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Raze the Roof

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¨These projects are very difficult to make financial sense out of,¨ he concedes. ¨It´s almost more of a labor of love than an investment. I can´t tell you how many times I´ve been told, Oh, just tear it down!´¨

There´s a tendency to dismiss young cities like Fort Lauderdale as being bereft of history. And the momentum is distinctly anti-preservation — one look at Fort Lauderdale´s skyline and the disappearance of single-story bungalows in neighborhoods like Victoria Park tells the tale.

In other cities — like Savannah, Georgia — historic preservation boards operate independently of local politics, commissioner Hutchinson points out. ¨Instead of just reviewing and advising, the preservation board could be more pro-active, take on more of a protective role.¨

City Commission votes on the Graves House, the Stranahan House, or the Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel all demonstrate how the city, afraid of lawsuits from deep-pocketed developers, have capitulated to their whims. As part of an effort to stem the tide, the city is looking into hiring a full-time preservation officer. ¨Someone who´d eat, sleep, and drink historic preservation,¨ Hutchinson says. ¨Someone who can figure out how we can give people incentives to declare their properties historic.¨

Developers have always led the land booms in Broward County, from downtown speculators in the 1930s to land-grabbers like the Bergeron family to the condominium kings of the past decade. Realtor Andy Weiser, who can´t wait for the chance to sell downtown penthouse units on the Las Olas site where the Hyde Park Market once stood, decries the ¨small and entirely too vocal antidevelopment crowd.¨ On his webpage, he points out that seeking to recoup damage done by not being able to exercise property rights is a viable tactic. The threat of ¨lawsuit(s) the city can ill afford¨ can give a project the momentum to get it through the complicated land-use process, he suggests.

At any rate, he says, ¨if you imagine that political wrangling ahead and no ground breaking date in sight has deterred prospective buyers, you do not understand the dynamics of Fort Lauderdale real estate.¨ The demand for new construction, he points out, is never-ending. Broward County housing prices rose 31 percent between spring 2004 and spring 2005, but supply dipped by 10 percent, Weiser points out. The average price for a single-family home is $330,000, a hurdle that doesn´t seem to faze buyers.

Though a city ordinance makes accepting campaign contributions over $250 illegal, commissioners can find ways to profit, usually on the back end of such decisions.

¨Maybe someone promises ´em a job a few years down the road,¨ opines Peter Abreu.

Nolan Haan didn´t exactly move heaven and Earth to get his hands on an Abreu house, but he came awfully close. And just as he realized his prize, he watched it nearly sink to the bottom of the New River. On the morning of Friday, December 7, 1996, Haan finally saw the Oliver House, a rare boxy Abreu colonial four-bedroom, lifted off its foundation in Smoker Park. From there, the two-story, 220-ton home was placed on steel beams with wheels attached. A tractor slowly towed the house to the water´s edge, preparing to transfer it onto a waiting barge for a trip to Sailboat Bend.

In a split second, the whole rig jack-knifed from the weight, sending the front tractor dangling between the seawall and the barge. ¨It would have pulled the house over the edge along with it,¨ winces Haan. The house partially slid onto the barge, which had tilted from the tonnage, its bow poking halfway out of the water. A fire rescue squad arrived and pumped water into the barge´s ballast compartments, allowing it to level itself. Suddenly, the untethered house went careening. As the barge struggled to remain upright, the house slipped and skidded, finally coming to rest at the bow, against a short iron rail.

¨The barge owner told me he´d almost taken that railing out to have more space,¨ Haan says, sitting on a couch in the sunlit living room of the Oliver House, a piano etude spilling from a speaker hidden behind a curtain. ¨He said he was prepared to go swimming.¨

Unlike the owners of most other Abreu properties, the redhaired, freckle-faced Haan was no millionaire. He bought a vacant lot in crime- and crack-ridden Sailboat Bend for $13,000 in 1993. Three years later, ¨I ended up getting $50,000 in cash and the house for free,¨ he muses. The Historic Preservation Board approved a demolition permit for the abandoned home in 1995. Covered with graffiti inside and out, the 1924 structure had done time as a thrift store and a DMV office before succumbing to neglect. Abreu had built it for David Oliver, the first city treasurer of Fort Lauderdale.

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton

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