected by the city back in the '80s. While developer Asi Cymbal has continually stressed his intention to save the tree, putting together a team of well-respected experts to relocate it to a designated Rain Tree park on the property, as well as a hefty bond to ensure its protection, naysayers continue to insist it will die if we try to move it.

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. Well, what about those experts outside of Fort Lauderdale, who might not have a biased attachment the preservation of their own backyards?

According to Cymbal's own expert tree advisor, arborist Bob Brennan of Fairchild Tropical Gardens, the transplant can be done without harming our tree. Furthermore, in an article by South Florida Business Journal Editor-In-Chief Kevin Gale, University of Florida professor emeritus George Fitzpatrick had this to say about the tree's relocation: "If the person doing it knows what he's doing, it's not hard to do." In the same article, Jungle Island consulting arborist Jeff Shimonski said he's familiar with Environmental Design [the company in charge of the relocation], and couldn't imagine that it would be a problem to move the tree, which he has walked around.

Lastly, unlike many other projects in development or buildings currently in existence in Fort Lauderdale, the Marina Lofts designs include several environmentally conscious elements, like green roofs and "living" green walls to improve air quality and enhance the overall aesthetic effect. Considering the tree has been hidden in a secluded lot behind a chain-link fence for years, these changes sound great to me.

"We don't want to be like Miami"

No one wants to deny Fort Lauderdale it's own unique identity. We like our relaxed, low-key strain of waterfront living; the small-town feel and quaint, Old Florida-style architecture, but there's always room for growth. Opponents have said we should just let Miami have the Marina Lofts. That is sad! While most growing cities would kill for an innovative and internationally recognized project like this, ours is acting like a grumpy old man too stubborn to realize what's good for him. Why not dream big? Why must we have an identity crisis anytime someone proposes a little change?

What's more, opponents of another developing improvement to the city, the Wave Streetcar, which will potentially connect with Florida East Coast Industries' All Aboard Florida high-speed rail service from Miami to Orlando and extend down Las Olas Boulevard to serve the beach area, have been cited criticizing the project for not being elevated like Metrorail or Metromover in Miami. Come on, people. Let's make up our minds, or at least offer up some better ideas, before denying our city important and much-needed improvements.

"It's ugly"

Sure, we're all entitled to our own tastes. But calling this design ugly, lacking thoughtfulness, or even out-of-place is just silly. Architect Bjarke Ingels has earned countless international accolades for his innovative designs, even earning the WSJ's title of Innovator of the Year for architecture in 2011. Not only does Ingel's design carefully incorporate several existing historical and natural structures in the building's surrounding environment, but it also strives -- in a really smart way, not in the sloppy, misguided way of City Place -- to complete the River Walk and bring in the pedestrian traffic and industry it really deserves. It's modern, elegant, and yes, iconic. And if the project moves forward to completion as planned, it really will help change the way the world perceives Fort Lauderdale.

"No one would live there"

In our opposing post, it's noted "critics say that the neighborhood doesn't have the infrastructure to deal with traffic from 960 apartments." However, these critics need to face the reality: the downtown population of Fort Lauderdale is currently only about half the size it will ultimately be. According to an article in the South Florida Business Journal, the city's master plan calls for 23,000 units in a walkable, urban city. With about 4,000 units under construction or under development, the goal is to "build a city that ties in well to mass transit, including the upcoming Wave streetcar system and potentially commuter rail." Sorry, but there's going to be more people and more traffic whether we want it or not.

Those who think Cymbal's vision for "affordable luxury" living for young professionals, with units starting at $1,100, is unrealistic should also take other factors into consideration. Current proposed mass transit improvements like the Wave streetcar would connect the Marina Lofts to the Broward Health Medical Center, attracting nurses and other medical service professionals who will want to use the streetcar to get to and from work.

That's not to mention all the affluent urbanites with a taste for world-class design and luxury amenities who will be drawn in by this new addition. According to City Manager Lee Feldman in the South Florida real estate publication the Real Deal, "A critical mass of housing catering to diverse income levels has not yet been established...Together with three already approved residential developments Marina Lofts could achieve the critical mass necessary to support a bustling marketplace along the New River."

The Marina Lofts promises to bring together the best of both worlds: cutting-edge design and a more low-key location and price-points than our neighbors down South.

"It can't be done"

In addition to a plethora of empty apartment towers and unfinished projects throughout the city, naysayers keep pointing to developer Asi Cymbal's dismal track record as evidence that the Marina Lofts as currently envisioned simply cannot be done. Our opposing post says: "look at Craigslist or drive by the Waverly on any given evening and see how many lights are on...the Nu River Landing apartments still have dirt floors where retail was promised seven years ago." While Fort Lauderdale real estate development may have been hit hard by the recession, current trends indicate we're on an upswing. Luxury home sales are soaring, rental demand in the area is high, and construction on the Related Group's luxurious rental complex New River Yacht Club, right next door to Marina Lofts, is also already underway.

Furthermore, "citizen observer" Steve Sticht claims to have visited several of the Miami projects listed on Cymbal's portfolio website and has determined several to be under construction or still in development. I take that to be a good sign -- the buildings are in progress and soon Miami will have many new buildings to further its reputation as a growing epicenter for world-class culture. The majority of Cymbal Developments' projects listed in the portfolio, in New York and Miami, have been successfully completed. Several of Cymbal's projects in Miami's Design District have contributed significantly to the area's transformation over the last few years into a high-end, world-class destination for Miami.

Critics of the Marina Lofts need to stop giving into NIMBYism. If you really love your city, you should let it grow and stop underestimating the power of belief. Dan Norman, a former senior editor at the Sun-Sentinel and the current president of the board at the Esplanade Condominium (the building just west of the future Marina Lofts) found the overall concept to be "impressive, innovative and even daring." If we all got on board, a big dream like that of Cymbal and Ingels could very well become reality.

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