FORT LAUDERDALE — Picture, for a moment, Las Olas Boulevard without a median lined with the black olive trees that have been there for decades, shading all the cars that drive by.
Under a long-planned redesign that will cost at least $167 million, the trees will be gone and so will the landscaped median in the shops section just east of Federal Highway.
And that’s giving critics heartburn even now, more than two years after city commissioners accepted the redesign concept.
“What are we thinking here?” community activist Ted Inserra told commissioners in a recent meeting. “There are parts of Fort Lauderdale that are being taken piece by piece by piece. That stretch with the trees in the middle, that represents Fort Lauderdale. Leave that part alone. People come here to see Las Olas. Why? Not because of the shops but because we have these cool trees right down the middle of the street and they’re lighted at night and they just look magical.”
But fans of the ambitious redesign say it will make Las Olas even more magical — and also safer than it is now by widening sidewalks and planting beautiful trees along the sidewalks to shade the people instead of the cars.
The original plan split the 2.4-mile boulevard into five distinct neighborhoods: Downtown, the Shops District, the Colee Hammock neighborhood, Las Olas Isles and the beach.
In June 2021, commissioners agreed to split the plan into a western and eastern corridor.
Commissioner Warren Sturman, who says he’s been hearing from folks who don’t want to see the olive trees go, wants designers to come up with two plans for the western end to give the commission an option.
One design would keep the median and remove on-street parking so the sidewalks can be widened. The second would get rid of the median to make room for wider sidewalks lined by shade trees.
“My community has overwhelming concerns about removing the median,” Sturman said. “You remove the median and you can’t plant any trees there. It’s gone.”
Mayor Dean Trantalis says he’d like to get an update from the city’s urban forester on how the olive trees are doing.
“They are iconic to our city,” he said. “I hate to see them go. But all trees have a life span. I’d like to know (the life span for) those, because they’ve been around for a very long time. And they may not be in peak condition. I think we should know if they are going to be here when the project is done. Are they going to live another 10 years? One hundred years?”
‘This is a lot of money’
Ben Rogers, the city’s director of transportation and mobility, told the commission the urban forester would assess the trees and report back in mid-October.
So far, Fort Lauderdale has earmarked $7 million for the design work but has no money for the construction. The city has applied for grants but is still waiting on funding.
Critics seized on that fact, arguing that it makes no sense to spend money on design if you have no money for construction.
The project will cost at least $167 million, including repairing two major bridges. If you take out the bridge work, it brings it down to $104 million.
Here’s the cost breakdown: $13.6 million for the downtown zone; $16.5 million for the shops; $15.7 million for Colee Hammock; $55 million for Las Olas Isles; and $3 million for the beach.
“This is a lot of money,” said Mary Fertig, president of Idlewyld Improvement Association on the east end of Las Olas Isles. “I hope when you do it, you get it right. And you spend only what you need to spend.”
Fertig urged commissioners to hold off on spending $2.5 million on design plans for the eastern corridor until 2025.
Fertig ticked off a few reasons: The city is already planning to spend $25 million on a stormwater project in the Isles that she argued should come before any redesign. Bridge safety is more important than redesigning Las Olas, and two older bridges on the boulevard need at least $63 million in work. Las Olas itself might need to be elevated to address frequent flooding.
Tom Godart, a fierce defender of the makeover plan who says he was involved from the beginning, blasted critics for rehashing matters that have already been vetted and approved.
“I am getting tired of coming up and talking about this subject over and over again,” said Godart, vice president of the Las Olas Isles Homeowners Association. “People are regurgitating things that were already passed. Please let’s move forward. Let’s not look back. Let’s be a progressive city and get stuff done.”
‘Let’s not fall behind’
Jenni Morejon, president and CEO of the Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority, also urged the commission to stay on the path of progress.
She listed several cities that have already undergone a redesign: Worth Avenue and Clematis Street in Palm Beach County; Atlantic Boulevard in Pompano Beach and Commercial Boulevard in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea; Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, Flagler Street in downtown Miami and Miracle Mile in Coral Gables.
“These are cities that we sometimes compete with that our residents may want to visit because of the safety, the infrastructure, the aesthetics of these wonderful roadways are amazing,” Morejon said. “But people are still coming here and they always will. So let’s give them the best this city has to offer. We beg you to move the master plan concepts forward to design. Let’s not fall behind.”
Commissioner John Herbst, who like Sturman was not on the dais when the redesign concept was accepted, threw the room a bit of a curveball.
Instead of spending millions on a redesign, Herbst argued the city should be raising the height of its most famous boulevard to protect against flooding.
Resiliency or cosmetics?
When he drives through the Isles, sometimes he can see the water lapping over the top of the seawalls, he told his fellow commissioners.
“It seems to me that anything we do along that stretch needs to start with raising the height of the road first, long before we get into talking about bike lanes or any of the other things that are enhancements,” Herbst said. “I like to focus on basics. I’m a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy. Having a road that doesn’t flood is more important than some of these other things we’re talking about from a design perspective. We need to be able to get people on and off the barrier island on a road that we know is not going to be under water.”
Commissioner Steve Glassman noted that the city is already planning on spending millions on stormwater improvements to help prevent flooding in Las Olas Isles.
He argued that countless hours had already been spent over several years coming up with a concept to take one of the prettiest streets in town and make it better.
“Nothing is set in stone if we just move forward,” he said. “If we just move forward, we will have a design. We don’t have any of that money (for construction) yet. This is not happening tomorrow. I think it’s really crucial that we keep the ball rolling. We have the conceptual plan. It’s a blueprint.
“It’s nothing set in stone. We can refine that design once our consultants give us a design.”
Susannah Bryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on X @Susannah_Bryan