Business Monday: How Fort Lauderdale's long-overlooked downtown became South Florida's latest hotspot

By Andres Viglucci

For many years, as once-dismal downtowns in Miami and West Palm Beach were transformed by sweeping redevelopment and an influx of fresh-faced residents hungry for some urban sizzle, Fort Lauderdale's city center remained by comparison an overlooked patch of sleepy streetscape.

How swiftly things change in South Florida. Fort Lauderdale's compact, riverside downtown has suddenly become the region's latest boomtown, bristling with construction cranes and a jostling urban energy that looks to claim its star in the constellation of South Florida's urban renaissance.

The burst of downtown development means thousands of apartments and condos just built, under construction or approved, and plans for the first new office tower in 15 years, not to mention a bloom of new restaurants and bars. A downtown that for years could boast only two hotels is now adding a clutch of brand-name hospitality offerings ranging from the luxe to affordable chic.

The resurgence extends to a thorough makeover of East Last Olas Boulevard's long-in-the-tooth restaurant and retail row. Just north, across Broward Boulevard, sit the burgeoning mid-rise hipster haven of Flagler Village and the adjacent FAT Village, a four-block mini-Wynwood of converted warehouses that draws thousands of young people to a monthly art walk.

Then there is Brightline, the private train service with a gleaming, just-finished downtown Fort Lauderdale station that will soon link the neighborhood to its counterparts in Miami and West Palm, each just a 30-minute express ride away.

Possibly joining it in the near future: The city's long-planned Wave streetcar line, which would knit together both sides of Broward Boulevard. The $195 million public-transit project, funded primarily by the state, was set to start construction early next year. Construction bids that came in dramatically higher than the budget last week have clouded that prospect.

And don't forget the long-ago investment by the city, Broward County and local cultural patrons in a performing arts center, a science museum and an art museum revitalized by an innovative director. All of these sit along downtown's Riverwalk, now fully stitched together along the New River with the recent completion of a missing piece.

It all adds up to what boosters say might turn out to be the most liveable, most convenient and appealing urban neighborhood in South Florida. It's as if Wynwood's creative culture, Coconut Grove's laid-back Bohemianism and Brickell's go-getter professional class were all compressed within easy walking distance of one another — with the added advantages of a 10-minute drive to the airport or a five-minute bike ride to Fort Lauderdale's famous beach, also undergoing a rejuvenation.

"It's exploded in the last year," said Shawn Aric Williams, who posts on Facebook and Instagram as Urbnplanr and tracks new development projects and proposals in downtown Fort Lauderdale. "It's a really exciting time for the city."

If downtown Fort Lauderdale is playing catch-up, it's doing so with a vengeance. The city says some 7,000 residential units are under construction or already approved, with thousands more under review. All are located in a downtown district that runs roughly between the Florida East Coast rail tracks to the west and U.S. 1 on the east, and from Davie Boulevard south of the river to Sunrise Boulevard on the north.

Among the significant projects just completed, under construction, approved or under review are:

Icon Las Olas, a 272-unit, ultra-luxe rental tower on the river by Miami's Related Group that opened earlier this month. The tower tests Related's proposition that Fort Lauderdale's affluent class is ready to rent instead of own, at rates that range from $2,000 to $8,000 a month.

"We let the market decide," said Related vice president Patrick Campbell, who added the bet has paid off with 60 percent of units leased in just four months, a record rate for the company. "We have an interesting group of middle-aged people who have given up on the hassles of homeownership."

X Las Olas. It will replace most of the failed Las Olas Riverfront festival marketplace redevelopment, which opened in 1998 and is now undergoing demolition. The new mixed-use project, by Property Markets Group, comprises two residential towers with 1,200 units. The first phase, a 639-unit tower, will feature small units with modest rents aimed at young renters. A quarter of the units will be about 500 square feet and 70 percent will rent for under $2,000, a spokeswoman said. The project also includes 100,000 square feet of shared amenities for "social living."

100 Las Olas, which recently started construction, will be Broward's tallest tower at nearly 500 feet, a smidge higher than Icon. The high-rise, by developer Kolter Group, includes 120 condos, 228 hotel rooms and ground-floor restaurant space. Units at the tower, the only new condo project with active sales listings downtown, start at $800,000 and top out at $2.27 million, with an average list price of just over $1.37 million.

FAT City, on North Andrews Avenue in the heart of Flagler Village and just two blocks from the Brightline station. The mixed-use complex, approved by the city commission in July, consists of two 30-story towers with 270,000 square feet of Class A offices and retail space, and 612 apartments "right-priced" for middle-class renters who have been shut out of luxury-level housing in the downtown core, according to developer Joe Traina, Jr. That means rent that starts below $1,000 a month.

201 East Las Olas and 212 SE Second Ave. Developer Stiles Corp., based in downtown Fort Lauderdale, plans two towers on the site of a complex formerly occupied by Broward College. One tower will house 400,000 square feet of offices and the other residential, with a ground-floor supermarket. Stiles vice chair Doug Eagon, whose firm has played a key role in the resuscitation of the district, said commercial demand is high on Las Olas, with vacancies at just 5 percent.

The Dalmar/Element hotel, under construction on the edge of Flagler Village on North Federal Highway (U.S. 1). The dual-branded, 24-story complex aspires to a high coolness quotient. It comprises 323 hotel rooms with a rooftop bar, 12,000 square feet of amenities and meeting spaces, and a ground-floor coffee shop.

Las Olas Place, a two-story retail and restaurant building in an elegant Mediterranean style now under construction on downtown Fort Lauderdale's main-street dining and shopping strip. The new building is part of an effort by the street's largest landowner, The Las Olas Company, to re-energize the destination, whose once-vital popularity has been on the wane.

The boom responds to pent-up demand from Fort Lauderdale and suburban Broward residents for dense, walk-everywhere urbanism and the lifestyle and amenities it affords. That's a relative rarity amid the city and county's sprawling, car-oriented landscape, developers and city leaders say.

To ensure that's the result, the city's decade-old building code and downtown master plan require pedestrian-friendly ground floors with retail, hidden parking garages and slender floor plates to preserve views and avert bulky, sky-blocking towers.

Unlike Miami's downtown boom, Fort Lauderdale's caters overwhelmingly to locals. Most new residential development consists of rentals now that the bloom is off the regional condo market. Many of the rentals, like Icon Las Olas, are aimed at the highly affluent, especially those in the downtown core south of Broward Boulevard.

But many, especially in Flagler Village, strive to offer good value, especially when compared to Miami's soaring rents and cost of housing — and are aimed squarely and relatively affordably at millennials, said Jenni Morejon, director of Fort Lauderdale's Downtown Development Authority. With the area's median household income of $60,000, rents of around $2,000 hit a demographic sweet spot, she said.

Boosters say the results are already evident, with a growing, economically and age-diverse downtown population that ranges from kids just out of college to families with young children, as well as the well-to-do empty nesters and retirees who bought condos downtown during a pre-recession boom nearly a decade ago.

"We wanted to be attractive to that next generation," said Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler. "That's what gives downtown its vibrancy, its energy, its life. You want a diverse downtown that includes all types of people, all walks of life."

That's quite a turnaround for a downtown that not long ago seemed moribund and whose streets after dark were populated mostly by the homeless. Though homeless people today remain downtown, Seiler said their numbers are down markedly because of a crackdown on sleeping in parks and the riverwalk that's worked in tandem with an expansion of services.

The shift is no accident but rather the result of well-laid plans stretching back decades and only bearing full fruit today, Seiler and others say.

Like Miami and West Palm, Fort Lauderdale owes its existence today to Henry Flagler's railroad 120 years ago. But downtown Fort Lauderdale was something of a backwater at the start. Instead of the grand resorts Flagler built in Miami and Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale's downtown was an agricultural distribution center for surrounding farmers.

Over the decades it grew into a commercial center serving the broader city, but it fell into rapid decline in the 1960s and 1970s because of suburban flight, said Patricia Zeiler, executive director of the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society. Many of the low-rise downtown buildings she recalls as a teen growing up in the city were demolished, leaving behind a dreary stretch of vacant lots and surface parking lots.

But civic and government leaders, many of whom lived nearby in stable, affluent waterfront neighborhoods, never completely turned their back on downtown.

As early as the 1960s, the city, county and the DDA were empowered to claim properties through eminent domain and designate them for new public and private development. The public organizations began hatching plans to draw investment by building new county and municipal buildings, including a new main public library in 1984. Then, in 1986, came a new home for the Fort Lauderdale Art Museum, followed by the Broward Center for the Performing Arts and the Museum of Discovery and Science.

The idea was to begin building a critical mass of people downtown to support businesses and, eventually, residential development. But progress was slow.

"I used to walk around and take my lunch and sit on the river, because there were no restaurants to eat in," recalled Eagon, the Stiles vice-chairman, who was then a young city planner working downtown.

Private developers did eventually arrive, though progress came in bursts in typical South Florida boom-and-bust style. First were high-rise office towers, several by the recently deceased Terry Stiles, founder of the firm that bears his last name, that drew lawyers and banks.Those include the massive Bank of America complex on Las Olas. Even before the city required it, Stiles was putting retail at street level in its projects, because sidewalk traffic is key to creating a cohesive urban environment that benefits all, Eagon said.

"This is not some contrived, instant-city kind of experiment," Eagon noted. "If there was not a central business district and a business environment, and not the cultural and educational facilities, there wouldn't be a reason for people to live here. All of those things played into why this place is so attractive. It grew organically over the last 50 years."

But empty lots still proliferated and even a string of successful projects, including the luxury condos that began flanking Las Olas Boulevard and the riverfront, were isolated and did not produce the cohesive urban fabric and walkable streets that city leaders badly wanted.

Along the way, there were mistakes, none more obvious than the Las Olas Riverfront mall. Initially popular, it nonetheless served as a massive wall along the railroad tracks, effectively dividing downtown, and it soon began prompting calls for a redevelopment.

When the Great Recession hit, everything ground to a halt. Just as the economy began recovering, Campbell, the Related vice-president, remembers going to Las Olas's restaurant row to celebrate approval of the company's River Yacht Club residential complex south of the New River, one of the projects that signaled the start of downtown Fort Lauderdale's comeback. "Las Olas, on a Tuesday night five years ago, was a ghost town," Campbell said.

But quietly, something new and small-scale had already begun. Alan Hooper and business partner Tim Petrillo saw potential in a forlorn historic block along Southwest Second Street where they opened the Himmarshee Bar and Grill, a pioneering success that began drawing a hip urban clientele after dark to the heart of downtown Fort Lauderdale. They followed up with Tarpon Bend, still in business.

Developers Alan Hooper, left, and Tim Petrillo discuss their loft-style residential developments in Flagler Village, a Fort Lauderdale hotspot that's helping drive the resurgence of the city's long overlooked downtown. Hooper and Petrillo have also opened a string of restaurants and bars in the heart of downtown.

A decade ago, Hooper also discovered the great urban bones of a near-derelict neighborhood north of Broward Boulevard, along the spine of North Andrews Avenue. There they built a set of mid-rise residential loft buildings along several blocks, drawing hundreds of urban pioneers to the area, which they rebaptized as Flagler Village, now a hotspot for hip redevelopment.

Next door, landowners began renting a collection of warehouses cheaply to artists and creative enterprises like C&I Studios, an advertising agency whose young leaders moved down from Washington, D.C., after discovering the neighborhood and its possibilities while on a job for a local client.

"We really believed in the area because we saw the opportunity to build something," said agency CEO Josh Miller. "It's authentic and natural. Fort Lauderdale seemed like Legos and you could build whatever you wanted."

Once the economy restarted, those efforts helped set the tone for downtown Fort Lauderdale's new focus: Younger, hipper working professionals enamored of urban living and refugees from suburban upbringings in the western reaches of the county.

Hooper and Petrillo have opened up new downtown restaurants, including the trendsetting Yolo on Las Olas and, just this month, the area's first rooftop lounge, Rooftop@1WLO.

The downtown turnaround has also been helped by changes in the local workforce. It's no longer just legal, banking and financial jobs, the DDA's Morejon said, but also tech and startups. Some offices that once housed 10 lawyers now may have 30 or 40 people working in a startup, she said.
The demographic shift now has prompted owners of Las Olas' five-block retail row to change things up dramatically. The Hudson Capital Group and The Las Olas Company, which together control 90 percent of its storefronts, have hired Miami investor Michael Comras, who helped revive Lincoln Road Mall on South Beach and Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, to refresh and reposition their properties.

As leases run out, they're replacing some longstanding tenants with what they say will be a mix of local, regional and national shops and dining spots catering to a younger clientele, as well as the sophisticated tourists staying in the new upscale hotels on the nearby beach. Already in place: Beauty and skincare store Bluemercury, jewelry and accessories retailer Alex and Ani and a fine-art photo gallery from National Geographic.

"We'd always heard the nationals like to move in packs, but we never had enough square footage to attract them," said Las Olas Co. president Mike Weymouth. "So we said, let's lock arms and really go after this together."

And contrary to what some say, Hudson Capital's Steve Hudson said, bricks-and-mortar retail can still succeed if diverse options are served up in an urban setting as part of an authentic-feeling experience — which is what the historic street and downtown Fort Lauderdale can provide in spades.

"I don't believe retail is dead. It's about the lifestyle," Hudson said. "People are social beings and they want to get out and experience things."

If there's a downside to the city's downtown revival, it's the typical pattern of urban gentrification, which can push out the least affluent who were there first. Miller said that's already happening in Flagler Village as speculators and developers buy up every bit of available land, driving up prices and rents. Already his rent was hiked "exponentially," but he's been able to stay by opening up a bar and coffee shop at his studio.

"This is where all the cool kids are, but land is being bought up for millions and people have started to leave," he said. "I'm excited people are moving here. But the city needs to focus on doing what it can to keep Fort Lauderdale Fort Lauderdale, before it turns into Wynwood or Boca. It has to be real."

Hooper and Seiler, though, don't believe Fort Lauderdale will ever become a mini-Brickell, or lose the laid-back feel that differentiates it, no matter how much gung-ho development changes its downtown.

"We have the right blend of commercial and residential and retail. Nothing has been accidental," Seiler said. "Miami is more international and a whole lot busier. We have a little higher quality of life, I think. A little less stressful."

If anything, Hooper said, some Miamians may look to Fort Lauderdale for a change of pace. Once Brightline starts running, he noted, they could live in downtown Fort Lauderdale and commute to work in Miami.

"I think we are the quieter and gentler alternative — the Santa Barbara to Los Angeles," Hooper said. "It's pretty nice."