The Battle is Joined
Tomorrow night, April 21, one of the most interesting and potentially far-reaching zoning battles in Fort Lauderdale history will commence at the Planning and Zoning Board. The First Presbyterian Church is asking for a Planned Unit Development designation (PUD) for its expansion along east Las Olas Boulevard and a nearby section of the historic Colee Hammock neighborhood. We have called it the Civil War on Las Olas. To date, it has indeed been civil, for people on the two sides know and for the most part respect each other.
Yet in another sense it is a civil war, for the Colee Hammock residents see the church’s plan as a threat to their way of life, and potentially to all the neighborhoods surrounding Fort Lauderdale’s downtown. And most people have no idea what it is about. In fact, they don’t even know what a PUD is. Why should they? It is a planning vehicle that pretty much gives a developer the freedom to ignore existing zoning. It was designed for combinations of residential, open space, recreation and business – sort of like putting together a new self-contained community. But developers recently have seen it as a way to avoid existing zoning altogether. If it is granted in this case, it alters the game, setting a precedent that could affect neighborhoods such as the Las Olas Isles, Rio Vista, Victoria Park – all of which adjoin Colee Hammock.
And most of the people living in those sections haven’t a clue. Considering its possible impact, this fight has received little press. Dan Christensen’s blog, Broward Bulldog, was picked up two weeks ago in a heavily edited way by the Sun Sentinel, but that’s about it. No Miami Herald coverage, no community newspaper coverage and aside from Christensen’s work, not even the blogs. That seems odd, for Bob Norman at New Times savors stories of power struggles, especially with such strong political undercurrents. And there are heavyweights on each side of this one.
Of course, this column counts as a blog, and is written by someone admitting a conflict of interest. It is my neighborhood being threatened. But my conflict of interest is no different from anybody else involved in this, including the church and its builder. Their conflict is with anybody opposing their interest.
The neighbors see the church as conflicted in a moral sense, between its duty to be a good neighbor and its apparent desire to basically become a business – owning retail shops and a parking garage, possibly expanding to a school, taking residential land off the tax rolls and on and on. They see the economics this way: their property values and quality of life versus a church wanting to grow in a big way. All this will be expressed tomorrow.
Mostly the citizens of Colee Hammock, who bought there because of its charm (it’s like a village on the edge of a city), are appalled at the sheer size of this proposal. It is two large buildings, one with a five-story parking garage, which will dramatically alter their neighborhood in terms of traffic, views of homeowners, overall ambience, every which way. One resident, who will be heard from at the hearing, went to some trouble to illustrate the size of this project. She went on a survey trip and found that in square feet – and that means height as well as linear dimensions – it is larger than the downtown Home Depot and bigger than the north Federal Highway Office Depot and Toys "R" Us combined. The developer will likely point to other tall buildings, but those are almost all in the business district blocks down Las Olas. The busy shopping area, shown above, consists of mostly one-story structures, although some have offices above.
The neighbors think if other neighborhoods understood what this could mean in rewriting our zoning rules, permitting similar intrusions in residential sections, public opinion would be irresistibly on their side. It seems to be already. Broward Bulldog, which did not get many comments until the Sun Sentinel piece, exploded to about six times its normal volume of response. Of the 33 responses to date, 31 are against the PUD. Obviously there are interesting dynamics at work in such contests. Those on defense tend to be the loudest. But this does not appear to be even close. It is the opinion of the Colee Hammock homeowners that the church’s leadership may be fired up, but the overall membership is lukewarm at best, not caring that much one way or the other. But the homeowners sure care. Listen up.