By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
In July, 2008, as the economy was tanking, the Fort Lauderdale City Commission gave away a block of North Ocean Boulevard to the owners of the former Ireland’s Inn. The idea was to promote development of a towering, tax-generating five-star beachfront resort known as Fairwinds.
Nearly three years out, with the economy heading south again, Fairwinds continues to exist only on paper. City tax collections on the 4.6 acre site are down. And the distinctive tall, pink shell that once housed the popular Ireland’s Inn – a building the Broward Trust for Historic Preservation has called an “outstanding example of Mid-Century Modern architecture” – has deteriorated into an eyesore.
The planned redevelopment of the Ireland’s Inn property has proved to be little more than a bag full of unfulfilled hopes. But for the owners who were the beneficiaries of the city’s largesse, including the Ireland family, the property transfer amounted to a gift that united their two parcels of land and added millions to the value of their property.
“Lillian, this is for you,” then-Commissioner Cindi Hutchinson said before voting “yes” to the deal on July 1, 2008, according to the Sun-Sentinel. Lillian Ireland, who built Ireland’s Inn with her husband in the 1960s, had died a few months earlier at 101.
Last year, the Ireland family and their partners at Miami’s Fortune International Realty, cashed out. They flipped the unified property, including more than a half-acre of once publicly-owned roadway, for $27.1 million to a company owned by Miami condo developer Jorge Perez and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross.
The vacated roadway is about one-ninth of the property that was sold. One-ninth of the sale price is about $3 million. The city got zero money.
The family and Fortune International retain a partnership interest in the Fairwinds project, according to the Daily Business Review.
The city could not sell the property because it did not own the right-of-way, which will remain public until several required improvements by the developers are made. But commissioners had the authority to give it away if they wanted to.
A quick profit on once public land
The sellers were free to turn a quick profit on the public land they got for free because Fort Lauderdale imposed no deed restrictions at the time of the giveaway on any future sale, county property records show. The city’s only requirement was that prior to development a few minor improvements be made to streets, sidewalks, lighting, landscaping – as well as the installation of a “removable beachwalk.”
“We didn’t get anything at all,” said Commissioner Charlotte Rodstrom, who represents the area and was the lone vote against the land giveaway and the PUD rezoning in 2008. “Why was it approved? It had a lot had to do with giving back to a family that had been in Fort Lauderdale for generations.”
Miranda Lopez, a board member with the nearby Dolphin Isles Homeowners Association who opposed the project and vacating the street, agreed.
“We as a neighborhood were able to get a boardwalk on the eastern part of the property. It was not because the city asked for it, but because we asked for it,” Lopez said.
Broward Bulldog asked planning officials in writing, through a city spokesman, why the city did not address the possibility that the property might be sold at the time the land was “vacated” by including restrictions in the transfer deed. Such restrictions could be written to have allowed the city to retain control over who owns the property and plans they might have to modify the project.
“The city has no authority over the disposition of property not owned by the city,” said spokesman Chaz Adams. “The new owners of the property are required to follow the same terms and conditions set forth in the approved development agreement.”
The new owners have yet to make their intentions clear. No permits have been pulled. No modifications to the project have been sought.
The developers have plenty of time to chart a new course should they want to. A pair of Senate bills that were approved in 2009 and 2010 extend the deadline them to apply for and be granted a permit until well into 2014, according to Adams.
Neither Perez, the chairman of Miami-based Related Group of Florida, nor Andy Mitchell, Lillian Ireland’s grandson-in-law and the president of Fairwinds on the Ocean LLC, responded to requests for comment.
Hurricane Wilma inflicted significant damage on Ireland’s Inn in 2005. The hotel, considered by Broward’s historic trust to be an important example of Broward’s “signature architectural style,” closed in 2007.
The so-called mega-development proposed for the Ireland’s Inn site includes 164 hotel units, 128 multi-family units, 14,610 square feet of restaurants, a 17,431 square foot spa, 7,215 square feet of ballroom and board rooms and 2,280 square feet of retail space.
The acquisition of the roadway, which cuts through the property between Northeast 22nd and 23rd Streets, was critical to the project. Without it, the site was not large enough to qualify for rezoning under the city’s controversial Planned Urban Development (PUD) ordinance – a path to build so-called “unique or innovative development” not otherwise allowed under traditional zoning standards.
Soft hearts and lobbyists
Commissioner Rodstrom said that in addition to the “tug at the heartstrings” of commissioners by the Ireland family there were “about six teams” of lobbyists representing Fairwinds as it sought city approval. She said they included Fort Lauderdale attorney Robert Lochrie.
The project also had the strong support of nearby residents of the Lauderdale Beach Homeowners Association, to the north of the site. They even turned out at City Hall in large numbers when it was time for a vote, according to the Sun-Sentinel.
But conditions have changed since 2008, and Rodstrom says the commission would not approve the road giveaway or the Fairwinds resort project today. She called it, “too massive.”
Hutchinson, a force in making the Fairwinds deal happen, is no longer on the commission. In January, she was arrested on 11 charges of public corruption. State prosecutors have alleged Hutchinson received thousands of dollars in gifts and services from other developers in exchange for her favorable vote on their projects.
The city’s PUD ordinance is also in limbo for a year after a backlash against overdevelopment by more than a dozen neighborhood associations across the city. A task force will study the nine-year-old ordinance and recommend changes.
Residents like Miranda Lopez, whose Dolphin Isles neighborhood is west of A1A and south of Oakland Park Boulevard, say it is time to change the way the city does business with developers to protect local residents.
“It was a mistake to give away the road,” she said. “They could have asked for a trade of some kind. But they didn’t because the city has always favored the developers.”