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Classic power struggle over church expansion pits big names in Fort Lauderdale

The First Presbyterian Church is in the foreground. Behind are the proposed Family Center and parking garage/office buildings.

The First Presbyterian Church is in the foreground. Behind are the proposed Family Center and parking garage/office buildings.

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

First Presbyterian Church’s $20-million plan to build a big new family center and a parking garage off Las Olas Boulevard finally returns to Fort Lauderdale City Hall next week for a zoning board showdown with irate neighbors in historic Colee Hammock.

After several delays, the board is expected to approve or reject construction on June 16 following final arguments from supporters and opponents. But with both sides vowing to appeal, the five-member city commission will likely make the final decision amid political fireworks this summer.

The row is a classic power struggle involving some of the biggest names in town. It could shape the size and style of development for years to come on the lesser eastern stretch of Fort Lauderdale’s swankiest boulevard.

On First Presbyterian’s side is a group of determined church leaders who say their ministry is at stake, including prominent attorney E. Hugh Chappell Jr. and Pastor Douglas J. Brouwer.

“We’ve had an overwhelming show of support for this from our members,” said Brouwer. “As I’ve said to the congregation in the past, if we don’t do something like this we are going to become irrelevant in the community.”

The church has hired a Broward dream team of lawyer-lobbyists – former county commissioner Robert Huebner, John Milledge and Robert Lochrie – plus local builder and congregation member Terry Stiles. Stiles Development is also the project planner.

The opposition is focused around the Colee Hammock Homeowners Association, which is just as determined to win. They call the buildings “massive” and say they will disrupt the neighborhood and drive down property values. They’ve raised money to hire experts, and also enlisted the volunteer support of well known Fort Lauderdale zoning lawyer James C. Brady – the longtime city attorney for Lauderdale Lakes – who lives in the neighborhood.

Some influential residents have added throw-weight to the neighborhood’s cause by speaking out publicly for the first time, including BankAtlantic vice chairman John E. “Jack” Abdo and former ANC Rental and theglobe.com chairman Michael S. Egan and his wife, Jacqueline.

“I’m speaking out because I love this city and I think this is the wrong thing to do,” said Abdo. “Las Olas is the most important street in our town. What the church wants to do is not in keeping with the community where it is located.”

Jacqueline Egan, a church member for 23 years, laments that such a zoning battle is necessary.

“I am saddened and deeply disappointed that First Presbyterian Church is so desperate for new members that they feel they have to destroy the neighborhood they are in by building two buildings that are the size of the football field in Dolphin Stadium.”

Other well known names are watching on the sidelines, including church member and former Miami Dolphins majority owner H. Wayne Huizenga. Church sources say Huizenga has pledged $5 million to help build the expansion, if the project is approved.

Civic associations in nearby areas, worried about the implications of the church’s attempt to use a special city ordinance to get around normal zoning requirements, are also paying close attention. The Poinciana Park Civic Association has gone on record at City Hall as supporting Colee Hammock.

Last month, Mayor Jack Seiler said the Las Olas business community was strongly in favor of First Presbyterian’s plans. But Las Olas Merchants Association president Luke Moorman, an executive at Carroll’s Jewelers, told Broward Bulldog his group isn’t taking sides.

First Presbyterian wants to build a pair of large, Spanish Mission-style buildings on church-owned land south of Las Olas Boulevard between Tarpon Drive and Southeast 15th Avenue:

  • A five-story commercial office building and parking garage fronting Las Olas Boulevard. Four upper levels would include 264 parking spaces, with retail, restaurant and office space on the first floor.
  • A two-story Family Center along Southeast Fourth Street with administrative offices, classrooms, gymnasium, lockers, showers, meetings rooms and an activity center.

Current zoning does not allow for such buildings. So the 2,000-member church has asked the city to rezone its 5.52 acres as a planned unit development district. The city’s PUD ordinance provides for so-called “unique or innovative development.”

Brouwer, who was called here from Ann Arbor, Mi. last year to serve at the church, said that he and his congregation see the buildings as a “terrific addition” to a charming area.

“I am well aware that Las Olas is a beautiful neighborhood. We are aware it’s a lovely setting. But it’s a lovely neighborhood that happens to have a major retail street running through the middle of it,” he said.

Not all church members see it that way.

Andy Costa is an insurance agent and financial advisor who serves on the church’s governing body, The Session. He’s a 30-year Colee Hammock resident, and lives about a block from the sanctuary.

Costa said The Session members are unified in their support for the expansion, but that other church members are not.

“The congregation was never polled, but there are a lot of people that are against this. Some who are against it are intimidated and would never talk about it. I understand that. I’ve gotten a cold shoulder. It’s kind of a shame,” Costa said.

Robert Cole is another church member who is talking. He and his wife Alice, a deacon at First Presbyterian, have lived in Colee Hammock for 18 years.

Cole, an engineer for Craven Thompson & Associates, says he’s worked on a number of downtown developments. But he thinks the new church buildings would be “too big and out of place for this section of Las Olas.”

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  • What a chain of events ?!?

    And, what hasn’t been mentioned yet is that May 31st, Maria Freeman’s second 3 yr term expired. The p &z is down to 3 eligible board members to vote on the Church issue. This means that now there are 3 P&Z Board vacancies. What a farce! ! ! In Court, wouldn’t this be a mistrial? A new Hearing required?

    It looks as if the reported Church Budget for lobbyists of $ 500,000.00 (yep, that is ½ million dollars) to get this issue approved can’t do the job they want – WIN AT ANY COST.

    Hugh Chappel & Bob Huebner is this what you wanted when you started with the pressured dismissal of 3 p&z board members to hear the case? Money, intimidation and perceived ‘power’ aren’t always acceptable, are they?

    Are Church Members aware of this $500,000.00 allocation to buy support and votes? Is this the manner in which Church Members would want money spent, IF they were asked?

    Seems like the church knew they weren’t on the right path in pushing a PUD and large development in Colee Hammock . . . why else the need for a ½ million dollars for lobbyists? Why all the time spent with city planning staff? And key voters on the city commission?

  • I saw the plans and they look good. This will make a nice addition to the dead space in that area of Las Olas.

  • These church zoning disputes often arise from irrational neighborhood fears.
    The LDS church has commissioned two academic studies that show that the presence of a church does not adversely affect the values of nearby residences.

  • A church may not affect a neighborhood that much. First Pres is already there. But a school (no matter what they call it) sure as hell will. First Pres is not building that massive thing, with classrooms, gym, stage, cafeteria, without intention of using it. If the above writer does not understand what that traffic will do to that area of Las Olas, he should commission more studies.

  • Steven – we like the “dead space.” We call it grass.

    Do you live in the neighborhood?

  • To FLL Resident: The “dead space” you call “grass”, do you think it should be “grass” forever? The church does have property rights to build something. In my opinion, if the two churches were not on Tarpon Drive, you would already have McMansions or more big town homes like the ones just off of Las Olas on Tarpon Drive. No property owner should have to keep “grass” to provide a neighborhood with a free privately owned green space. I also think the neighborhood does want anything built on the lots in question.

  • WELL IT’S THE SAME “OL SAME, “STUFFY” NOSED, CONDESCENDING FT. LAUDERDALE RESIDENTS WHO FOR OBVIOUS REASONS [THEY PROBABLY DON”T BELIEVE IN GOD]ARE AGAIN ATTEMPTING TO THROW THEIR WEIGHT AROUND……..I AGREE WITH BOUWER, QUOTE ” LAS OLAS BLVD. IS A MAJOR ST. RUNNING THROUGH A LOVELY PART OF THE CITY,”END QUOTE.WE, FT. LAUD. RESIDENTS KNOW THAT THERE WILL ALWAYS BE AND ALWAYS HAS BEEN A HUGE TRAFFIC PROBLEM ON LAS OLAS. I THINK THE ADDITION OF A LGE. PARKING GARAGE WILL DEFINITELY ENCOURAGE MORE SHOPPERS,INCREASE BUSINESS FOR ALL THE OTHER RESTAURANTS & MERCHANTS………..

    IF THIS PROJECT IS NOT PERMITTED TO GO FORWARD I VOTE THAT ALL THE BC COMM. BE FIRED BECAUSE I BELIEVE THAT MANY OF THEM ARE STILL VERY CORRUPT…….WE ALREADY KNOW THAT SINCE SOME OF THEM HAVE BEEN FIRED RECENTLY………….

    IN CLOSING,WOULD THIS PROJECT BE ACCEPTABLE TO THOSE THAT APPOSED IT IF IT WERE A MUSLIM SCHOOL/COMMUNITY CENTER???????????

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