Sorry, Egypt. The "eyes of the world [were] on Fort Lauderdale" last night.
At least, that's what Marina Lofts developer Asi Cymbal said without the slightest hint of irony before a packed house at a Fort Lauderdale City Commission meeting Wednesday. The commission, voting on the relocation of a century-old African rain tree and on a massive Marina Lofts apartment complex designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels on the south side of New River, approved both measures: the tree move with a 3-1 vote and the larger project unanimously.
The meeting, which ran later than 3 a.m., was a marathon of contentious back-and-forth. It started with a presentation by Cymbal Development's team of yuppies, followed by statements from the public.
Supporters listed off the city's future (buzz phrase: "Fast-forward Fort Lauderdale"), "affordable luxury" apartments, and "density" as selling points and outnumbered opponents, who worried about congestion, traffic, sustainability, and the life of the rain tree.
Ingels was one of the first to speak. Boasting heartthrob good looks and a natural charisma, he spoke about fusing maritime culture and urban life and bringing "life and activity" to Riverwalk. He also made a weird comment about the building resembling the silhouette of a woman, but for the most part he was charming and just looked damned happy to be the star of the show.
The arborists comprised the most educational and tolerable component of the presentation. They spoke convincingly about the ability to move the tree safely, with Paul Cox, vice president of one of the country's most reputable tree moving companies, reciting his experiences moving large trees in South America, Israel, and North America. When someone on the commission asked Cox his success rate "out of a hundred," he said "98" and pointed out that even though it's counterintuitive, smaller trees proved more problematic than large ones.
Cymbal has also promised a $1 million bond to ensure that nothing happens to the tree during its relocation.
However, that's still too much risk for some. Fred Carlson, who sits on the board of directors of the Central Beach Alliance, called Cymbal's stated commitment to the tree a "specious stunt."
"The million-dollar bond as a way to buttress survivability is a joke because it may take a year or two before it dies," he said. Carlson came to speak on an earlier item on the agenda, however, and left just as the presentation kicked off. "I can't stomach this," he said.
In turn, many opponents begrudged the project's inflexibility: Why can't this world-renowned architect redesign with the rain tree, which reportedly requires 200,000 gallons of water daily, in mind?
A few Lofts supporters didn't do the development any favors either. One said rather insensitively, "We are going to be the Mecca of Southeast Florida!"
Then there was the nasty classism of a Tweet from Miami 1 Realty:
To which Marina Lofts replied:
(So: Out-of-towner Cymbal is coming up from Miami, supported by out-of-town realtors from Miami, seeking approval from Fort Lauderdale partly on the basis of concern for lower-income city residents for whom he's going to offer "affordable" luxury, then proceeding to mock Fort Lauderdale residents for their looks. For this, he will soon be expecting rent money.)
But there's more! Another speaker said, "I feel [Cymbal] should be able to do what he wants to the tree for what he's paying for it."
I asked local real estate agent and lifelong Fort Lauderdale resident Samantha Debianchi what she thought of that statement. She didn't agree with it, she said, but supported Cymbal because that was exactly what he was trying to avoid. "He could've just [uprooted] it and paid a fine."
Cymbal refused to comment.
Earlier in the day, opponents of Marina Lofts had discovered with alarm that the developer used a lobbying firm, Floridian Partners, to stack the meeting with Marina Lofts supporters. (A call to the firm confirmed that Marina Lofts was a client, but no one responded to a request for further information.)
At the entrance of City Hall as the meeting began, Marina Lofts supporters held signs that said "Support our Rain Tree: Build Rain Tree Park." I asked if any of them lived in Fort Lauderdale; four out of five people outside at the time said no. "I just work for the company," one girl said. The fifth, a man, spoke up: "I live in Fort Lauderdale." He said he trusted Cymbal and liked the Marina Lofts because they were a "green" and "futuristic" development.
Turns out he lives in Pompano Beach.
As for notable local creative types, FAT Village founder Doug McCraw stated his unambiguous support for the Lofts, while longtime rocker and local-music promoter Jessica Kross asked for a "building that doesn't look like a hurricane already hit it."
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