A prominent corner of Sistrunk Boulevard where residents have shopped for groceries for 70 years is the latest to be slated for redevelopment, a move that raised concerns about access to fresh food — and gentrification of the historic black community.
Eyal Peretz, CEO of the Fuse Group, plans to replace Bass Bros. Market with a retail-office building and parking garage. The property, on the northwest corner of Northwest Ninth Avenue/Powerline and Sistrunk Boulevard, is like “Main Street and First,” his lawyer-lobbyist, Debbie Orshefsky, said.
Peretz’s proposal is the latest in a string of projects along the Sistrunk corridor, an east-west route that leads straight into downtown Fort Lauderdale and is the commercial spine of the black community.
At a neighborhood meeting the city’s planning and zoning board asked Peretz to host in November, residents listened quietly at first. But in the past few years, they’ve watched a transformation take root, and some are anxious about who it might help, and who it might hurt.
“The dream of the city is to change the tenor of the neighborhood, period. I don’t like the word gentrification, but basically, that’s what it is,” said Sydney London, who lives in the Durrs neighborhood off Sistrunk. “There are white folks that moved into the neighborhood, and we all know once that starts happening, you know what’s next.”
Reaction grew emotional. Bass Brothers — and previous incarnations of the market — is a Sistrunk Boulevard mainstay.
Some were concerned about losing it, and some saw greater threats.
Neighborhood leader Marie “Miss Peaches” Huntley said the Home Beautiful Park Civic Association doesn’t support it. In an email to elected officials and Peretz last fall, she said the idea of a new building sounds attractive, but no one knows what will be in it. And there’s more:
“We are deeply concerned about being displaced by gentrification,” she wrote. “Your plan appears to be geared towards drawing customers from outside our community to create profits for you and your investors.”
Peretz told the community his project won’t displace anyone. He’s not tearing down residential buildings. He said people in the community can open small businesses on the corridor, including in his new retail and office space.
But those who filled the small room had mixed feelings. Ella Sampson said offices wouldn’t be much help.
“This is our historical street here. This is our historical neighborhood. It’s our black community,” she said as her voice grew loud. “We want to know what you’re going to do. We want to know what is for us.”
Anna Henry, a woman with three jobs and four children, told Peretz he’d walked into a fight — one that started years ago. Outsiders cash in, she said, as residents are busy trying to stay alive. They can’t make it to city Community Redevelopment Agency meetings that start at 2 p.m. and haven’t seen master plans that foreshadow the future of their community. Some have seen the downside of official “progress.”
“Years ago they did the same thing,” Henry told Peretz at the community meeting. “They moved my friend’s grandma off 27th and Sixth Street. They took a whole fleet of houses. Guess what they put there, Mr. Eyal? They put some trees and grass.”
“I hear you,” he told the crowd. “And I understand you.”
Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority official Scott Strawbridge said the city should consider the effect of the market’s closure on “vulnerable populations.”
The area is a food desert, he said, and the neighborhood has higher numbers of Type 2 diabetes and other nutrition-related problems than elsewhere in the region, according to Opportunity360 reports by the nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners, which Strawbridge submitted to the city.
Unemployment and poverty levels are higher, the percentage of people who are obese and aren’t eating fruits or vegetables is higher, the reports show.
Experts now recognize that ZIP codes “are a more reliable predictor of future health outcomes than DNA,” Strawbridge said.
The average life expectancy in the neighborhood around Bass Brothers is seven years less than the countywide average of 79, Strawbridge said, citing a report that used recent research from the Centers for Disease Control.
“The building is unimportant,” he said. “The historical … use of the property is changing without regard for the impacts upon vulnerable neighbors.”
Former state Sen. Chris Smith, who lives in the neighborhood, said he’ll be glad to see newer buildings that bring visitors to a destination other than the two funeral homes on Sistrunk.
The grocery is no longer owned by people in the neighborhood, he noted. Property records show it’s owned by Mahyoub & Sons, a company out of Pompano Beach.
Smith said he wishes more locals would pool their money to benefit from the redevelopment. He said he poured his savings and retirement into three properties on Sistrunk and got a CRA grant last year to renovate one of them into a wings restaurant.
“You see the encroachment coming from the east,” Smith said, referring to downtown. “That is a valid concern. But we have the opportunity and the means to retain ownership. We’ve just got to step up and do it.”
Peretz, the developer, said Sistrunk has great infrastructure, quick access to downtown and to Interstate 95. He moved his office there already, across from the market.
“We came to this area because of an opportunity with a building,” said Peretz, an Israeli who lives in Plantation. “I don’t think in terms of color, race, religion. I wasn’t brought up like this and I don’t plan to start.”
Though Peretz said he doesn’t know if another market will come in, he does know Bass Bros. will close. Construction of the new building will span two years, during which time there’ll be no store at all.
He’s not sure who will occupy the ground floor retail space. Fort Lauderdale city commissioners in February voted to grant a rezoning Peretz needed. When he submits a site plan, he’ll need approval to exceed the usual height. He said his building — still being designed — likely will be five stories.
At the market on Tuesday, nearby resident Johnny Rice shopped for sodas, then tied the grocery bag to his bike handlebars. He said the community felt a worse loss when Winn-Dixie on Sunrise Boulevard and Powerline/Northwest Ninth Avenue closed.
If Bass Bros. goes dark, he said, he’ll have to ride his bike farther east to another grocery store. But he shrugged it off, saying the street could use a face-lift. Sistrunk Boulevard was a thriving business corridor during segregated times, but now is dotted with vacant lots owned by the city’s CRA. A police substation, some local businesses, and signs of new development also mark the corridor.
“It’ll make a change in the community,” Rice, 49, said. “That’s all they need is a new look.”