Parks & Parking on the Beach

A six-pack of city projects promises to upgrade accommodations for people, vehicles and vessels.

By: 

Mike Seemuth

Published date: 

Jan. 1, 2018

At a recent meeting on the penthouse level of the Sonesta Fort Lauderdale Beach overlooking the ocean, the subject was how to make the most of the city’s beach area. Topics at the advisory meeting led by the City Commission included art installations in public places that can serve as selfie backgrounds and stir social media buzz. Commissioner Dean Trantalis warned that public art installation is tricky business. “When we try too hard to make something iconic,” he said, “it doesn’t work.” Mayor Jack Seiler said city officials should talk to Miami real estate developer and art museum owner Jorge Perez about art in public places on the beach: “I’ve talked to him about what we could do with Riverwalk,” the linear park downtown along the New River.

Another idea was adding a city surcharge to ticket prices for such major beach events as the Riptide and Tortuga music festivals, then funneling the income into upgrading beach infrastructure. “I’ve been pushing this for a long time,” said Commissioner Romney Rogers. “It’s a user fee,” Seiler said. “If you’re going to tie up the beach, there should be a revenue stream to benefit the beach.” There was general agreement that the city should streamline the permitting process for special events that attract small crowds. But the mayor resisted a suggestion to attract a “signature event” that would draw a crowd of 50,000 to 100,000 to the beach area. “I would tap the brakes on that for now,” Seiler said. Attracting such an event might be more feasible “if the infrastructure improvements get in place.”

Conversations such as those are becoming more common around Fort Lauderdale’s famous beach. As private money pours into real estate development, public investment in the oceanfront area’s infrastructure is catching up. Multiple municipal beach projects promise to create more parking for cars and boats and more parks for people. None of these projects is completed yet, but city leaders already are looking for ways to leverage the infrastructure upgrades.

Baked into the ideas discussed at the October public meeting are six beach infrastructure projects, which are clustered mostly in the last two blocks of East Las Olas Boulevard as it approaches A1A along the shore. Construction contractor Skanska is working on a trio of city projects there. They include construction of a 670-space parking garage on the Intracoastal side of the barrier island, just north of the East Las Olas bridge over the Middle River, and conversion of a parking lot just south of the bridge to a city park.

Skanska also will convert an oceanside parking lot just south of the Elbo Room bar at AIA and East Las Olas to a city park with toilets and a police substation. In addition, “it will have a little ‘splash pad’ for kids. It will be more of an active-program type of space,” City Manager Lee Feldman says. By contrast, the parking lot along the Middle River just south of the East Las Olas bridge “will be converted to a regular greenfield type of park.”

Skanska is building more than just a regular parking garage, however. It will be an architectural showpiece featuring an exterior in the shape of a fish loaded with LED lights that continuously change color. It isn’t exactly art in a public place, but the 670-space garage will become an instant landmark at the entry to the beach on East Las Olas Boulevard. Construction is under way. Skanska expects to finish construction of the parking garage and conversion of the oceanside parking lot to a city park by August 2019.

Beachgoers accustomed to using the oceanside parking lot may dislike using the new parking garage, which will be two blocks from the beach. So the city is going to provide a tram service that shuttles between the garage and State Road A1A during peak periods when the largest crowds gather on the beach. “I don’t know how that’s going to work with the tram system,” says Karen Turner, president of the Central Beach Alliance, a neighborhood association representing beach-area residents. “It’s already being built, so we hope it goes well.”

“People who currently use the ocean­side lot find it convenient because the beach is right across the street. They bring chairs and umbrellas and come with kids in tow,” Feldman says. From the new parking garage, “we think most people will walk [to the beach],” and for those who want to avoid the two-block walk, “we’re going to create tram service.”

The city government also is advancing beach infrastructure projects that will expand a marina, add public parking on the north end of the beach, and redo the municipal swimming pool complex on the south end.

The city reached a lease agreement in July with Dallas-based Suntex Marina Investors to expand the city-owned Las Olas Marina on the Intracoastal side of the barrier island along South Birch Road. Suntex, a national leader in the marina business, made news earlier this year when it paid more than $50 million to acquire five marinas in Palm Beach County that operate under the Loggerhead brand name. Suntex, Feldman says, is “the largest operator of municipal marinas in the state.”

Under its lease agreement with the city, Suntex will increase the amount of dock space at the Las Olas Marina and build two restaurants there, including “at least one full-service restaurant,” Feldman says. “The other might be more of a snack place where you can grab a quick sandwich.” The marina project is in the pre-construction phase.

Another beach-infrastructure project on the city’s to-do list is a thorough renovation of the forlorn Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex at the corner of SE 5th Street and Seabreeze Boulevard. “We have an antiquated facility now that is literally crumbling, so we’re going to renovate it and bring it up to state of the art.”

The city manager says the Aquatic Complex renovation not only would benefit Fort Lauderdale residents but also would bring more competitive swimming and diving events and out-of-town visitors to the beach. “We know that teams are waiting to come back to the Aquatic Complex for competitions.”

In early autumn, the city also took a step toward putting more public parking spaces on the northern end of Fort Lauderdale’s beach. The city acquired a vacant property just south of the Bonnet House Museum & Gardens, two blocks south of Sunrise Boulevard on North Birch Road, for the project. “The plans are to put a surface lot there to provide some public parking on the north end of the beach. And in the future, if necessary, we can go vertical there and build a parking deck,” Feldman says.

Timing is an uncertain element of that plan. The city wants to rebuild Fire Station 13, which is on an easement in Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, just north of the Bonnet House. So a temporary location for Fire Station 13 is needed at Birch State Park or elsewhere. “We’re trying to work through some issues with the state [government] at Birch State Park,” Feldman says. “If we can’t work through those issues and locate a temporary station there,” the city may end use the vacant property south of Bonnet House “for a temporary station, which would delay making that a surface [parking] lot. So that’s why I don’t know the timing.”

The total cost of the beach infrastructure improvements will run into tens of millions of dollars. The cost of the parking garage project alone will be “just north of $50 million,” Feldman says.

Some private real estate developments are improving public spaces on the beach, too.

The planned redevelopment of the Bahia Mar resort and marina on the southern end of the beach doesn’t exactly qualify as a city infrastructure project. But the resort is located on land leased from the city, and the proposed $500 million redevelopment could provide a more pedestrian-friendly layout at Bahia Mar, which is the main venue of the annual Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. The revised redevelopment plan, which won approval from city commissioners in December, will include a half-mile boardwalk around the Bahia Mar marina, underground parking that adds open public space, and a “marina village” with retail kiosks, stores and restaurants.

Among the potential payoffs from a re-do of Bahia Mar would be an updated backdrop for the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, which has a Super Bowl-size impact on the local economy. “Now we’re going to be surrounded by restaurants, beautiful buildings,” says Phil Purcell, executive director of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, the boat show’s owner since 1961.

“It’s just evolution. When you run a site that many years, the boat show gets old” without a fresh stage, Purcell says. The same could be said of the entire barrier island as the city’s six-pack of infrastructure upgrades unfolds.


Park It

Parking on the beach will become a moving target for a while.

Construction contractor Skanska is building a new parking garage at the Las Olas Marina and will convert an oceanside parking lot on East Las Olas Boulevard, between Seabreeze Boulevard and A1A, to a city park.

The current number of parking spaces in that area is 835, including a total of 598 oceanside-lot and on-street spaces and 237 in a lot on the north side of the marina. The Skanska project will eliminate the 598 oceanside-lot and on-street spaces.

When the 663-space garage is completed in 2019, the total number of parking spaces in the area will be 900, including the 237 on the north side of the marina. A planned expansion of the marina will eliminate these 237 spaces. But a comparable number will be added by the planned conversion of a vacant property just south of the Bonnet House Museum & Gardens.

The city-owned marina will lose surface-parking spaces for cars but will gain dock space for boats. Suntex Marina Investors won a contract to expand the marina from 3,300 linear feet of dockage to 5,540 linear feet.

None of these projects will be inexpensive. Suntex has estimated that the total cost of the marina expansion project will be $25 million.

Skanksa will spend an estimated $49.4 million to build the parking garage with a rooftop amenity deck, convert the oceanside parking lot to a city park with restrooms and a police substation, and build another city park nearby on vacant property bounded by Las Olas Circle.

The city plans to solicit bids from teams of architects and construction contractors to renovate the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex at an estimated cost of $20 million. The project would upgrade the Aquatic Complex’s training pool and replace its competition pool and diving well to meet international competition standards.

The winning bidder also would add restrooms, redesign the Aquatic Complex’s entrance, replace grandstand seating and bleachers for swimming events, and add grandstand seating and bleachers for diving events. Other elements of the project include a new pool deck and scoreboard, resurfaced parking and enhanced landscaping.