Ghost Town on the River

For years, Las Olas Riverfront has stood almost completely vacant on some of downtown’s most desirable land. New plans are now rumored – and can’t happen fast enough for some nearby business owners.

By: 

Mike Seemuth

Photo By: 

Julia Heredia

Published date: 

Sep. 1, 2016

A downtown riverfront plaza that once ranked among South Florida’s most popular destinations for shopping and entertainment has been virtually vacant for most of a decade. Las Olas Riverfront, a two-story riverfront flop, is now a Fort Lauderdale landmark for all the wrong reasons.

“Homeless people are there at night,” says James Campbell, owner of two boat tour services with passenger pick-up locations on the river side of Las Olas Riverfront. “It’s dangerous at night … A year ago, an ATF agent got mugged there. And he had a gun!”

GhostTown9.jpgRevenue collected by one of Campbell’s tour services, Riverfront Cruises, is 70 percent below the level of the late 1990s, when Las Olas Riverfront was a new hot spot. One reason his revenue sank was the elimination of river tours at night after tenants started leaving the riverfront plaza.

“We don’t do those anymore. There’s no reason to, because nobody’s there. We’re hoping for the plaza to come back in any form. People could use it as a destination, as it was originally,” Campbell says. “That was the whole idea, that it was a hub downtown, and people could congregate there. Not just business-wise, but socially, it’s been a failure.”

Speculation about the property’s potential for redevelopment suffocated Las Olas Riverfront after its successful 1998 opening and subsequent turnover in ownership.

GhostTown6.jpgThe original developer, Michael Swerdlow, sold Las Olas Riverfront in 2005 to a firm called Boca Developers, which had planned to redevelop the property with a condo component. Its timing wasn’t great. By the time the housing bubble burst in the late 2000s, Boca Developers defaulted on a loan secured by Las Olas Riverfront. Wachovia Bank in 2008 sued the principals of Boca Developers and then transferred the defaulted mortgage to New York City-based private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, which subsequently seized control of the riverfront property and flipped it to the current owners in 2012.

GhostTown2.jpgBoca Developers’ poorly timed redevelopment plan not only failed but also triggered an exodus of tenants seeking a long-term home. The tenant outflow persisted along with indecision about the future of Las Olas Riverfront as the property’s ownership changed. Long gone are such popular tenants as the Ugly Tuna Saloona, Max’s Grille and a restaurant bearing the name of Dan Marino.

The property is just as depopulated as it was when the latest owners took over four years ago, and the future of Las Olas Riverfront just as uncertain this summer amid ongoing speculation about another possible sale and redevelopment of the property.

“We’ve heard millions of different rumors over the years,” says Campbell, who has owned Riverfront Cruises and Anticipation Yacht Charters since 2005.
The latest? “I heard that the west side of the property was sold, but not the east side,” he says. “Our hopes would be for anything, because there’s nothing in there. No one has done anything for many years. It’s a blight on the downtown landscape.”

GhostTown8.jpgFort Lauderdale-based developer Dev Motwani has had a partnership with two Canadian investors who bought Las Olas Riverfront from Cerberus for $16.7 million in 2012. The two Toronto-based investors are Bill Holland, executive chairman of wealth management company CI International, and Michael Wekerle, vice chairman of GMP Securities.

In a 2013 interview with Fort Lauderdale Magazine, Motwani said a makeover of Las Olas Riverfront was needed. “Long term, the plan, as I’ve stated plenty of times before, is an eventual redevelopment of the property. But that’s long-term. We don’t know when that occurs.”
Motwani still doesn’t. In a recent email to Fort Lauderdale Magazine, he wrote: “Unfortunately I don’t have much to share on Riverfront at the moment.”

Asked if Motwani and his Canadian cohorts had submitted plans to redevelop Las Olas Riverfront for review by the City of Fort Lauderdale, city public affairs manager Chaz Adams said no in an email, adding that “it is also our understanding that the individual with ideas about redeveloping the parcel is actually a buyer who would be purchasing a portion of the property from Mr. Motwani and his partners.”
Downtown Development Authority executive director Chris Wren believes Motwani and the Canadians are moving forward.

“Dev actually told me that they have actually done a down payment to go through due diligence real estate,” he says. “There’s hard money in. And they are in the process of developing their drawings for the city development review committee.

GhostTown7.jpg"As far as uses, I really didn’t get into it with him. I’ve heard speculation that it’s a hotel combination with apartments and retail.”

It is hardly a shock that an interested buyer exists, says Michael T. Fay, principal and managing director of brokerage Avison Young in Miami. He helped broker the 2012 sale of Las Olas Riverfront to the current owners. “There’s still continued interest in that area [of downtown Fort Lauderdale]. I think where Miami was really on fire, a lot of that development and interest is rolling north,” he says.
He also says the success of the CocoWalk complex in Miami’s Coconut Grove inspired the development of Las Olas Riverfront, and the Fort Lauderdale property may further emulate its Coconut Grove counterpart. “CocoWalk just got sold, and there’s a redevelopment plan for that, but keeping components of it,” he says.

Michael Conenna has heard it all before. He is co-owner of Las Olas Pizza, a restaurant that has occupied the same ground-floor space at Las Olas Riverfront for the last 15 years, outlasting whole rosters of tenants there. Conenna said he renamed his pizzeria, formerly known as Las Olas Riverfront Pizza, “just to get away from the negative association with [Las Olas] Riverfront.”GhostTown5.jpg

As the riverfront complex depopulated, Conenna steadily cut back his open hours and has served customers at lunchtime only since 2014. “I cut out Sundays, then I cut out Saturdays, because on the weekends, it’s just a ghost town here,” he says. Even pizza sales stemming from river transit and tour service have thinned because passenger traffic at Las Olas Riverfront has evaporated. “The boats bring in some people. But there was a time when tourists didn’t know [Las Olas] Riverfront was like this. Now everybody knows, tourists and locals.”

But even though he took “Riverfront” out of his pizzeria’s brand name, Conenna doesn’t want to go, or go far, from the banks of the New River.

“I wanted a name I could take with me and get away from the whole Riverfront association … At any time, they can give me a notice and I’m out of here in 90 days,” he says. “Everybody asks me, ‘Well, why aren’t you looking for another location?’ I do see myself here in the future, whether I’ll be at this location, or somewhere else downtown, you know, within a couple of blocks. I don’t want to leave this area.”

For the last two years, Robin Merrill’s non-profit organization, Upper Room Art Gallery, has paid nominal rent for ground-floor space at the complex. She sees positive potential for Las Olas Riverfront – but says that right now, it has some serious problems.

“There are safety issues in that area,” Merrill says. “We don’t keep the doors open at all. When I’m there, doing work there, I keep myself in a lockdown mode.”

She praises “the yellow-shirt guys,” private security and sanitation workers dressed in yellow who work downtown under contract for the City of Fort Lauderdale: “The yellow-shirt guys are fantastic. I would not be there if it wasn’t for the yellow-shirt guys. They’ve really helped to turn the area around.

“They’ll walk me to my car late at night. They fill in a gap: We do not have beat cops. We really need beat cops. But we can’t afford beat cops.” She said other “yellow-shirt guys” keep trash from accumulating: “They go around and clean up trash and scrape off stickers and graffiti.”

Campbell, the boat tour operator, also says the arrival of private security and sanitation workers downtown “definitely made a difference” in the Las Olas Riverfront area and police have been more active, too. “The Fort Lauderdale PD has definitely stepped it up in the last six or eight months,” he says.

“They seem very focused on cleaning it up and they’re doing a good job.”GhostTown1.jpg

Public transit improvements nearby also could support an eventual revival. Just blocks away, railroad company All Aboard Florida is building the Fort Lauderdale station for a passenger train service linking the city to other stations in Miami, West Palm Beach and Orlando.

There’s also the planned streetcar project. The Downtown Development Authority is one of the main bodies behind the streetcar. Wren, its executive director, says it makes sense “with the future development of that site - and making sure it’s a hub, the pulmonary center of our entertainment area - to have a (streetcar) stop there. And, yes, it will.”

He could even imagine a scenario where it’s all somewhat grander.

“I wanted to get with Dev Motwani to tell him that … if the new owners, depending on the timing, would like to have that loop come a little bit further into the property, if they have like a grand lobby or other type of area, you could almost have an interior building stop there and make it part of their building, as has been done in some cities.”

For now though, local businesspeople just want to see some progress. Any progress.

Campbell is generally bullish on the downtown riverfront. His company has obtained a 25-year lease from the City of Fort Lauderdale to use the 32,000-square-foot lot where the long-vacant River House restaurant is located, a short walk from Las Olas Riverfront. He plans to repair and refurbish the wooden River House structure as a visitor information and orientation center. “It’s a lot of repair and replace, not a knock-down and redevelopment,” he says. “It’s starting to look good at night. For six years, there was no electrical. Now all the lights are working and it’s lit up. Plus, we have security there every night, so we don’t have homeless people breaking in there.”

Just a few feet down the river, he’d be happy to see any move forward. “The fact of the matter,” Campbell says, “is anything would be better than what’s there now.”