(SS) There was no contentious outpouring last April, when the Fort Lauderdale City Commission considered a proposed apartment tower at 629 SE 5th Avenue.
Residents from across the way in Rio Vista didn’t come clamoring into the commission chambers complaining that 629 Residence’s tenants would sully their community. No one lamented that the 35-story structure would overwhelm the low-slung skyline south of the Henry E. Kinney Tunnel.
The commissioners said yes. Of course, they did. They’ve said yes to just about anything builders have wanted to jam into the so-called Downtown Regional Activity Center, a fish-shaped chunk of city geography stretching from Searstown south (mostly between Federal Highway and the FEC Railroad tracks) toward Davie Boulevard. The main “activity” within the activity center? Construction.
According to the city’s Downtown Development Map, 19,950 new residential units have been approved and completed in the downtown and “near downtown” since 2012. Another 5,114 are under construction and 5,096 more have been approved.
Cranes now dominate a city skyline once defined by church steeples; religion having been supplanted hereabouts by the cult of unfettered development. One wonders, amid the building frenzy: what could finally make them say no? What sort of hideous, civilization-menacing, zone-busting proposal would be deemed so threatening to the commonweal, that Fort Lauderdale’s civil leadership would finally say “Stop!”
The city’s Board of Adjustment supplied the answer very late Wednesday night. (Or maybe very early Thursday morning. My brain, by then, had gone numb.) Apparently, nothing threatens Fort Lauderdale’s essence like affordable housing.
The Board decided that the city could not abide an apartment building with piddling rents ranging from $500 to $830 a month. Scraping by on $30,000 or less a year is not an activity to be allowed within the activity zone. At least not that portion of the zone within three blocks of Rio Vista.
Originally criticized as too big, at 15 stories — never mind that the address, 409 SE 8th St., is just down the block from more-than-twice-as-big 629 Residence — the city has invented a new reason to kill the project. The board voted 4 to 3 to uphold the city zoning chief’s contention (borrowed from neighborhood association lawyers) that the structure was not really an apartment building, but a duplicitous façade, where the landlord intends to operate a “social services residential facility,” an SSRF, a forbidden use under the zoning code.
If that’s true, the city’s lawyer didn’t bother presenting supporting evidence Wednesday evening. No matter. The real objection has to do with the developer, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Dan Abbott, the city’s hired outside counsel (perhaps the city attorney’s office was too embarrassed to pursue the case) made it clear that he thinks AHF intends to pack the joint with diseased AIDS patients (in language so offensive that a board member interrupted the meeting to apologize to the audience). Abbott argued that the place was merely an extension of a free STD clinic and testing center down the block that the foundation runs in partnership with the Broward County Health Department.
Abbott offered no witnesses to support his contention (except for a real estate economist who opined that the non-profit’s business plan was a money loser). Nor did Abbott rebut the architect who, under oath, said that her snazzy design (pared down from 680 to 500 units at the city’s behest) in no way accommodated an SSRF. Same with Charles A. Michelson, a certified expert on healthcare architecture, who told Abbott that the design was incompatible with a medical or social services residential operation. “You are trying to make a connection where none exists.”
Michael Kahane, head of AHF’s regional operations, testified that the only requirement for tenants in the foundation’s $71 million model project, to be built and operated without government subsidies or tax credits, would be that they make less than half Broward County’s medium income, pass a background check, have no history of missing rent payments and sign a one-year lease. He denied Abbott’s claim that the building would be reserved for AIDS patients, noting that federal law explicitly forbids landlords from inquiring about applicants’ health status.
But the SSRF stuff was just a canard. The real reason the city killed the project had to do with the wealthy and influential residents of nearby Rio Vista, well represented at the meeting Wednesday, who don’t want low-income housing in the vicinity, no matter the need.
Of course, AHF will appeal the decision before a three-judge panel, which presumably will require the city to produce actual proof that the proposal is something it isn’t. Only problem will be finding three Broward circuit judges who don’t reside in Rio Vista.