It's pretty much the standard David-versus-Goliath battle of South Florida -- environmentalist versus developer. But in this case, a long-haired, laid-back outdoorsman is pitted against a hot-shot businessman who's tied to trendy projects in New York and Miami.
Chris Brennan is a 33-year-old who worked as a park ranger until Broward County outsourced those positions to private security guards. In 2007, Brennan got a job as a mate working on the Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi, where he gave tours until about two weeks ago, when he was fired for making a YouTube video about the quest to save a 100-year-old rain tree.
"Every couple of years, some dude screws me out a job," Brennan says.
Asi Cymbal is a 43-year-old developer whose big accomplishment in life is helping to bring a Marshall's to downtown Miami. OK, just kidding -- in addition to developing the Midtown Center, he's a lawyer and a general contractor and has part-owned trendy Miami restaurants and bars including Gigi, Sra. Martinez, and Bardot. Cymbal has made a lot of money on investments in Miami's Design District and has now set his sights on Fort Lauderdale. He's hired one of the most sought-after architects in the world -- 37-year-old Bjarke Ingels, who's often called a "rock star" of the industry -- to design the Marina Lofts, a project that would consist of three towers and close to 1,000 condominium units on the New River. Some say the project could bring an injection of coolness to invigorate Fort Lauderdale's lazy, small-town feel. But to build the tower, builders would have to move a six-story-high, 100-year-old tree.
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Although some Fort Lauderdale residents have loudly opposed Cymbal's development plan -- including environmentalists, conservationists, historians, and the people in the neighboring Esplanade condo, who would lose their water views if Marina Lofts were built -- Broward County commissioners in December voted 7-2 not to designate the tree as "historical," thus freeing Cymbal to relocate the tree and move forward with his project. Cymbal pledged to move the tree to a "Raintree Park" on his property, to hire the greatest arborists in the country to oversee the move, and to post a $1 million bond that he would lose if the tree dies.
Still, many opponents aren't budging in their opposition.
Brennan went to visit the tree, filmed this video (calling the architect a "Danish freak") to bring attention to its plight, and posted it on YouTube. That was a problem professionally, because his employer, the water taxi, leases land from Cymbal.
Working on the water taxi "was a great job," Brennan says. "After I got laid off [from being a park ranger], the thought of an office job kind of terrified me. I'm a student of all things Florida, so I fit right in [giving tours]."
Brennan's love for South Florida runs deep. "I was born and raised in Fort Lauderdale. I was born at Broward General," he says. Over the years, he has made a video series called "Florida Fidelity," featuring his favorite haunts around the state, and posted them online under the handle CapnLoogie.
"The Florida Fidelity series is a hobby to me," Brennan says, He used it to share "things like [the rain tree] that are important, but people usually don't find out about them until they're gone."
Unlike a lot of hipsters and snobs who call Broward County a cultural wasteland, Brennan says, "It is my biggest pet peeve when someone says, 'I hate this place.' Get outta here -- you're stinking up my water and my sun."
Brennan says that the last thing South Florida needs is another "big empty building with empty retail on the first floor" and that even if the rain tree does survive a move -- arborists have said it will not -- moving it would be "cheapening" it.
"The video was to clear my conscience," Brennan says. "If it died [without me having tried to defend it], I would feel I didn't do my job as a native."
He says, "I've done some research on this Cymbal guy, and he's a bad dude -- he's just packaging -- buying property at dirt cheap... selling at an inflated price." Brennan said he even went to Cymbal's office to scope it out. "He's in a small building on top of a Noodles Panini!"
Brennan says that one day, his Water Taxi boss received an email from Cymbal complaining that "one of your employees has trespassed on my property, and it's damaging to my business."
Brennan says his boss -- part of a Boston company called Water Transportation Alternatives -- defended him personally, but they felt there was an implicit threat that the water taxi would get kicked off of Cymbal's property.
Brennan says he responded, "Tell him to stick it up his ass and fire me."
Brennan says that he did not trespass or climb a fence to film his video -- "I arrived by sea, not by land" -- and that it was "kind of spooky that [Cymbal] took the time" to hunt down a low-level employee. "He'd have to see the video, discern who I was, then find out I worked at the Water Taxi."
For now, Brennan is bartending at Big Dog Station in Oakland Park, where plenty of well-wishers have come by to buy him drinks since his firing. "I'm modeling my life after [fictional character] Travis McGee -- a beach bum who gets himself into trouble."
Now that he's no longer a Water Taxi employee, he can reveal that the company's "historical" tours "operate at about 90 percent accuracy -- if there's a good joke to be made, the facts might change."
And if there's one thing he won't miss, it's the Duck Tour. "They were the bane of my existence," Brennan says. "I'd be in the middle of saying something very important and a bunch of tourists would go by and quack at me."
He is also considering making a follow-up video and will definitely be at the next Fort Lauderdale City Commission meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 19, to defend the tree.
In the meantime, petitioners are opposing the Marina Lofts project here, and blogger/activist Cal Deal has a lot more details about the tree and the project here.