UPDATE: May 19: Fort Lauderdale’s zoning board voted this evening to hold a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. on May 27 to decide whether to approve First Presbyterian Church’s controversial expansion plans.
UPDATE, MAY 18: Wednesday’s expected vote by the Fort Lauderdale zoning board on First Presbyterian Church’s controversial expansion plans has been delayed. The reason: city officials have learned there won’t be enough board members on hand to make a quorum. The board’s next regular meeting is June 16, but a special meeting could be convened before then, said city spokesman Chaz Adams. Broward Bulldog will post the date and time when it’s announced.
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Romney Rogers has been on the job little more than a year, but today he’s the man to watch in a high-profile zoning fight between expansion-minded First Presbyterian Church and its angry neighbors.
Rogers’s district includes historic Colee Hammock – home to the church and hundreds of nearby homeowners.
Church leaders argue $20 million in new buildings are desperately needed to fulfill the church’s ministry. The Colee Hammock Homeowners Association says the buildings are too massive and will disrupt the neighborhood and depress property values. They also fear that the church wants to use the buildings to open a school – something the church has denied.
The zoning board is expected to decide whether to recommend the project to the commission at its May 19 meeting. The board postponed a decision last month when an overflow crowd of speakers for and against caused a meeting to run past 1 a.m.
People on both sides want to know whose side Rogers is on. That’s because he’ll likely account for two of the five votes that will ultimately decide who wins — his own and Mayor Jack Seiler’s. Seiler’s general policy is to follow the lead of district commissioners on votes in their backyard.
But Rogers, caught between two influential voting blocs, is playing it carefully. “I always want to be sure I don’t prejudge anything while it’s still before the planning and zoning board. Our duty is to hear the evidence and make a ruling based on what we hear,” he said.
The church is proposing 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, a kitchen, gymnasium lockers and showers, meeting rooms and an activity center.
To make it happen, the 2,000 member church is asking the city to rezone 5.52 aces 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.
While Rogers won’t be pinned down about his vote, his comments about the architectural plans appeared to offer encouragement to the church.
“I’m not an architect or a planner, but my impression is the design at least fits the street. We’ve got a vacant corner there now,” Rogers said.
Residents, including Brady, say that their dealings with city staff lead them to believe that City Manager George Gretsas is siding with the church.
But Gretsas spokesman Chaz Adams denied it.
“When it comes to city processes, he tries to focus on what’s the right thing to do. The process is let the planning board do their job,” Adams said.
Mayor Seiler said he’s been bombarded with “dozens and dozens” of emails, mostly from homeowners association members and running about 70 percent against the expansion and 30 percent in favor.
But Seiler said the Las Olas business community strongly supports the church’s plans, believing it will help revitalize a neglected stretch of East Las Olas.
“They want to see this happen,” he said.
Seiler said his “biggest concern” is the height of the buildings. Plans call for a proposed tower on the parking garage to top out at 66 feet – considerably higher than surrounding buildings.
The mayor has encouraged both sides to work out a mutually acceptable deal, and efforts to do that are underway.
Broward land use attorney James C. Brady, a Colee Hammock resident, said he’s talked with a representative of the church’s builder, the Stiles Group, about a number of possible changes, including a plan that would reduce the height of proposed parking garage by putting its bottom floor below street level.
“It isn’t ruled out,” Brady said.
Stiles executive Douglas Eagon could not be reached for comment.