Towering buildings are beginning to rise in many of South Florida’s smaller cities, promising to transform life in communities where people have long valued a slower pace and wide-open views.
In many cases, local officials have suspended or amended height limits to chase the extra revenue — and the more lively vibe — that comes from massive apartment buildings and hotels.
Critics say the building boom will lead to traffic gridlock, obstructed views and more homes than the area needs.
Already, towers are springing up from Dania Beach to North Palm Beach as cities that have run out of land look for ways to grow.
- Coconut Creek has agreed to let the Seminole Tribe of Florida build a 24-story hotel in a city where the tallest building is six stories. Officials hope the hotel attracts more such development and becomes the centerpiece of a 1-square-mile entertainment district.
- Boynton Beach plans to grow as high as 15 stories in its traditionally low-rise downtown. Already, three towers have been approved, and two more are in the pipeline for a total of 2,000 homes, along with street-level stores and restaurants.
- Pompano Beach is looking to add eight-story buildings on a swath of land between Atlantic Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard that has never had buildings more than two stories high. “That area is going to be the downtown core of Pompano Beach,” said Emily Marcus, project manager for the city’s redevelopment agency.
- Coral Springs is developing a downtown full of shops and apartments, where buildings could reach 10 stories or more.
- Deerfield Beach has broken ground on an Intracoastal Waterway hotel four stories higher than the area’s zoning calls for, with some leaders hoping to lure more development.
“People are bored with the suburbs. They are yearning for walkable communities where they can walk from their house to the park, the store, restaurants and their work,” said Robert J. Gibbs, a Michigan-based urban planner who worked with Deerfield Beach.
But Florida Atlantic University Professor Eric Dumbaugh, who specializes in planning and design, cautions that a slew of high rises or a cluster of housing mixed with retail does not ensure a lively downtown.
“If you want something vibrant and active, that takes a lot of time. If you look back 25 years ago, there was no downtown Boca,” he said. “Mizner Park came in and became a trigger for all that. [Development] needs to occur in proximity to something else.”
The push to go vertical
There are many reasons why even bedroom communities are following in the footsteps of Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
“The eastern side of all three counties is almost all built out, and it’s also one of the most desirable places to live,” said Jack McCabe, a housing analyst in Deerfield Beach. “Because of the lack of available land and necessity of funds for city operations, we are seeing many cities throughout South Florida increasing height limits and densities.”
Higher heights mean a bigger tax base. For example, Boca Raton collected $337,302 in taxes in 2015 on the parcel that is now home to the 208-unit The Mark at CityScape, a 12-story apartment building. The next year, when the high-rise was fully open, the city collected $1.665 million.
Taller buildings draw more people into one area, potentially creating a hub for shops and public spaces. Real estate research shows that homes within walking distance to a grocery store are more desirable than those farther away, creating an incentive to go vertical.
And then there is the desirable views towers offer in coastal cities.
Dania Beach, for example, has approved four buildings that exceed its traditional seven-story height limit. It agreed to allow buildings up to 25 stories in undeveloped areas that offer unobstructed views of the ocean, Port Everglades and Fort Lauderdale.
“The city has been moribund, and we wanted to get things going,” said city commissioner Bill Harris. “Dania Beach is pretty much the last undeveloped seaside suburb in South Florida that hasn’t been attractive to developers until recently.”
Towers also give architects more to work with, design-wise.
Boca Raton wanted more people to live in its downtown area. But its 100-foot height maximum – eight to 10 stories high – was producing boxy buildings, said planning board member Larry Cellon.
By allowing builders to go up to four stories higher — if they added certain design flourishes — “we got the same sized building, but taller and narrower,” Cellon said. “In the big picture, we need to get more people to live downtown for our downtown to be successful.”
Retired Tallahassee city worker Joanne Steinmetz, who has lived in the suburbs and owned a farm, said she loves living in downtown Boca because of its look and all it has to offer in a small stretch of space.
“We go to the amphitheater and you can lay out here with a book,” she said, gesturing around Mizner Park.
Boom and bust cycle
The desire to go higher in South Florida is not new. The last 30 years have been a seesaw between frantic building and real estate busts.
Most of the time, these bust cycles hit hardest at multifamily developments — the kind cities are now breaking their height limits for.
“It’s either boom or bust,” McCabe said. “We go through these stages similar to a roller coaster. We are overbuilding or building nothing.”
Jesse Saginor, an FAU professor who specializes in real estate market trends, sees a number of factors on the horizon that could threaten the market for the new towers. Among them: a strong U.S. dollar that keeps international buyers away; rising interest rates and uncertainties presented by a new president’s policies.
Both Saginor and McCabe see the luxury condo market as particularly problematic because of oversupply. Prices to buy may drop up to 30 percent for that market, McCabe said.
“We literally have thousands of condos (available) that are priced over $1 million,” he said.
Builders thought foreign investors would continue to put their money into South Florida real estate, but instead they are selling, McCabe said.
“We have a lessening demand and a greatly increasing supply, which ultimately pushes prices down, no matter what industry you are talking about,” he said.
The Sunrise experience
Few places illustrate the effects of the boom-and-bust cycle quite like the area surrounding Sawgrass Mills mall in Sunrise.
Since the mid-1990s, the city dreamed of taking advantage of its location at the crossroads of Interstate 75, the Sawgrass Expressway and Interstate 595 to create a western skyline to mirror Fort Lauderdale’s. The first chance to build towers came as the housing market was heating up in 2004.
Sunrise approved two 26-story towers now known as Tao Sunrise and expected that more would follow. Most of the building had been pre-sold, but construction went on years past the planned opening date. By then, the housing crash was on, a bank eventually took possession of the buildings, and for a number of years only a handful of people lived there.
Now things are looking up enough that a different developer has proposed Metropica in the same neighborhood.
Metropica would be 65 acres with 400,000 square feet of retail, dining and entertainment, 650,000 square feet of offices, two hotels and 2,250 residential units, including a 363-unit condo tower rising 28 stories. The first phase, which includes retail and a 345-unit rental apartment building, is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2018. The developer has the option of adding a 240-room hotel and more offices.
“We’re seeing it all come together,” said Louis Feuer, chairman of the Sunrise Chamber of Commerce, who lives near the area. “It’s quite the changing community.”
Risks on the road ahead
But it doesn’t always work out.
Oakland Park in 2006 agreed to extend height limits from 100 feet to 120 feet, or up to 12 stories, for mixed use development if certain criteria were met. But the change was made just as the housing bust hit. No development plan since then has ever materialized, said senior planner Rick Buckeye.
In Fort Lauderdale, a push to update the south end of the beach led to a proposal for two 39-story condo towers at Bahia Mar. Commissioners said that was too high, and the developer came back with a 29-story plan, which was withdrawn after it failed to quell public concern about traffic and building shadows. The latest plan shows buildings of 10 to 12 stories on the city-owned waterfront land, which is still encountering neighborhood resistance for being too dense for the area.
Delray Beach capped its downtown at four stories after one apartment building was allowed to go five stories in 2015. But now city leaders are eyeing Congress Avenue’s 4.1-mile stretch, centered around the Tri-Rail station, as the place for mixed-use buildings that could rise six to eight stories, maybe more.
The denser mix of housing and retail would create jobs and new tax revenues, said city commissioner Jim Chard.
But FAU’s Saginor has his doubts about whether the market can support this live-work-play development model. The highest housing demand comes from workers in the service sector who can’t afford what’s being proposed, he said.
“For the most part, mixed-use housing is more expensive to build” because of the code requirements, Saginor said. “And if you look at what the average waiter makes, it’s not happening.”
High rise regrets
In Hallandale Beach, Commissioner Keith London said he has regrets about the development in his city, which is home to Broward County’s tallest structure, the 52-story Beach Club, Phase II. Some parts of the city have no height limit at all.
“I’m looking out my window at the beach, and you can’t see the beach,” he said.
But you can see cars — for miles. Hallandale Beach Boulevard is rated by the state as a failing road because of the frequent gridlock.
The city is holding a series of meetings to reconsider what it should allow.
“It’s like we’re trying to put 10 pounds of sugar in a 5-pound bag,” London said.
Residents in two places, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea and Deerfield Beach’s barrier island, decided by referendum to limit what could be built. They capped building heights at four stories in 2005 and 2006, respectively.
Pam Militello, a former Deerfield city commissioner who helped lead the charge for the height limit, said the effort was worth it.
”I think there’s been reasonable development allowed, and it’s continued to go on,” she said. “We have a beach area that people love coming to. It’s going to do nothing but improve the values of all of Deerfield as time goes on.”
Charter changes are still available to advocates of limiting growth. But getting it done requires a willing city commission. And in some cities, it is too late.
Harry Woodworth, who has lived for 30 years in Boynton Beach, said he’s going to miss the view from his favorite seafood joint now that its view will be obstructed by a seven-story building across the street. The 1995 referendum voters approved limiting buildings to 45 feet, or four stories, did not withstand its legal test.
“If I wanted to live in Fort Lauderdale or Miami, I would have,” said the Motorola retiree. “I moved to Boynton Beach.”
Staff writers Brooke Baitinger, Susannah Bryan and Ryan Van Velzer contributed to this report.
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