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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

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.

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, Barron Real Estate 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."

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