Days after a fire ripped through an abandoned building in Wilton Manors, questions linger as to what started the blaze and what will become of a prized property.
Described by officials as the largest fire in Wilton Manors in two decades, the former Center for Spiritual Living, 1550 Northeast 26th St., went up in flames in the early morning hours of April 13. The church has been shuttered for years and the current owners, UDC Manors LLC, have failed to redevelop the 4.9-acre site.
“I would consider it an attractive nuisance,” said Rabbi Noah Kitty, who lives on the city’s east side. “Circumstances have determined that now is the time that something needs to be done and hopefully it will move from the back to the front of the line.”
With almost all of Wilton Manors built out, developers and entrepreneurs have long coveted the old church property that, before the fire, had a just market value of $2.2 million. Built in 1974, the building was slated for demolition later this year, Fort Lauderdale Fire Battalion Chief Stephen Ballon told reporters.
A total of 25 units and 75 firefighters responded, Ballon said, making the incident a two-alarm fire. At the scene, Ballon said no one was found inside. John Fiore, the former mayor of Wilton Manors, told reporters homeless people had been camping on the property.
“My guess is that some homeless people did something and it set something on fire,” Fiore said.
Kitty, campaigning for a seat on the Wilton Manors Commission, said it was unfortunate to lay blanket blame on the unhoused population.
“The truth is people have broken in there consistently,” Kitty said.
Roger Cruttenden, president of the Three Bridges Neighborhood Association, declined to speculate as to how the fire started.
“I’ve heard it being said, ‘oh how convenient,’ Cruttenden said. “But I think we need to let the professionals look at this and have an appropriate investigation.”
Larry Baum, a managing partner of Sunny Isles Beach-based UDC Manors, said all utilities were disconnected and the property had been abandoned for almost 11 years. Broward County Property Appraiser records show UDC Manors bought the property in 2014 from First Church of Religious Science for $3.2 million.
A proposal to redevelop the property into a 100-unit condominium complex was met with swift resistance and ultimately defeated by eastside residents.
“People cost money and businesses bring money,” Kitty said. “The only way you can make money there is through density and the neighborhood isn’t interested in density.”
Wilton Manors police first reported the fire, Ballon said. The Gazette has reached out to WMPD and the State Fire Marshal’s office for comment and more information and will provide updates as they become available.