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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

? 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.

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