By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Spurred by a pair of high-profile zoning battles, a dozen Fort Lauderdale neighborhood associations have called on the city to halt the use of an innovative ordinance meant to encourage “unique” development.
Upset residents insist the city slap a moratorium on its eight-year-old Planned Urban Development scheme – commonly known as a PUD.
Some see the PUD as a nightmare that will corrupt the character of neighborhoods and allow large new buildings near their homes. Others call the PUD a saving grace that can breathe new life into a community.
Tens of millions of dollars in development dollars are potentially at stake; not to mention millions more in future property taxes and other projected income to the city.
The PUD is the planning vehicle for developers seeking to supersize beachside Bahia Mar, and to expand significantly First Presbyterian Church’s presence in the Colee Hammock neighborhood off fashionable Las Olas Boulevard.
Those projects carry price tags of $500 million and $20 million, respectively.
A moratorium on the consideration of PUD zoning requests could freeze plans for those projects - plans in the works for years – while the city reviews the ordinance’s language.
The fight in Colee Hammock and Bahia Mar worries distant associations who fear unacceptable changes coming to their communities in the future.
“There is concern that the spot zoning of PUDs will set the standard for neighborhoods,” Idlewyld homeowner’s association President Mary C. Fertig said in a recent letter to the city commission.
Stiles Corp. President Douglas Eagon, whose company is the project planner for First Presbyterian’s building program, calls such talk “PUD hysteria” and says it has been used unfairly to whip up neighborhood opposition to the PUD.
“They keep saying this could happen in your neighborhood as well, which is a total fabrication,” said Eagon.
Zoning law for ‘unique’ development
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler said Tuesday that he’s willing to conduct a review of the PUD “to find out how it came about and whether it’s still something we need to be doing.” But Seiler, a lawyer, doubted it would hold up the two projects for long because legal precedent exempts zoning matters in progress from that type of delay.
The city’s PUD ordinance doesn’t contemplate such disputes. It permits “unique or innovative development that is not otherwise permitted under traditional zoning districts and development standards” so long as it is compatible with the surrounding area and the “general welfare of the public” is protected.
Seven PUD districts now dot the city and innovation hasn’t always been the watchword. They range from a stalled luxury resort hotel and condominium development on the beach at the site of the old Ireland’s Inn to a 253,000-square foot storage warehouse on State Road 84 near Interstate 95.
The city’s first PUD was the Village at Sailboat Bend, a 13-acre neighborhood of multistory townhomes developed by Lennar Corp. behind the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. The site was once a maze of more than a dozen ramshackle buildings owned by the Broward County School Board, including the historic but dilapidated West Side School.
The ordinance was conceived by a Lennar lobbyist, Lisa Maxwell, and drafted by a Lennar attorney, former Broward County Attorney Susan Delegal.
According to Maxwell, who no longer works for Lennar, the city’s hodgepodge of area zoning made a new ordinance imperative to making the multimillion dollar project happen.
“I met over 200 times with people in the neighborhood,” said Maxwell.
“They had a vision about what they wanted this to be. But when you put it all together and looked at the zoning code, it simply wouldn’t work. We were talking about 50 variances. It was silly.”
After “a lot of back and forth with the city,” Maxwell said, the commission approved the PUD ordinance in November 2002. You can read it here.
It encourages “flexibility of design” and a variety of integrated uses. The Village at Sailboat Bend, already in the planning pipeline as an anticipated PUD, was approved two months later.
Then Mayor James Naugle approved the redevelopment in Sailboat Bend, but nevertheless was wary of the PUD, saying it might one day allow “monstrous buildings” elsewhere in the city.
“He stated he supported the permitting of innovative designs, but feared this would allow buildings which would be incompatible with the neighborhood and should not be accommodated,” according to minutes of a Nov. 5, 2002 meeting.
What’s a PUD good for?
PUDs appeared after World War II as a tool in the unified planning of entire suburban communities, like Levittown on New York’s Long Island.
Decades later, Fort Lauderdale was among the first cities in Florida – many have followed – to turn the PUD idea inside out and apply it to urban redevelopment on a much smaller scale.
Two acres is the minimum area for a PUD zoning district. Permitted uses are established at the time of rezoning and projects must meet eight criteria. For example, the height, bulk, shadow, mass and design of a building must be compatible with the surrounding area. PUD projects also “shall have a long-term beneficial impact” on the area and the city as a whole.
LXR Resorts of Boca Raton wants a PUD district, and a 100-year lease, to allow it to redevelop city-owned Bahia Mar. Its $500 million plan envisions renovating the existing 15-story hotel, adding a new 300-room Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and constructing two high-rise condominiums and retail stores along A1A.
Plans also call for a large elevated waterfront park with a parking garage underneath, and that’s the reason for the PUD. The length of the park is longer than would be allowed under current zoning, said LXR executive Peter Henn.
“But the end result is a less tall parking structure which is hidden by the landscaped waterfront park,” he said.
Further west, in Colee Hammock, First Presbyterian Church and Stiles Corp. are seeking a PUD to build two large, Spanish Mission-style structures on land south of Las Olas Boulevard between Tarpon Drive and Southeast 15th Avenue. The buildings are a five-story parking garage/commercial office building and a two-story Family Center. The PUD makes the project doable in a location that’s a “quagmire” of zoning districts, said Eagon.
Neighborhood worries grow
Opponents of both projects have rallied support for a citywide moratorium on PUD approvals while the ordinance is reviewed.
Marilyn Mammano, the president of the Harbordale Civic Association and a former top zoning official in New York City, believes the ordinance is too developer-friendly. She said she wants it made “more responsive to neighborhood concerns.”
Land-use lawyer James Brady, who lives in Colee Hammock, calls the PUD ordinance “an abomination.”
“It clearly promises a lot of things and uses a lot of buzzwords,” said Brady, who opposes the church expansion. “Zoning is supposed to provide some predictability for people. This renders the issue unpredictable and subject merely to political whim.”
But Maxwell thinks such thinking is wrongheaded, and could backfire on neighborhoods like Colee Hammock by leading to even taller structures.
“We wrote safeguards into this ordinance, criteria requiring developers to meet with the community and help foster a bridge of understanding,” she said in an interview. “The church isn’t going anywhere, and if it doesn’t use the PUD it will expand under the current zoning code. And, trust me, that will be 10 times more draconian than under the PUD.”
Las Olas area real estate broker Jacquelyn Scott has helped lead the charge against the PUD. She said the ordinance is “vague” and needs to be made more responsive to local communities.
“I don’t think there’s a neighborhood in the city that’s not at risk to have a developer come in and attempt to do a PUD project,” said Scott. “Once it’s cleaned up I think the neighborhoods would be in good shape.”
That message has resonated at other civic associations throughout the city. Victoria Park, Croissant Park, Imperial Point, Golden Heights, Sailboat Bend, Lauderdale Isles, Tarpon River, Melrose Park and Melrose Manor all now support a moratorium.
Some applaud the PUD
Opposition to the PUD ordinance is not unanimous.
Bryan Sawchuk is a member of the board of the Lake Ridge Civic Association. He believes his neighborhood benefited from a PUD district that allowed the development of the 279-unit Satori apartment complex that opened last year at 1201 E. Sunrise Blvd.
“The PUD is an important tool that promotes reasonable development while giving more opportunity for public improvements to the neighborhood,” he said in a recent letter to city commissioners.
Attorney William Grundlach, former chairman of the Colee Hammock Homeowner’s Association’s church committee, also thinks the PUD is beneficial.
“Although there are those in the Homeowners Association who passionately oppose any development by the church and especially through a PUD, it is my opinion that a PUD is the only way we can protect the neighborhood,” Grundlach said in a letter to the commission.