As new residential real estate development in and around downtown Fort Lauderdale has surged, open green spaces in the central business district are getting scarce – and one of the largest may soon change hands.
It is near the north bank of the New River, two acres complete with a water fountain and band shell. This inviting green space south of East Las Olas Boulevard, between Andrews Avenue and SE First Avenue, long has served as a venue for individual leisure time and such community events as dance performances, art shows and music festivals.
Less visible is a tree-covered one-acre parcel behind the band shell, nearer the river, called Bubier Park (in honor of late Fort Lauderdale city manager Robert H. Bubier). It is a city-owned park sandwiched between the two-acre parcel and the Riverwalk.
“Most of us who have been here for a while, we call the whole thing Bubier Park. But it’s actually two separate, distinct parcels,” says Christopher Wren, executive director of the Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority.
The DDA owns the most visible parcel, the two-acre open space where the agency built the band shell, the water fountain and a walking path. But DDA leaders are anxious to exit the park business by selling or leasing its two-acre property. Maintenance of the two-acre park is a big expense at a time when the agency is spending heavily on the planned Wave streetcar system, a downtown security program and the identification of more potential park spaces downtown. “Overall agency fiscal health is fine but…we’ve gotten to a crossroads where our funding is a little strapped in some areas,” Wren says.
The DDA is pursuing a deal to lease or sell its two-acre park to the city. After getting an appraisal of the property, the DDA plans to negotiate a deal with city manager Lee Feldman. Feldman says city commissioners directed him to negotiate a city takeover of the property with the DDA after Wren proposed such a transaction at a commission meeting earlier this year. “I think we can look at it as a win-win,” Feldman says. “We [the city] can take that park to the next level. The DDA shouldn’t be in the park business. The DDA is in the economic development business.”
Wren says city ownership of the two-acre DDA parcel would represent a 200-percent expansion of one-acre Bubier Park, and “it would be the first time you could correctly call [the entire park area] Bubier Park.”
The two-acre park is a treeless space except for its perimeter. “There’s no grass out there. It’s all weeds and dirt. But it’s a great open space,” Wren says. “A friend of mine used to call it Dust Bowl Park because of all the events there in the late ’80s and ’90s.”
In addition to talks with the city, the DDA also contemplated what the land might become if sold to a developer. It arranged for a landscape architect to produce drawings depicting a new “urban park” surrounding a residential development on the two-acre site. The landscape architect’s drawings were “really cool,” Wren says. “The drawings showed that it could be a very nice open space. On the other hand, we would lose a large, band-shell type of arena downtown.”
The idea of selling the two-acre parcel for redevelopment ultimately failed to get off the drawing board at the DDA, because the agency determined that “it’s not going to be seen well,” Wren says. “It’s going to hurt downtown’s image. We might have a higher-quality open space, but we won’t have a large open space like we do now. So we sort of backed off that idea…I would prefer not to continue exploring that.”
But some members of the DDA board still like the redevelopment idea.
“A few board members say, ‘well, it’s a good way to get revenue,’” Wren says of selling to a developer. “We’d [still] have a park, and we’d leverage the money from that to buy more parks. Because right now, there’s no real implementation plan for anyone to come up with funding to buy more parks downtown. So in 20 years, we might wake up and say, ‘Where’s all the open space?’”