Jenni Morejon equates plans for Huizenga Plaza to remodeling your home. The spaces and uses that worked for you 10 or 15 years ago might not anymore. Homes evolve. So do cities, and the parks that serve their people.
Morejon is president and CEO of Fort Lauderdale’s Downtown Development Authority, the body that owns the park along the Riverwalk at the northeast corner of Las Olas Boulevard and Andrews Avenue. Since it opened in the 1990s, it’s been a mostly open space with a small amphitheater in one corner. That was a good idea, Morejon says, when downtown was an almost entirely resident-free zone that didn’t offer people many non-work-related reasons to visit. But 2023’s downtown looks different.
“It’s grown up,” Morejon says. “We now have 25,000 residents. It’s not just about people visiting here on the weekends or people working downtown. It’s now an 18-hour city.
“Our downtown parks need to be that living room for everybody.”
The plans the DDA are proposing for this particular living room provide more shade and seating, including European-style movable chairs and tables; a dog run; a “moundscape” play area and a raised deck area for smaller performances and events.
It’s a park, Morejon says, more geared to daily use, from yoga classes to downtown dog owners to people who simply want to sit at lunchtime with a book.
To understand the park’s changes, Morejon reckons it’s important to understand the park’s history. That goes back to the 1970s, when the DDA began purchasing vacant downtown land with an eye towards the sorts of public amenities that would make the area more desirable to visitors and maybe even residents. Some of that land was used for places such as the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, the Broward Main Library, Esplanade Park, sections of the Riverwalk and the institution now called NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale. By the mid-1990s, those places had all been built and a new vision for downtown was coming together. There was also one more plot of land to figure out.
“Thank goodness the DDA leaders at the time in the mid-’90s really started thinking about what do we do with this last piece of land that the DDA owns?” Morejon says. “The DDA had good foresight to say we need to preserve land for civic land, for the public good.”
A park was built and 20 years ago, they named it Huizenga Plaza. “That was a testament not only to Wayne’s business success, but his philanthropy … and his vision of what downtown could become.”
The park worked for many years. Festivals, music, yoga, food events, the starts and finishes of 5k runs. “It worked for these big, one-shot, once-a-month, one-time-a-year events,” Morejon says. But as people moved into new residential developments nearby, it didn’t provide many opportunities for daily use.
So Morejon, who worked for the city before coming to the DDA and who is very involved in an organization called the Urban Land Institute, began looking at ideas for public spaces. In 2019, with help from the ULI, they hosted a panel of national experts in areas such as real estate, design and land use. Their findings and suggestions involved investing in parks that already exist, coming up with creative business models so that park costs don’t fall solely on the city, and creating parks that are connected.
DDA leaders decided to concentrate on the park they already owned. They hired a design team from Perkins & Will, met with neighbors, and came up with a plan.
“A big part of it is to take out the obsolete band shell that only gets used for those large events and replace it with a commercial space, a restaurant, that actually takes less space than a band shell.” That also adds a revenue stream – a lease payment that helps support a high level of support and maintenance for the park.
There have been questions about the restaurant, including at a public meeting in January. Morejon and the DDA have talked about what a common model this is. She cites Bryant Park in New York City as a place that was transformed by a café.
“Having a restaurant space in a park is a pretty traditional model,” she says. “This is a model that works, that doesn’t compete with the public park space, that actually enhances it.” The DDA, she says, is committing in perpetuity to a space – nearly four acres – that will always be public. “All of that, with the exception of a small area for the restaurant, will be completely accessible for the public and open for the public to enjoy.”
Specialty Restaurant Corporation, which runs restaurants around the US including the Rusty Pelican, has been granted the contract.
“They’re a 50-year-old family-owned company,” Morejon says. “They own 18 restaurants around the country, all with breathtaking city views. They operate restaurants on public land. This is a quality operator that knows how to run a good restaurant, but also how to be a good corporate citizen.”
Other restaurants wanted beer gardens and more of a party atmosphere, but that wasn’t what the DDA had in mind.
“This is approachable but elegant,” she says. “They’re going to offer breakfast offerings, lunch and dinner. It adds that level of activity from morning through night.”
And, she says, they’re not just relying on the company’s word. The lease was negotiated by DDA board members who are also downtown business and property owners – this was not their first lease rodeo. The plan, Morejon says, was to find the right operator and hold them accountable for a solid operation.
The park will be maintained by a 501c3; the foundation has also committed $5m in what Morejon calls a “new legacy of giving in our public spaces. To do that for a public park is I think really a new level of building community here.” The overall cost to create the park is $15m. Florida is kicking in nearly a million, while Morejon says they can leverage the restaurant lease for a capital loan of about $4m. They’re asking the city to contribute the additional $5m, which Morejon sees as a good use of money for a committed public space. “We still have a lot to go,” she says