Marina Lofts: Futuristic Vision to Transform the Riverfront. Can Fort Lauderdale Take the Lead in Architectural Design?

Reprinted from Think Magazine.

What looks like a cross between a Rubik’s cube and a Lego creation? And is there indeed a plan to create a dazzling piece of architecture that is basically unlike anything South Florida has ever seen before? It contains what could even be referred to as a “crack.” Yes, a crack, or a jagged addition that appears to erupt from a fissure in the cubed exterior walls of a residential tower. The structure calls out to passersby on the street, to explore its pedestrian walkways and to access its maze of restaurants, retail shops, apartments and park. Welcome to Marina Lofts.

The Lofts are groundbreaking architecture and usually that category of design finds its way to other cities, bypassing Broward in the express lane before we can wave for it to stop and stay. Yet here it will stay and create a gorgeous set of dwellings that will soon explode onto the Riverfront in Fort Lauderdale.

BIG, the brainchild of world-renowned architect Bjarke Ingels Group, is collaborating with developer Asi Cymbal to create a small village of rental units, eateries, stores and a public park that will pull the Riverwalk together just where it needs the most help. Asi has taken up the cause of revitalizing the old Shirttail Charlie’s site and he aims to shed its skin so that the three-phase transformational complex will break ground in the very near future.

Asi, nee Assaf, was born in Petach Tikva, Israel, and came to the United States with his parents at just 3 1/2. His mother was a bookkeeper at a tie factory when the apartment she was renting turned co-op. She bought the apartment during the conversion and then resold it. After banking more from the sale than a full year’s salary, she saw the gold in the real estate market. Asi went on to Vassar College and then UCLA Law, but had already been infected by the bug. Rather than applying for a law position, Asi landed a job at a developer’s construction site. He then moved back to New York and joined a small development company that expanded to billion-dollar status while he was their lead developer.

But New York was too expensive a market for him to make the kind of impact that he wanted to in real estate development. “I decided to move to South Florida since the projects I wanted to undertake were significant and it offered a less expensive option to embark on such a project.” So he moved to Miami and focused on Wynwood and the Miami Design District with much success.

He later came across downtown Fort Lauderdale and saw tremendous charm and opportunity to transform the riverfront and the downtown Fort Lauderdale skyline by purchasing an underutilized six-acre stretch on the south side of the New River.

Asi moved to Fort Lauderdale shortly thereafter and into the Esplanade building adjacent to the site, walked the area and zoomed in on the Riverfront, which has been the focus of major downtown development, including the Symphony, Las Olas Grand and the River House. He began to work on his vision of affordable luxury rentals, a marina, a park and multiple restaurants. The end result is Marina Lofts, what he named the multi-phase project. “Now people can live in downtown Fort Lauderdale in an iconic building that will set the standard for environmental sensitivity.” There are green building(s) that will be set against over an acre of public landscaped space and Cymbal means to create a new park while preserving more than 75 trees from the site, including an African rain tree. To ensure the landscaping success, the developer hired the chief arborist of Fairchild Botanical Gardens.

Once the concept was hatched, the right look became essential. The search for the right architect took him to Wall Street Journal’s Innovator of the Year and New York Magazine’s prediction of a future Pritzker Architecture Prize winner, Copenhagen-based designer Bjarke Ingels. Ingels’ description of the project is stunning: “The two buildings are torn open to form a cave and a canyon — opening up for the neighborhood to reach the river. A design made through subtraction rather than addition.”

Developer Cymbal explains: “We are reimagining architecture, raising the bar on what is possible, with stunning views in every unit … every unit has a balcony. … The idea is that the building broke apart to allow access to the river, as if pieces of the buildings fell to become the bricks along the riverfront to form a pedestrian bridge along the New River to continue the Riverwalk. It will seem as if some bricks created an opening to allow boats to come out from the water and can traverse the building to the boat storage in the back.”

It should prove to be a spectacular site, a breath of fresh air in an area that always seems to lag behind. Cymbal’s thinking is that it is about time. “Too many people in Fort Lauderdale who love this city end up leaving because they can’t find affordable housing options that are luxurious and cool in downtown. For Fort Lauderdale to grow, it needs to retain that talent that it is losing to other cities.”

Eventually, the complex will house 998 units, most between $1,100 and $2,000 per month, with potential boat storage in the marina area. The project price tag will be in the $130-140 million range, creating about 600 local jobs and generating more than $100 million in revenue to the city and the county. It is founded on affordable luxury, but will bring a 20,000-square-foot pedestrian plaza to the downtown area. Asi is excited: “Imagine hopping on the Water Taxi to jump to Las Olas for work or shopping, catching a show at the Broward Center and then going home.”

Will this really happen? Asi is confident. “We are completing our approval process now and expect to have our approvals concluded in June. We would like to break ground by the end of the year and have our first building occupied in 2015.”

This cutting edge concept is his dream and he reminds us that he is a dreamer. “We’re looking to inspire, innovate and transform. We are not looking to build another box. … Great cities have great architecture and Fort Lauderdale is a great city.”

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