Bill Farkas and the City of U-Turns

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, July 16, 2013 No Comment(s)


The driver was frustrated. He (or she, but probably he) was trying to get onto Broward Boulevard from one of the side streets near U.S. 1. Traffic was backed up, even at a nearby light. Thoughtless drivers, probably on cell phones, blocked the intersection, flat in the middle of a red light, preventing other drivers from being able to move even though they had the green. Horns of protest were heard. You see it every day on Fort Lauderdale’s increasingly congested main roads. And the driver trying to get onto Broward had seen enough. He backed up and made a U-turn, very tricky when backing up, and did not quite pull it off, hitting a curb, then retracing in the opposite direction, not terribly pleased with his present station in life.

We might as well get used to it. This is not even the season, and yet day by day it seems that the renewal of downtown Fort Lauderdale is becoming a self-defeating reality.

Thoughts go back to the 1970s when Bill Farkas came to down as the Downtown Development director. He found that the person he replaced had put the town in a legal pickle, having razed buildings the city did not own. There were several blocks of empty dirt, surrounded by tired structures, and until legal issues were resolved, nothing new could go up. The solution was to put in some nicely landscaped tennis courts, just to give the impression that something was happening. And when something actually did happen, some people complained that the city had taken away their nice tennis courts.

Bill Farkas did a good job (some might say brilliant) and did another good job later when he supervised the building of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. But when he took over, things were depressing. In a broad sense, Fort Lauderdale and environs were booming. The Galt Ocean Mile had been transformed from an open beach where teenagers used to park to a row of new condominiums. Nearby Coral Ridge was being built and the western suburbs were replacing farmland.

The downtown, however, instead of advancing, was in retrograde. The only major store was Burdines, and it decided to leave for the newly built Galleria Mall. It is now Macy’s. Farkas had not even been told of the move in advance. But he managed to save the building as the Broward County Government Center, and slowly the vision of a modern downtown was realized. Farkas, who now lives in Dade County, could hardly imagine that, some 30 years later, people would be worried about out-of-control downtown development.

But they are – or should be. As we write, there are five cranes jabbing the skyline within a few blocks along U.S. 1. Nearby are blocks of recently built apartments, which have replaced 1920s-era cottages, most of them already converted to small offices. There is more high-density building going on near the New River, and other sites awaiting approval. All this building is great for the construction trades, but does anyone worry about the traffic sure to come from thousands of new residences, crowded around a downtown that is hard to navigate as it is?

One of the unusual features of Fort Lauderdale is the desirable neighborhoods surrounding the downtown, convenient to shopping, entertainment and even the airport. They include Victoria Park, Las Olas Isles, Rio Vista, Colee Hammock, Tarpon Bend and Sailboat Bend. Although homes there vary greatly in value, they all share a quality of life not found in many Florida cities. And all have benefited from investment in restoring and improving, and in many cases replacing older dwellings. But for the most part, the changes have not brought dramatic increases in density. And the city, beginning more than 20 years ago, has tried to protect those neighborhoods by blocking cut-through traffic, trying to channel onto the main thoroughfares.

But that is not the case with all the new construction underway at the heart of the roundel of established neighborhoods. Rampant building is going on with little, or no thought to solving already vexing traffic problems. The new life will surely degrade the quality of the old.

Better practice U-turns backing up.

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