Where the Condos are

South Florida is an invention. Even the landscape has been excavated, filled in, and moved around so that it more resembles tropical paradise than its swampy, mangrove-gnarled reality. People come here to refinish themselves too. Brooklyn hood Chris Paciello was, for a South Beach flash, the Liquid nightclub king who... Dated Madonna! and Partied with Jennifer Lopez! Then his thug-life past caught up with him. Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky used the ol' I-was-on-vacation-in-Florida excuse when the Valentine's Day Massacre went down back in Chicago. Then he settled into dotty old age walking his blind Shih Tzu down Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Sometimes you can work the whole cycle in the region, if you stay here long enough. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward smuggled arms to the enemy in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and then went on to become governor of Florida and gave our county its name.

Reinvention worked for all of them one way or another. So why can't a city chuck one image and dress itself uptown?

Since Prohibition, Fort Lauderdale has been known as "Fort Liquordale." At first, the name meant the town was hospitable to bootleggers. But after Connie Francis donned a bikini for the 1960 hit Where the Boys Are, the tag referred to the welcome mat the city laid out each spring for the party-hardy. Fort Lauderdale -- "The Spring Break Mecca of the Modern World," "The Town Where Happy Hour Begins at 7 a.m.," "The Spot Where Girls Welcome Spring" (in skimpy bikinis and with wet T-shirt contests). For decades, the name Fort Lauderdale stank with stale beer and suntan lotion, hormones and vomit, with the promise of sex.

No more.

There are pricey people moving in. Fancy people who are buying real estate with stratospheric price tags. It's going to be more taxicab and limo than Kronan Cycle. More Bal Harbour than wannabe hip. From coed writhing in a wet T-shirt to big-buck Xanadu, the transformation is almost complete.

Our skyline, those pint-sized, milk carton, 1960s-model buildings, will soon be engulfed. A new generation of condo skyscrapers is taking shape under a spindly flock of construction cranes.

The 30-story, smoked-glass-and-red-granite, linebacker-like AutoNation building at 100 SE Sixth St. will be a hefty baby brother to two new condo towers on the New River. The tallest building downtown in 2004 will be the 42-story Las Olas River House at First Avenue. With its two oblongish towers -- one of blue glass, the other silvery -- it will look like a giant Remington shaver. Next in height will be the Las Olas Grand -- a traditional rectangular, slender, nondescript 39 stories, topped by tiny turrets. And closer to the ground, a clump of blockish condo developments, such as the 22-story Symphony, are taking shape on the edges of downtown's quaint and pricey neighborhoods.

It's not just the look of Fort Lauderdale that's going to change. Starting next fall, in the first wave, thousands of new residents will begin inhabiting downtown in an influx of people that could reach 10,000.

That may mean there will be more people at the downtown library, at the art museum, and at performances of the beleaguered Florida Philharmonic. It may mean better food available for home delivery. But it will also mean more people at restaurants, longer lines, and more people on the road. Think traffic jams.

The hope of the city's powerbrokers is that women in evening dresses will glide along Riverwalk to see the ballet at the Broward Performing Arts Center. That the cafés on Las Olas Boulevard will be even more crowded with customers. That instead of driving to the beach, these new residents will hop on the Water Bus for a day in the sun.

But what we may get instead is an overpriced, underserviced, hellish gridlock.

It's late March, and the balmy breezes of a sweet, short spring are turning to swelter. It's hot -- a typical, subtropical day in South Florida. By the time I walk half a mile through downtown Fort Lauderdale to the construction site of the Las Olas River House, I'm covered in a thin film of sweat and feeling dehydrated.

I look up to see blue plastic sheathing over floor-to-ceiling windows and cranes lifting bars of concrete high into the air. They might as well be bars of gold. The starting price for a two-bedroom condo is $510,000. The most expensive unit is priced at $2 million. Las Olas River House is one of the swankest addresses in the new Fort Lauderdale.

Inside the sales trailer, air conditioning coddles a world that whispers of luxuries to come. Tropical palms sprout from the corners. A lush bouquet of flowers sits atop a cherry wood receptionist's station with a black marble top. I've bridged the divide between the old Fort Lauderdale and the new.

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Susan Eastman
Contact: Susan Eastman