By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Three years ago, Fort Lauderdale’s First Presbyterian Church lost a fight with neighbors to build $25-million family center, parking garage and other facilities in the city’s historic Colee Hammock district.
The defeat, however, wasn’t a knockout.
The church goes back to the city’s planning and zoning board April 21 with a new proposal intended to address neighbors’ concerns.
Some of Fort Lauderdale’s oldest and most influential names have a stake in the outcome – as congregation members or nearby homeowners. They include: Huizenga, Bryan, Egan, Maus, Blosser, Stiles, Horvitz, Cobb.
Church leaders say the proposed construction on church-owned land south of Las Olas Boulevard between Tarpon Drive and Southeast 15th Avenue is desperately needed to fulfill its ministry.
“This is critical to our church,” said attorney E. Hugh Chappell, chairman of the church’s master plan committee. “You have to stay up with the times. Churches are failing because they are not addressing young families and the needs for different types of worship.”
But opponents at the Colee Hammock Homeowners Association say the church – a seven-day-a-week operation – has forgotten that it is an urban, neighborhood congregation. They say its expansion could pave the way for more high-rise buildings – spelling calamity for residents already besieged by too much traffic and too many outsiders, especially vagrants.
“The church wants to grow at our expense,” said association president Jerry Jordan. “It seeks to destroy the habitat, the ambience, the way of life and the residential property values in the downtown Colee Hammock neighborhood.”
Both sides have signaled they’re prepared to play hardball.
City records show the church has hired a trio of politically connected lawyer-lobbyists – former county commissioner Robert Huebner, John Milledge and Robert Lochrie. Lochrie is also a registered lobbyist for project planner Stiles Development, whose owner is First Presbyterian congregation member Terry Stiles.
Jordan said the homeowners have raised an $18,000 war chest and will use it to hire land planners and other experts to make their case before the zoning board and the city commission, which has the final say.
Colee Hammock, Fort Lauderdale’s first neighborhood, is a shady enclave of hundreds of homes between Broward Boulevard and the New River east of bustling downtown.
The church has been there since the 1940s. Its website boasts 2,800 members, but one church leader said a recent in-house head count put the actual number at 2,000.
To make its plans a reality, the church wants the city to rezone 5.52 acres it owns as a planned unit development district. Such districts allow for “unique or innovative development” not allowed under traditional zoning districts, according to the city’s PUD ordinance.
Under the proposal, a pair of large Spanish Mission-style buildings would be constructed:
- A five-story commercial office building and parking garage fronting Las Olas Boulevard. The upper four 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, a kitchen, gymnasium, lockers and showers, meeting rooms and an activity center.
Those new buildings would join the existing church and fellowship hall across Tarpon Drive as well as several lesser structures already on the site.
The size and height of the buildings are lightning rods for critics. They noted that a proposed tower on the parking garage would top out at 66 feet – considerably higher than surrounding buildings.
The association contends the garage and the family center are just too big, and out of character with the neighborhood.
“We don’t want massive buildings,” said homeowners’ association board member Ann Wier Shumpert. “We have pointed out that the football field size of the single massive building that’s proposed for Fourth Street could be designed into a smaller building and designed architecturally to fit with the design of the neighborhood.”
Chappell, a longtime church member who does not reside in Colee Hammock, disagreed.
“We think it’s an outstanding complement to the neighborhood,” he said.
Senior Pastor Dr. Douglas Brouwer, who joined the church last year, did not respond to a request for comment.
A detailed narrative prepared March 24 by the Stiles Architectural Group says the development would be built in phases, but provides no timetable.
Church leaders are likewise vague about how much the church expansion will cost, and how it will be paid for.
The estimated cost of the proposal in 2007 was $25 million. Now, the church says the cost is less, but won’t give a specific number.
“But now is the time to build. Prices for labor and material are down,” said Chappell.
Rent and parking fees would pay part of the cost, Chappell said. The church also has between $15 million and $17 million in cash and pledges should the city approve, Chappell said. Several members said former Miami Dolphins owner H. Wayne Huizenga has pledged $5 million, but Chappell declined to identify any donors.
After the city rejected the 2007 plan, church leaders say they decided to revamp it.
“We stopped and said, OK, let’s go back and redesign it and get some input from the neighborhood,” Chappell said.
Lobbyist Robert Lochrie said the church’s current plans are “significantly different” from what was proposed in 2007.
He said the changes include switching the locations of the parking garage and the family center, redesigning the retail segment along Las Olas to make it more pedestrian-friendly, widening an alley and increasing setbacks and landscaping. The height of the family center was also reduced, as were the number of spaces in the parking garage, according to Lochrie.
“It hopefully addresses the primary concerns for a majority of the neighbors, but we know some will disagree,” Lochrie said.
But mutual distrust has shaped the disagreement.
Chappell says Jordan and his association are opposed “to us doing anything with our land.” Jordan and his association deny that and counter that the church repeatedly has misled them about its intentions.
“Their attitude is one of ‘We are entitled to this, and we’ll do what we want to do,’” said Shumpert.
Clearly, Chappell is confident. He said the church’s 30-person governing body, the session, is “totally behind this project” and he declined to consider the possibility of losing. “I’m an optimist,” he said.
The implication of such determination isn’t lost on former Colee Hammock Homeowners Association president Susan Bryan.
Bryan, who with her husband Reed moved to another part of the city in 2004, says the church and its neighbors have long been at odds over the church’s rezoning requests.
“It’s a lovely church that was designed and built as a local church for people who live in the area. It’s under the current leadership that started about 15 years ago that it kind of wanted to go global,” said Bryan, who helped stymie similar plans in the 1990s.
“What is so trying for the neighborhood is that it keeps coming back over and over. It’s very difficult and very stressful. I couldn’t sleep at night thinking about it. I’d wake up and think, ‘What are we going to do?”