Fort Lauderdale prepares to nearly double downtown population

Reprinted from Sun Sentinel.

There’s a wave heading toward the city’s downtown and it’s full of economic promise.

It’s carrying thousands of new residents who will be calling downtown home as new construction is completed and additional projects get underway. The downtown’s estimated population of 8,200 based on 2010 Census data could grow eventually to more than 45,000, according to city estimates.

Right now, the approved projects alone could almost double the downtown population.

“As a young professional who is trying to save as much as possible, I’m interested in new affordable housing in the downtown area,” said Adriana Fazzano, a 27-year-old who works on Las Olas Boulevard and currently lives with her parents in Coral Springs. “If I could move into a luxury building for $1,100, I would do it in a heartbeat.”

But the impact of the city’s downtown growth plans, which have been on the books for more than five years, is only now sinking in to the surrounding neighborhoods.

Brucie Cummings, who lives in the Tarpon River neighborhood, said the idea that proposed housing along the New River will foster restaurants and retail shops there sounds great, but she sees much of the commercial space built in conjunction with previous residential projects on the river still sitting vacant. She doesn’t know what will make that situation change with the new projects.

Cummings also is worried that the population influx will overburden downtown resources. And she doesn’t think the planned Wave electric streetcar system and other public transportation will get people out of their cars in hot-and-humid South Florida, making traffic only worse.

Such concerns are shaping the discussion about Marina Lofts, a proposed 998-unit apartment complex that would be made up of a 33-story and two 28-story towers on the south side of the New River near Southwest Fourth Avenue. The project has an architecturally stunning design that appeals to Fazzano and a height and density that make Cummings shudder.

The project won the unanimous recommendation of the city’s Planning and Zoning Board earlier this month, but city commissioners also have issues they want addressed in order to approve it.

“I think that the total density of that project is too intense for the location,” Commissioner Dean Trantalis said.

Trantalis and Mayor Jack Seiler say it makes sense to direct the city’s growth downtown, to keep from disrupting the character of the city’s other neighborhoods, but they also said the commission has to keep in mind a project’s compatibility with surrounding areas.

“There’s a quality-of-life balance,” Seiler told participants in his telephone town hall meeting last week.

The construction can’t come soon enough for real estate agent Samantha DeBianchi. She said people are clamoring to come downtown, but there’s no place for them with its 95 percent residential occupancy rate. She says growth doesn’t have to be a negative.

“We’re not saying ‘let’s go be Miami,'” said DeBianchi, who lives downtown. “We’re a very small, everyone-knows-everyone community. … People are scared we’re going to become a whole different city and we’re not.”

The commission has parceled out almost all of the 11,060 residential units approved by government planners for the area as of 2006, and city officials are proposing making another 8,500 units available to potential development.

“The more people you have in close interaction, the better,” said Eric Dumbaugh, director of Florida Atlantic University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.

It’s that growth that regional planners expect will make the downtown’s $142.6 million Wave streetcar a public transportation success and not a white elephant when it starts operating in 2016.

Just east of the Marina Lofts site, the 26-story, 248-unit New River Yacht Club apartment complex is being built along the river. Further north in the Flagler Village section of downtown along Federal Highway, crews are building Henry Square and The Pearl at Flagler Village — two seven-story apartment projects that will add 709 units.

FAU’s Dumbaugh said the city has to be careful the projects it approves appeal to a wide range of people and lifestyles.

“It’s the collection of differences that make a place rich and vibrant,” he said.

Kelly Alvarez Vitale, 32, has lived and worked downtown for more than two years and she and her husband plan to start a family there. She thinks young professionals like herself might decide the downtown is a good idea for kids as well.

“When they go through the generations of life, they may choose to raise a family downtown because they love what the downtown has to offer,” Vitale said.


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