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Fort Lauderdale may stick neighborhoods with $104 million redesign bill for Las Olas

Sun Sentinel logoSun Sentinel 7/3/2022 Susannah Bryan, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Fort Lauderdale commissioners say a redesign of Las Olas will make the high-profile boulevard prettier and safer. The plan, which requires removing the tree-lined median, is not loved by all, especially with news that nearby property owners might have to foot the bill. © Carline Jean/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/TNS Fort Lauderdale commissioners say a redesign of Las Olas will make the high-profile boulevard prettier and safer. The plan, which requires removing the tree-lined median, is not loved by all, especially with news that nearby property owners might have to foot the bill.

Las Olas, the iconic boulevard buzzing with chic restaurants, luxury shops and crowded bars, is in line for an extreme makeover that will cost millions — $104.2 million, to be exact.

A dramatic transformation is on the way for Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, shown here in March 2020. Under the redesign, those pretty olive trees will disappear and so will the landscaped median to make room for wider sidewalks. A different type of tree, perhaps live oaks or crepe myrtles, would be planted on both sides of the road. © Mike Stocker / South Florida/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/TNS A dramatic transformation is on the way for Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, shown here in March 2020. Under the redesign, those pretty olive trees will disappear and so will the landscaped median to make room for wider sidewalks. A different type of tree, perhaps live oaks or crepe myrtles, would be planted on both sides of the road.

The ambitious plan, which will take years to complete, calls for pretty landscaping and roomy sidewalks that will open up space for outdoor dining and leisurely strolls along one of Fort Lauderdale’s best people watching zones.

But who, pray tell, will pick up the tab?

Under one plan, only taxpayers with property on or near Las Olas would be forced to pay the bill, forking over payments once a year for 30 years until the bond gets paid off.

City officials have not yet drawn the precise boundaries of the potential tax district, but they have mapped out a payment structure with the help of Stantec Consulting Inc.

If the cost were spread evenly among property owners, each would pay $956 a year over the next 30 years, according to one plan proposed by the city’s consultant.

An alternative plan would divvy up the annual bill based on the type of property: $524 for a single-family home; $374 per unit for a 100-unit condo; $441 per room for a hotel property; $2,444 for a 10,000-square-foot office building; and $2,004 for a 6,000-square-foot restaurant.

A dramatic transformation is on the way for Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. Under the redesign, those pretty olive trees will disappear and so will the landscaped median to make room for wider sidewalks. A different type of tree, perhaps live oaks or crepe myrtles, would be planted on both sides of the road. © Michael Laughlin/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/TNS A dramatic transformation is on the way for Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. Under the redesign, those pretty olive trees will disappear and so will the landscaped median to make room for wider sidewalks. A different type of tree, perhaps live oaks or crepe myrtles, would be planted on both sides of the road.

The assessment would show up every year on property tax bills.

Tax plan showdown

Critics, many of whom were involved in brainstorming ideas for the better part of three years with city officials and a hired consultant, are reeling from the news.

“People are beside themselves,” said Mary Fertig, a longtime community activist who represents the Idlewyld neighborhood on the east end of Las Olas. “They want to tax us for 30 years. If you’re in your 30s and 40s, you’ll be paying for this till you’re in your 60s and 70s.”

Debby Eisinger, president of the Hendricks Isle/Isle of Venice Neighborhood Association, called the plan to tax only nearby property owners absurd when so many others use the historic tree-lined street that stretches from downtown all the way to the beach.

“Las Olas Boulevard is not a local road,” Eisinger told commissioners during a recent meeting at City Hall. “Las Olas Boulevard is an iconic road known worldwide as the heart of Fort Lauderdale. It’s the connecting road leading from the mainland to one of the most popular beaches in the region and probably the state.”

Commissioners tried to soothe the naysayers, saying nothing is set in stone.

“Don’t think we’re automatically adopting this [funding plan],” Mayor Dean Trantalis said in an attempt to calm the critics. “This is the beginning of a discussion.”

Fertig, speaking on behalf of the Idlewyld Improvement Association, urged city leaders to at least let residents vote on the tax plan to make sure they’re willing to pay for a redesign some might not want.

“This was a vision,” she said. “Somehow the city put a price tag on the vision.”

Construction could begin as soon as 2025, city officials say. But Fertig told commissioners she and other residents want to know exactly how the costs break down.

Changes on the way

Here are some key highlights of the redesign plan:

  • Las Olas would say farewell to its tree-lined median to make space for wider sidewalks and more outdoor dining.
  • New trees, perhaps live oaks or crepe myrtles, would be planted along both sides of Las Olas.
  • The shopping district would have one lane of traffic in each direction to encourage drivers to slow down as they cruise through one of the most trafficked sections of the boulevard.
  • In the Isles, where critics claim Las Olas has turned into a speedway, the width of the outside lanes would be narrowed from 12 feet to 11 feet. The inside lanes would be narrowed from 12 to 10 feet to get drivers to slow down.
  • Shade trees and lush landscaping would be planted along the rest of the boulevard, adding to its charm. The plan also calls for new lighting, streetscaping and improved intersections.

Commissioners signed off on what they called the vision for the redesign last year but have said there would be tweaks along the way. City officials say the changes will make the boulevard prettier and safer.

A Las Olas Mobility advisory group — co-chaired by Commissioners Steve Glassman and Ben Sorensen — began brainstorming ideas four years ago. In 2019, Fort Lauderdale turned to Corradino Group for design help, spending nearly $1 million to come up with a wish list for the high-profile street and its five distinct neighborhoods: Downtown, the Shops District, the Colee Hammock neighborhood, Las Olas Isles and the beach.

The plan was later split in two: a western corridor for the zone between Andrews Avenue and Southeast 12 Avenue and an eastern corridor for the zone between Southeast 12 Avenue and the beach.

The mayor and commission say it makes sense to take the next step to move forward with the western corridor redesign but agreed to hold off on the eastern end for now.

“The Isles portion of this is a huge undertaking,” Trantalis said. “It’s a lot of money. And to expect all the neighbors along the Isles to be assessed for this, I think we need to take a step back and evaluate this.”

Prominent leaders, from developers and real estate agents to longtime residents and community activists, worked with city officials and the Corradino Group to come up with a new plan for the boulevard as part of the Las Olas Mobility Group.

Whenever they asked how the city planned to pay for a redesign that was sure to cost millions, they were told not to worry about it, said Suzee Bailey, one of the group’s members and president of the Nurmi Isles Homeowners Association.

“Do you know how many times we sat at the table and asked, ‘How are we going to pay for this?’” she recalled. “Every time the money situation came up, we were ignored.”

Fertig, another member of the advisory group, says they were told the city would find a way. Grants were mentioned, she said. No one ever said a word about taxing the property owners.

Some still in the dark

Glassman gave it a positive spin, telling the South Florida Sun Sentinel it’s way too early for folks to come unglued.

“We’re nowhere near figuring out the entire exact way this is going to happen,” he said. “We don’t even know if there’s going to be an assessment. The good news is we are still moving forward with this. We budgeted $7 million over the next three years to refine the design.”

Some people still don’t realize there’s a redesign plan in the works for Las Olas and even fewer know about the plan to tax nearby property owners, Fertig said.

“What’s next?” she said. “Are they going to assess us for the tunnel because it goes under Las Olas? They keep talking about taxing the shops, but all the condos downtown and all the homes in Colee Hammock and Beverly Heights would be taxed too. And a lot of people don’t know about this.”

Fort Lauderdale has already earmarked $100,000 in next year’s budget to pay a consultant to move forward with plans for creating a special tax assessment, Fertig noted.

Time for a vote, she told commissioners.

“Over the past year, I have heard it said that many people love this project,” Fertig said. “If that is true, then let us vote whether or not it is worth spending $104 million on this rather than the many serious issues facing our neighborhoods.”

Susannah Bryan can be reached at sbryan@sunsentinel.com or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan

©2022 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Visit sun-sentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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