Walled In

From almost anywhere in downtown Fort Lauderdale, you can't avoid the sight of the sleek, wavy blue façade of the tallest, chichiest building in the city — Las Olas River House.

Completed in 2004, it attracted the well heeled, the powerful, the enthusiasts of fine art, the wielders of tennis rackets. Even celebrities like David Cassidy of The Partridge Family and Dan Marino bought in.

Of course, nobody mentioned that the view didn't come with a lifetime guarantee.

Thanks to the same developer who built River House, some unlucky occupants may eventually find themselves viewing from their balconies not saffron sunsets but a solid concrete wall.

On March 29, Tarragon South Development Corp. informally presented plans to the city for 100 E. Las Olas Blvd., property just north of the River House. The plans include a 27-story office building and hotel with ten floors of parking and a floor of retail. At 326 feet, the building would become the fifth tallest in Fort Lauderdale.

Not only would it obstruct views but it would defy the regulations of the Downtown Master Plan, revamped by consultants from a Bay Harbor Islands firm for $52,000 last year. "New towers should be no closer than 60 feet to existing towers," the plan says.

The new building is proposed for about 53 feet from River House.

This would be bad for the city, urban planners say, because it would block a significant chunk of sky and potentially discourage pedestrian traffic.

But "with any rule, there are exceptions," Fort Lauderdale city spokesman Ted Laughlin said.

This infuriates River House condo owner Richard Nilsson. Before he takes off for his beach hut in the south of France, Nilsson invites New Times to his meticulously adorned, 12th-floor River House condo. He wants to draw some attention to the matter before it's too late, he says.

Entry to River House involves valet parking, a stroll beneath 18-foot ceilings past regal purple armchairs and an elaborate, bubbling goldfish pond, and signing in at the front desk. The large, black elevator smells of oak, like a fine wine barrel.

Nilsson's own condo is impressive for its baroque originality. An alligator mask from the jungles of southern Mexico dangles from the foyer ceiling. Miniature silver horses sculpted by contemporary Venetian artist Ludovico De Luigi perch atop marble shelving gazing over the bright and comfortable living room. Sculptures and paintings of nude women abound.

"There are things here that belong in a museum," says Nilsson, a poised, middle-aged man with bright blue eyes and a genial Chicago accent. He nonchalantly adds, "There are things here that aren't worth the canvas they were painted on."

A retired architect and designer of high-end latticework for ceilings, Nilsson has clearly put a lot of work into making the $480,330 condo his own. When he discovered Tarragon's plans for his colossal next-door neighbor, well, "it's just a shock," he says.

When he bought the unit in 2000, Nilsson and other residents were painted a very different picture of 100 E. Las Olas.

"This is what we were promised," he says, holding up an enlarged, mounted copy of the original plan for his next-door neighbor. "This beautiful, nine-story building with condos up here," he says, pointing to the illustration. "A Morton's Steak House. Boutiques. A 70-foot water fall tumbling down onto Las Olas. Tropical lagoons and gardens."

When he moved in, that model had been on display in the sales office. But soon after, the plans changed. There was talk of a taller tower. Then of townhouses. And now, the 27-story behemoth.

"You pay a million and a half, $2 million to have an office building 50 feet away," Nilsson says (either exaggerating or referring to the condo price plus the costs of decorating). "The entire north sky is gone."

Laughlin said early last week that Tarragon had met only informally with city architect Wayne Jessup and that no plans had been submitted. But on Friday, New Times discovered a formal site plan dated May 10 waiting to be picked up at the Planning and Zoning Department. It had been initially rejected because of incomplete information in several areas, but Tarragon will undoubtedly fill in the gaps and resubmit, having already put up its $18,348 application fee.

Laughlin, who could not be reached for comment regarding his initial misinformation, had also explained that Tarragon's proposed high-rise would fit in with the RAC-CC (Regional Activity Center City Center) zoning. Although architect Jessup expressed concerns about the building space and the aesthetic burden that another high-rise would place on the area, there are other issues that come into play.

"The city wants density downtown," Laughlin said. "You need a critical mass of people to make it a 24-hour living core." Although the planning department will look to the master-plan guidelines to proceed, "They are just that," Laughlin said. "Guidelines."

Although Nilsson appears to be the most outspoken tenant, about 70 residents have met and heatedly discussed their predicament. Others who live on the north side of the building declined to speak to New Times, afraid a news story might decrease the value of their property. But residents on the other side spoke freely.

Gary Lewis, a hairdresser and horse trainer whom New Times caught up with just as he arrived back from Hong Kong, overlooks the New River on the fifth floor. He said he has no problem with Tarragon's plans for the new building. "Retail stores, upscale restaurants — they will only make it nicer," he says, though he quickly acknowledges that he didn't have a view issue. "I know there's a lot of people in the building who are fit to be tied."

There are a few reasons for this.

Lewis lives alone, and he needs only one parking spot, so he's not among those who have been waiting two years for their second spot (which, Tarragon claims, the new building will provide). The additional spots are just one of the amenities that were not delivered as promised, tenants have complained. The pool, library, bistro, mailboxes, health club, elevators, and hallways took months longer than estimated.

Worst of all, the condos are 490 square feet smaller than initially advertised, triggering a still-pending lawsuit in 2006 against the developers. John Furqueron, a resident on the 35th floor who does computer technology work, is part of the class-action suit.

"I knew something like this was going to happen," he said. "That's why I bought higher."

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Ashley Harrell
Contact: Ashley Harrell