The year was 1958, and Gov. LeRoy Collins, sitting behind a large mahogany desk, scribbled his name across the bottom of a deed giving Fort Lauderdale about five acres of state land along the Intracoastal Waterway.
When he finished Collins put his fists on the desk and raised to a standing position. He glared down at Fort Lauderdale Mayor John Russell and roared: "Let me tell you something. That property will remain in the people's hands forever, do you hear me?"
Russell gulped and nodded, as nervous as an Army grunt meeting a five-star general.
"That's the God-blessed truth," declared Hessman, who has lived on the beach for 40 years and remembers Russell telling him the story in 1986. "That land was supposed to be for public use, and now they want to sell it."
Russell and Collins are both dead, and there is no record of the governor's words, but his signature remains at the end of a three-page deed giving the city the land around the eastern foot of the Las Olas Boulevard bridge. The first of three conditions for that land transfer was that the property will be used by the city "exclusively for public municipal purposes and cannot be sold or leased for private purposes."
Although the city convinced the state in 1989 to let it lease -- and therefore develop -- the land, few fought the idea, because potential projects being discussed were essentially public places: an aquarium, an art museum, a sports stadium.
But now redevelopment on central Fort Lauderdale beach often means high-rise condos and time-shares. With a $5.5 million renovation under way at the adjacent municipal marina, beach old-timers like Hessman fear the renewed threat of development on what is now a 525-space parking lot with some of the cheapest parking on the beach. (At 50 cents an hour, it's a dollar less than the rate in the lot at the corner of Las Olas Boulevard and State Road A1A.)
"We'll put it out for bid and take the best financial deal and the best deal for the quality of life that keeps with our plans of redevelopment on the beach," Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle says. Though he has voted against beach development in the past, he says he doesn't oppose a new use for the parking lot as long as it isn't a high-density project like BeachPlace, the eighteen-story time-share tower, restaurant, and retail complex on A1A.
"It's a good investment," Naugle says, "and when the price is right, we'll sell it."
How did it happen that a piece of property so vehemently preserved for public use could be available to the highest bidder?
In 1989 Fort Lauderdale's city manager and mayor successfully convinced the state land-trust board to release the city from the public-use clause.
The deed was changed to read that the land "shall be leased for fair value... and under reasonable market terms for redevelopment purposes." In exchange the city promised to give the state half the net profits from the land lease for 30 years. After that the state gets half the gross revenues, less half the maintenance costs.
"The change was made so the property could be developed," says Chuck Adams, the city's manager of development programs. "The state's position as to what benefits the public is that they get money. They just want to get paid."
Former Mayor Bob Cox signed that deal.
"We wanted to get rid of the deed restriction so we could exercise our own infinite wisdom and not have someone else exercise it for us," says Cox, recalling that at the time, public projects such as a museum or a stadium were being proposed for the lot. "With the original considerations for the beach, we didn't think about density," he says, then adds, "but the whole character of the beach has changed."
Cox, who sat on the commission from 1969 to 1989 (the last five years as mayor), says he now favors halting development of high-rise, multi-use facilities like BeachPlace until their impact on the barrier island can be assessed. And under no conditions, he maintains, should the city lose those parking spaces.
"Now that the city has allowed a commitment to large buildings on the beach, I think the city would be crazy to give up that parking," he says. "I would hope that the parking for the public would be preserved there."
When given the choice, voters in November overwhelmingly supported protecting the parking lot at Las Olas and A1A from redevelopment. Putting the future of the Intracoastal lot up to voters is not being discussed.
Some parking will also be preserved for the boaters who use the new marina. Fifty-two parking spaces, one for each slip, will be retained directly under the bridge ramp and on the north tip of the lot. The enlarged marina will also include a 4000-square-foot comfort station with showers, lockers, and meeting rooms. Those improvements, paid for by city revenue bonds and state grants, are scheduled to be completed by May.
The rest of the property beside the marina remains free for redevelopment. City commissioners will ultimately decide what kind of project will go there, and project talk so far has been of a luxury hotel or residential structure. Not all agree with those projects, however.
"I think we ought to take another look at that," Vice Mayor Tim Smith says. "We need good, convenient parking on the beach." If the central beach is going to continue to develop, Smith warns, that parking will become invaluable.
At the moment, however, the city has no plan to maintain or improve the existing lot. Few signs notify motorists that it exists, so it's empty most days. At night the lot fills with the bar-and-restaurant crowd, mostly locals who know of this almost secret place to park. Broken glass litters much of the lot, beer cans and bottles dot the medians of weeds and dirt. Most days the only redeeming value is the wild parrots that gather in the stately palms.
Joe Hessman looks at the parking lot with disgust.
"They've allowed it to deteriorate so they can convince the public that the city doesn't need it and they can build another high-rise on it," declares Hessman, who has served on the city's marine advisory board for the past five years. "Why would you spend $40 million or whatever they spent over there on the beach and a block away do this? Look at this. It's a disgrace."
His voice rises when he talks about the 1989 deal that gave the city the power to turn over to private developers land that was supposed to be preserved for public use.
"Who gives them the right to do that without informing the public?" Hessman rants. "What gives the mayor the right to negotiate my land, public land, and give it away? What gives the state the right to do that?