Broward News

Tonight: Fort Lauderdale Votes on New Aquatic Complex (UPDATED)

UPDATE: At the end of tonight's meeting Fort Lauderdale commissioners postponed the decision on the aquatic center, again, until March 17. They are taking this time to review RDC's cost increases because City Attorney Cynthia Everett says she does not see anything in the city's contract with the contractor that allows for price increases due to delays.

Tonight, Fort Lauderdale commissioners will officially decide whether to move forward with a proposed multimillion-dollar aquatic center that would replace the city's aging aquatics complex.

The proposed development is slated to include two olympic-sized pools, dive facilities, and a parking garage and is part of a major set of projects that will transform Fort Lauderdale Beach into "Aquatic City USA."

The aquatic center's overhaul has been in the works for years — and plagued by problems. An inspector general's report found in 2013 that the city had "engaged in misconduct" when it awarded the contract to the builder. Critics of the plan have called it "a debacle" and the head of the city's Beach Redevelopment Advisory Board voted against it.

Still, city officials are touting the project, and it looks likely to proceed.

The new swimming complex would replace the standing 50-year-old aquatic complex, situated along the Intracoastal Waterway on Seabreeze Boulevard. By the late 2000s, the facility was deteriorating, and losing $1 million a year.

A 2007 plan known as the LARC plan suggested that the site be redesigned with an aquarium, retail, and dining facilities. In 2009, the city put out a request for proposals from builders. Only one, Recreational Design & Construction (RDC), responded, with a $72 million plan. Other companies did not apply because language in the RFP was confusing.

The city then spent two years negotiating with RDC, ultimately resulting in a plan in 2011 for a much less ambitious $32.4 million facility.

After critics complained to the Broward office of the inspector general (OIG) that the city was engaging in favoritism by working with just one developer, the city was investigated.

Ultimately the inspector general found that the city had not engaged in favoritism, but that it had violated state law in the way it awarded a design-build contract. The inspector general's report also found that the city agreed that $1.66 million of the monies being paid to RDC would not be subject to an audit. The OIG called the city's sloppy processes "troubling" but no one was punished.

This month the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF), which has operated at the current aquatics complex since the 1960s, announced it would be departing and relocating to California. Staff members at ISHOF stated they were disappointed with city leaders for not fighting for better design plans for the new facility.

Swimming coaches tied with ISHOF lamented that Fort Lauderdale was missing out on the opportunity to make the aquatic center a world-class facility by not teaming up with a builder with expertise in building swim facilities.

U.S. Olympic Diving Coaches Tim and Ron O'Brien, who set up the Facebook page "Keep ISHOF in Fort Lauderdale," wrote in October that RDC had no experience building swim facilities and that they felt the proposed diving platforms on a parking garage in the designs would be dangerous due to wind conditions. The O'Briens said they believed the entire project should be scrapped:

"Contrary to remarks made on record by members of the Commission, the MAIN reason ISHOF is leaving is because of the poor design and outdated concept of the new facility and the millions of dollars such a facility will lose annually. That was the impetus for [ISHOF] looking elsewhere for a new home.

As we have stated numerous times, the current design of the new facility eliminates 99% of the surrounding community from using it. Tourists have no reason to venture over.

We would like to see a recreational element to the project that brings in the locals and tourists as competition only swimming and diving facilities always lose money. We were a part of one that imploded financially and was closed. We have already provided TWO independent reviews of the RDC plan that dispute their flawed business and design plan."

In December, plans emerged for an alternate design that puts diving facilities in front of the main building so that competitions would be visible to passersby.

Fort Lauderdale Public Affairs Manager Chaz Adams explained that the updated plans also included two design options that relate to diving:

"One option would include an indoor dry land training facility for divers. The City has had discussions with officials from USA Diving, who have said this type of facility would be beneficial as indoor dive training is now recognized as one of the new industry standards," said Adams. "Another option would include increasing the depth of the dive pool to allow for the addition of a 27-meter dive tower, which would be one of the first dive towers of its kind in the United States. It would serve as a facility for training and competitions in this evolving aspect of high diving, which was recently showcased at the first FINA World Championships that took place in Russia in August 2014."

However, critics scoffed at RDC's redesigns for the proposed aquatic center.

In a January meeting of the Beach Redevelopment Board, which advises the city commission on issues specific to the beach, board member Judith Scher said the proposed plan for the aquatic center was "just pools" and that there was nothing glamorous about the proposed plan. According to Scher, the plans had no "wow," it was just a building with a parking garage.

Other critics are worried that without major local attractions, the multi-million dollar facility will only attract swim meets; thus it effectively would just subsidize hotel owners who benefit from athletes coming in from out of town.

These design changes would up the original price by more than $6 million, pushing the total cost over $40 million.

Despite criticisms, the advisory board in January recommended by a vote of 8-1 that the city proceed, though they warned the commission of cost overruns. Chairman Anthony Abbate dissented, explaining, according to meeting minutes, "that they were spending a huge amount of money on a facility that did not meet the criteria in the master plan... the City needed to clean up its act and the development community needed consistent rules; it was currently a very political, negotiated situation."

Adams yesterday touted the proposed center.

"It will enable the City to enhance our award-winning swimming and diving programs which provide professional instruction and coaching for all age groups from toddlers to seniors, he said. "It will also strengthen Fort Lauderdale's position as a destination for world class swimming and diving events, and as a training facility for local, national, and international competitors.

Though the commissioners gave their go-ahead on Feb. 17 for several other projects related to the beach redevelopment plan to move forward, they have been hesitant to make a final decision on the aquatic center because of the costs of the new design changes.

Joseph Cerrone, the president of Recreational Design & Construction (RDC), said that estimated cost overruns are reasonable considering the current market.

"No, the estimate is not inflated; it's [based on] current market conditions," said Cerrone. "Let's remember the proposed 28 meter dive tower requires a 20' deep dive well, and dewatering is a huge expense considering that the Atlantic ocean is across the street. There is also no savings to the project for reusing the existing 50 meter pool, all the pools are new."

The city is also expected to pay nearly $2 million in additional costs as a result of its delays. Though the project was initially expected to be completed by 2016, Cerrone says the project has been delayed a total of 348 working days, 517 calendar days (18 months).

Adams stated that once construction begins, the project is expected to take approximately 20-24 months to complete.

"We remain optimistic that the Mayor and Commissioners will move the project forward," Cerrone told New Times.

According to the Sun Sentinel, the projects already given the green light earlier this month to move forward in design development are:

• A $17.8M four-story parking garage along the Intracoastal Waterway. 
• A $12.3M oceanside waterpark to replace the parking lot just south of Las Olas Boulevard and State Road A1A. 
• $11.5 worth of improvements in the central beach area along the A1A to make the sidewalks and bike lanes wider. 
• A $10.8M project to transform the parking lot next to the Las Olas Marina into a promenade. 
• A $1.9M project that will turn the portion of Las Olas Boulevard by A1A into a "festival street" with lots of future event space.

Also, the city is financing all of these projects out of a $81.4 million fund set aside for the beach redevelopment plan and with about $27 million from grants and other funding sources.

Tonight's meeting, which is scheduled for 8 P.M. at City Hall, will also discuss plans to expand the Las Olas Marina.

Though the funds to help make redevelop the beach exceed $100 million, since there are several projects in the works, there is not enough money left over to expand the marina itself.

In response to this predicament the city is expected to seek out proposals from private groups to develop a joint venture that would not require the city to spend additional money.

One company, LOMMXD, LLLC, submitted an unsolicited proposal in November to redevelop the marina.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jonathan Kendall
Contact: Jonathan Kendall