The Civil War on Las Olas
Unlike elected officials, it is legal for me to admit conflict of interest. I do so now. My conflict is that I live in one of the greatest neighborhoods in Florida and want to keep it that way. It is Colee Hammock, that shaded high ridge where the former marsh (now known as the Las Olas Isles) gives way to firm ground, where once the Indians had their rest and recreation, where more than 100 years ago Mary Brickell valued the section so much that she forced the powerful Henry Flagler to divert his FEC railroad to the west. She maintained that one day it would be a lovely residential neighborhood. She was right.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, between the First Presbyterian Church and almost everybody who lives in Colee Hammock. At a recent homeowners meeting, the vote was 100 percent against the church’s efforts to get a Planned Unit Development (PUD) designation for land it owns along Las Olas Boulevard and extending two blocks south toward the New River.
In a larger sense, it is not a fight between neighbors and the church. The church members and the neighbors have been friends for years, have done business, like each other. Many of our children attended Happyland, the church’s pre-school. Friendships made among small children endure generations later. This is why this is one of the most arresting zoning contests the city has seen. This is no outside developer trying to use the charm of the neighborhood to make money with a building hugely out of scale, and character, with that part of Las Olas. This is a church in place for decades, with numerous influential members.
Dan Christensen, in his Broward Bulldog blog, threw out some of the names involved on both sides. You can start with Huizenga. And Stiles Construction, which would build the complex. Everybody likes Terry Stiles, the class act of local builders, and in this economy the firm needs some work. The notice above is posted on the open land on Las Olas that most people take for granted. Some, not noticing the First Presbyterian sign, even think it is a public park.
The church says it only seeks to expand its ministry. The neighbors say it is a huge intrusion, which will not only draw traffic to an already congested section, and destroy property values of some very expensive homes nearby, but most importantly will set a precedent for every property owner near it to clamor for the same treatment. That is the way it works, and you can bet at the April 21 planning and zoning board meeting that those property owners along three blocks will be vocal in supporting the church, not because it is a good idea for Colee Hammock, but because it is good for numero uno. It happens every spring.
The debate, if you can call it that, is over two buildings, one five stories, the other smaller, on two large pieces of land the church owns. The piece fronting Las Olas would have retail, which the neighbors would accept, and a five-story parking garage, which they abhor. Current zoning will not permit it. A PUD throws out all the rules. With a PUD you can build damn near anything. A block to the south, the second structure, which the church describes as a family center, includes six classrooms, a gym and a kitchen. Or do they mean cafeteria? The plans, which go back some years, have always been vague, to the annoyance of the neighbors.
To this untrained eye, this proposal sounds suspiciously like a school, or something that could easily turn into one. Can you imagine Las Olas, near the famous Floridian, with 15 mph yellow blinkers, with cops and their radar guns lurking down the boulevard (if they can find a place to park) and impatient drivers cutting over to Broward Boulevard, along cross streets where residents already complain about speeding cut-through traffic, only to face the same thing on Broward as parents arrive with students for Virginia Shuman Young and Saint Anthony schools.
If it is not a school, what is it? Obviously the church would not build “a family center” of such size if it did not intend to use it for something, and use it a lot. Either way, it is a game changer, and a historic neighborhood should not be a game.
Spies – and there are many of both sides – report that the church is divided on the entire plan. The leadership wants it; many of the congregation, some of whom are Colee Hammock residents, do not. They worry about the cost, estimated at $25 million, and some even think of the impact on a neighborhood filled with friends. One summed up what appears to be the game. “This is an ego trip,” the source said. “It’s the leadership. They just want to win.”