Fort Lauderdale should hit pause on Bahia Mar makeover – Sun Sentinel

A dangerous dance is underway over the future of Bahia Mar, the marina-resort complex on 29 acres of public land between the Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal Waterway on Fort Lauderdale beach.

Before the music stops, Fort Lauderdale city commissioners, who oversee the land’s long-term lease with a developer, should ensure a chair remains open for the marina’s biggest tenant: the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, whose future is at risk.

Let’s remember this world’s-biggest boat show drives our region’s marine industry and has an $857 million annual impact. Yet despite years of city assurances that its survival is paramount, the show’s long-term lease with the developer is down to just three years.

At their Tuesday meeting, commissioners should hit the pause button, rather than advance the review process for a site plan that would replace what’s there now: a tired white Doubletree hotel and a big parking lot.

Frankly, commissioners should be relieved that after much debate last month, they agreed to delay for 30 days a decision on how to proceed. Even still, this arbitrary deadline has proven insufficient. And given what’s at stake, there’s no need to rush.

Before kick-starting the approval process, commissioners deserve better answers about the proposal to build seven 12-story buildings — with 651 residential units and close to 180,000 square feet of commercial space — on one of the finest publicly owned sites on the Eastern Seaboard.

The first question is whether these units will be apartments or condos. It’s a critical question because the answer could determine whether the city maintains any leverage in deciding what happens to its waterfront property. For this you can blame a lease drafted 53 years ago and sold to different developers over the years. Most everyone agrees the lease is poorly written and filled with ambiguities.

If the developers want to build seven apartment buildings, the lease allows apartments, but also says the marina’s character must be maintained. But should developers go the rental route, the city appears to have little leverage in influencing changes in the plan, demanding a better financial return or insisting on a permanent home for the boat show.

However, if the developers want to build condos, everyone agrees a new lease is needed. State law says condos cannot be built on land with a lease of less than 50 years, and the Bahia Mar lease is down to 46. So if this route is chosen, the city and its citizens — including the marine industry — would have a voice.

Yet the proposal from developer Rahn Bahia Mar LLC is unclear on this point. The paperwork says only “multi-family units.”

City Commissioner Dean Trantalis says Jimmy Tate, the lead developer, “admitted to me that he would need a lease extension to make it marketable for condos, and he’s just looking for rentals right now.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Tate told us. “If I got my site plan approved and I don’t have a long-term lease, (apartments) would be my only option, right?”

It’s clear Tate prefers the condo option. “A new lease, a longer lease, with the city is in my best interest and the city’s best interest. So I’m comfortable between the two of us, we’ll be able to figure out something equitable.”

Strategy-wise, Tate would hold more negotiating leverage if he first gets the site plan approved. For if commissioners demand too many concessions to build condos, he could always build apartments, right?

And it’s important to remember that in his last proposal to redevelop Bahia Mar — yes, there’s history here — the boat show represented a big concession.

Perhaps you recall that in December 2015, Tate and his partners proposed building two 39-story skyscrapers at Bahia Mar, plus a lot of amenities, including two waterfront restaurants and a fishing village along A1A.

To make it happen, they needed a zoning change and a new long-term lease. Throughout the review process, Mayor Jack Seiler and others made clear that approval was contingent on securing a permanent home for the boat show. And the boat show wanted rent relief from a contract it signed during the go-go years. This year, it’s paying $1.58 million to use the marina for several weeks of show and set-up.

But public opposition — including from this editorial board — was swift because of the size of the project, the traffic it would create and the shadows it would cast on the beach. The developers later agreed to reduce the scale, but held off negotiating a new lease with the boat show until they could see how the numbers shook out. Then, last June, they withdrew their application.

They didn’t go away, though. City Manager Lee Feldman says Tate has been asking questions and developing a new plan ever since. “But we haven’t been negotiating anything or working out the details,” he said.

This time, the project seeks no zoning change and no new lease. And at last month’s commission meeting, informed observers say the city came oh-so-close to losing its negotiating power by kick-starting the approval process. For while the lease says changes can’t be made without the city’s consent, it also says commissioners cannot “unreasonably withhold” consent or “exert any consideration” for giving consent.

In other words, if commissioners consent to moving the site plan forward for approval, they may not be able to later seek changes, demand more revenue or insist on a home for the boat show.

“They’re giving approval to submit plans. Those plans are going to meet code. When they do, there’s not one thing they’re going to be able to do. Their negotiating power is up front,” says Mary Fertig, a thought-provoking community activist in Idlewyld, the neighborhood across the Intracoastal from Bahia Mar.

Fertig is at the center of a growing civic effort to address what Fort Lauderdale isn’t addressing: worsening traffic from ever-increasing development. The group tried to get a one-year moratorium on major new projects, pending a traffic study, but got out-maneuvered by the city.

Mayor Seiler, now in his final term, says the city ultimately needs to figure out how to move people, not cars, via services like the Water Taxi, the Wave and the Sun Trolley. He’s not unsympathetic to those who sit in traffic, an experience he shares. He also thinks the beach is close to being built out and high-rise buildings are better suited in downtown. But more than traffic relief, you get the sense he’s focused on the legacy of a redeveloped Bahia Mar.

We also tried early Thursday to talk to Commissioner Bruce Roberts, a top candidate for mayor next year. He texted back to say he was in Washington on business and unavailable to talk about Bahia Mar “in time.”

Seiler suggests the main opposition to upgrading Bahia Mar is coming from Idlewyld neighbors protecting backyard interests. As mayor, he says he must protect the interests of all city residents. And he wants four things from the deal: a visually pleasing project; more revenue for the city; more public access and amenities; and a permanent home for the boat show.

Surprisingly, some city workers no longer consider Bahia Mar public land because it’s encumbered by a 46-year lease. Given that, the argument goes, you might as well get the best deal you can.

But outside-the-box ideas are out there, too. One would have the city buy back the lease for the property and marina, an idea really worth considering. Another would have the city live out the lease as is, then take back the waterfront for future generations. There’s never been a better time for a big-picture discussion. But a majority of commissioners seem focused only on the plan before them today.

Tate promises that when he finally gets to show everyone the plan, people will love it. And he may well be right.

But if today’s commission leaves a legacy of seven rental buildings and no boat show, all we can say is, what a shame, what a shame.

Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Andrew Abramson, Elana Simms, Gary Stein and Editor-in-Chief Howard Saltz.

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