Fort Lauderdale’s freewheeling real estate development days may be over

Fort Lauderdale’s freewheeling real estate development days may be over

Approved and proposed projects in Fort Lauderdale: 100 Las Olas, Alexan-Tarpon River, 101 Fort Lauderdale, Bahia Mar (Credit: iStock)

Trammell Crow Residential’s proposed apartment tower in downtown Fort Lauderdale was slated for 22 stories and 181 units, making it among the biggest developments in the surrounding area. Called the Alexan-Tarpon River, the high-rise at 501 Southeast Avenue was to be the latest addition to the rapidly developing city skyline.

Though opposed by some community groups over what they saw as another case of excessive development, the project was on track for approval. It appeared to have the support of the powerful city commission, the five-member local government body that votes on development projects. But in March when four new commissioners were sworn in, three of them pledged to craft a “smarter growth” strategy for the city. That includes prioritizing the city’s infrastructure needs by making sure water and wastewater systems can accommodate additional growth, ensuring new developments take into account traffic conditions, and a focus on protecting its coastline.

Some developers took it as a sign of trouble ahead, and for Trammell Crow’s project, the gears indeed started to slow. Facing sharp criticism from the new officials over the building’s height and design — and following some heated public meetings — the developer reduced the building height to 14 stories. It also promised to reduce the number of apartments to 120. The developer is now expected to return in August for the latest design approval.

Trammell Crow’s Jim Berardinelli declined to comment for this article.

Since the three city commissioners assumed their roles, they have signaled a major shift in how the city of 180,000 will approach future development projects, according to real estate pros and local officials. The days of fast-track project approval are over, they say.

The added scrutiny could have an impact on projects already in the pipeline or in early planning stages, with some experts fearing the new approach could lead developers to look beyond Fort Lauderdale. Proposals for residential developments near the beach could also be in jeopardy, with each of the new commissioners having said they would like to see less coastline construction.

New commissioners

Mayor Dean Trantalis, who was elected and took office in March, is an at-large commissioner. The other newly-elected commissioners are Vice Mayor Ben Sorensen and Steve Glassman. All three have their sights set on tightening control over the kinds of projects the city has long supported, and now they’re in the majority. Heather Moraitis, the fourth new commissioner — Robert McKinzie has been there since 2014 — has shown greater support for development-friendly investments.

Less than two months after Trantalis took office as mayor, the city voted in May to walk away from its highly publicized streetcar project that came with more than $100 million in federal and state backing. The previous commission in February had voted in support.

Called the Wave, the 2.8-mile system would significantly reduce traffic in the city, according to its advocates, but would also end up costing $145 million. Trantalis, Glassman and Sorensen each voted to withdraw from it, while commissioners McKinzie and Moraitis maintained their support. A short time after Fort Lauderdale decided not to go forward, the Broward County Commission officially voted to cancel the project.

The mayor said the previous commission “really gave developers everything they asked for.” The city itself, he added, has in the past “this idea that bigger is better, but failed to understand that that philosophy is no longer being followed.”

The new commission, Trantalis said, will not stall development, but seek to have projects blend better with their surrounding neighborhoods. That is something property owners have not sought to do, and the city had not previously required, he said. As an example, he pointed to the Amaray Las Olas.

The 30-story, luxury rental tower was a joint venture of the Rockefeller Group and Stiles. The partnership developed the 254-unit apartment building, at 215 Southeast Eighth Avenue, on a 1.25-acre site. Trantalis said Amaray Las Olas sticks out among the one- and two-story buildings that surround it, an eyesore on the neighborhood. Last year, the property was sold for $134 million to GID Development Group, a Boston-based developer, property management and acquisition firm. That kind of project likely wouldn’t make the cut with the new commission.

Future developers may want to use a different project as a playbook for success, however.

Kolter Group’s 100 Las Olas, which city officials have praised, is poised to be downtown’s tallest building at 46 stories. Trantalis said the project works because it is was well within the city’s Downtown Regional Activity Center guidelines, which promote the construction of large-scale, mixed-use projects.

Once completed in 2020, the tower will feature 113 condominiums, a 238-key Hyatt Centric hotel and 8,500 square feet of restaurants and retail on the ground floor. The Kolter Group broke ground on 100 Las Olas a year ago.

Scrutiny on the beach

Bob Vail, who heads Kolter’s urban development division, said the city is “clearly on the rise and there’s a lot of demand for office and residential space there. I think [the mayor] has a vision for the city that he’s developed over years, but he’s also got a practical side where he understands the fundamentals and logistics of what a city needs.” Parking, he said, is one of those needs.

But another Kolter project may face more resistance. The company is now assembling a proposal for a condominium on a public parking lot along the city’s beachfront area. The developer has promised to replace all of the lost parking spaces, and the project is in the review process. It heads to the planning and zoning board in August and if approved, would then go before the city commission.

One already approved project that officials say may have had a more difficult time passing the new commission is the massive Bahia Mar development on Fort Lauderdale Beach. The previous commission approved developer Jimmy Tate’s plans for seven high-rise buildings, comprising 651 apartments, a 256-key hotel and a yachting-amenities complex, all on city-owned land.

The mayor criticized the project, saying it “has taken a large open space” and that it adds “a significant amount of traffic. There’s no plan for public transportation enhancement,” he said. “It’s a shame that our city staff found it to be acceptable.”

The commission now is more sensitive to preserving vulnerable coastal areas Glassman said, and after having reviewed some studies, would think twice about supporting another development there. “We don’t need to grow so much more in the beach,” he said. “Maybe we need to see the dust settle first.”

Other areas in the city are ripe for development, he said, like west of downtown toward the Sistrunk corridor, and north across Broward Boulevard. There, trendy neighborhoods are emerging, including Flagler Village and the FAT Village, a four-block stretch of converted warehouses that feature a number of bars, restaurants and apartments. The nearby MASS art district also has taken shape, largely from converted older buildings.

But Fort Lauderdale Beach has long been a prime location for developers and that hasn’t changed. Along that stretch, real estate investors Aiton “AJ” Yaari and Lior Avidor own a 4.5-acre assemblage, which they have listed without a price. The site is being marketed with the option to build a luxury development with a hotel component, nearby the landmark Elbo Room bar.

Yaari said the marketed development possibilities are in line with the current zoning regulations in the area, although no application has been submitted. He is aware that a majority of the commissioners see a different direction for the city’s future development. He remains hopeful, while sounding a note of caution.

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