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

Andres Viglucci, Miami Herald on

Published in Home and Consumer News

MIAMI -- 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."


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