Why Cymbal won and protesters failed before key vote

Reprinted from the South Florida Business Journal

Cymbal Development’s victory with the Fort Lauderdale Planning & Zoning Board, which I covered earlier this morning, was a textbook example of how to successfully get your point across.

Opponents of his project, however, did a miserable job of arguing their points.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived at the City Commission chambers was the green-shirted supporters of Marina Lofts holding signs favoring the project. That was clever because one might think green shirted people would be there to argue that a huge rain tree on the site shouldn’t be moved. (The rain tree actually wasn’t part of the deliberations considered by the board.)

Inside the chambers, the room was packed with green shirts and a lot fewer blue shirts for opponents of the project. (Not everyone had a colored t-shirt, though.)

Cymbal Development had an advantage of having an hour to present its case. Cymbal made sure he had all the key players present, even if they didn’t speak. For example, tree expert Bob Brennan was ready to speak when it was noted that the rain tree wasn’t part of the debate.

Cymbal also did a smooth job of countering the stereotypical image of a greedy developer out to make a fast buck. There were plenty of slides of projects the company has done with notable architects in Miami and New York. He also talked about his childhood in Brooklyn, which counters a ridiculous assertion that he is a billionaire Israeli.

There was even a funny anecdote when Cymbal said he’s not as young as he looks – he’s 44. He then pointed to his mother in the audience and said she deserved credit.

The P&Z board did a good job of quizzing city staff about how well the project met community standards. Most of them were checked off right away, but Cymbal’s staff made some additional quick pledges about posting a bond to complete all of the Riverwalk promenade on the project, which is going to be done phase by phase. Cymbal’s staff also said it would work to enhance experiences for pedestrians and bicyclists in the area.

The protesters were poorly organized. Each speaker was allotted three minutes, but some speakers who signed up were allowed to give their time to other speakers. There was major confusion about who gave up there time, causing needless delays in the proceedings. Many of the points weren’t very relevant and were poorly expressed.

It became clear quickly that most of the opponents were NIMBY neighbors worried about traffic, parking and their views being blocked. They had some valid concerns, but it was clear Cymbal was trying to address them by improving intersections and adding traffic calming beyond the boundaries of his project.

At one point there was concern expressed by an Esplanade Condominium resident about high-voltage lines and the alleged danger of living near them. Would they be relocated in a cable under the river? Would they go along the Florida East Coast Railway tracks?

I pulled up Google Earth and confirmed what I knew: Moving the power lines underground or near the railroad would actually separate them further from the Esplanade Condomium. The speaker was complaining about something that would actually be beneficial to his health if you believe power lines pose a radiation danger.

I’m meanwhile thinking that Florida Power & Light is regarded as one of the nation’s top electric utilities and probably has experts who can figure this out pretty easily. A Google search shows that it’s not uncommon to bury high voltage lines.

The coupe de grace for protesters came when the president of the condominium association, Dan Norman, said the board actually supports the project and that Cymbal has worked with it to address concerns. After talking as president of the association, he talked from the heart as a 44-year resident of the city, saying he wouldn’t be disappointed if the towers were shortened, but he supports the project.

(I didn’t know Norman was president of the condo association until last night, but knew him well 15 years ago when I was business editor at the Sun Sentinel and he was one of the newspaper’s most senior editors. He’s an intelligent, credible source.)

To counter the parade of blue shirts, Cymbal had an array of influential supporters ranging from the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance, the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, Winterfest and the marine industry. They typically spoke on point and clearly.

And while there’s a lot of worry about the rain tree being moved on the site, Rob Hink of Spinnaker Group, said Marina Lofts actually is a very green project with plenty of open space and green roofs.

As South Florida pushed up against the Everglades and continues dense downtown redevelopment, expect a lot more debates like this in the future.

Posted in In the News

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