By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
James McGrath, a builder and manager of affordable housing, lives in Philadelphia near his company offices and also has a condo in downtown Fort Lauderdale. He sees both communities through the lens of an expert urban planner.
But when it comes to responsible development, McGrath would rather be in — you guessed it — Philadelphia.
There he was a neighborhood activist who helped the city’s redevelopment agency plan for center city growth. McGrath said if he had an affordable housing proposal for Fort Lauderdale, he’d keep it to himself.
“I don’t think I’d be welcomed as part of the club,” he said. “I wouldn’t build in Fort Lauderdale. I would be happy to advise or assist, but I’m not in that game.”
That “club” is the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), a 54-year-old, developer-dominated taxing district that has tremendous sway over what happens in the business/governmental/cultural heart of Fort Lauderdale. It exercises power by setting spending priorities and engaging in politics, both openly and behind the scenes.
While calling itself “independent,” the DDA is entwined with Fort Lauderdale’s leadership. It represents one of three districts that comprise the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, and the Fort Lauderdale City Commission runs the CRA.
Decades ago the authority played a leading role in transforming a blighted downtown into a thriving center for not only business and government, but arts and entertainment. Executive directors like the late William Farkas, who helped foster the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in 1989, were known for their vision and community spirit.
DDA gone astray?
Recently, however, Fort Lauderdale neighborhood activists and other concerned citizens wonder whether the authority has gone astray.
In May it lost some luster when the WAVE streetcar line, the DDA’s premiere lobbying goal for more than a decade, finally failed. Project managers spent a reported $33.7 million on lobbying, consulting, lawyers and other big-ticket items to achieve a $225 million project that never materialized.
Yet the perception that the DDA enjoys favored status intensified this month when the mostly white property owners within its borders recouped five years of special WAVE taxes, plus interest, totaling almost $10 million. Meanwhile the redevelopment agency for the mostly black, northwest district took a hit of $1.67 million or $2.9 million on what it shelled out for WAVE, depending on the source of the number.
Now State Rep. Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point, is proposing a local bill to extend the DDA’s life from 2030, its sunset year, until 2050. Unless opposition arises from within the Broward delegation, the bill will almost certainly pass without debate, according to Broward County Commissioner Steve Geller, a former state legislator.
“Normally the protocol is, you need unanimity in your delegation,” Geller said. “So the state doesn’t referee. They figure if everybody agrees…” And the bill quietly sails into law.
LaMarca did not respond to emailed questions from Florida Bulldog. Chief among them is why he’s proposing the bill 11 years before the enabling legislation expires.
His extension bill doesn’t sit well with DDA critics like retired academic Frank Schnidman, an early DDA executive director who is a respected consultant about CRAs and urban development.
“How can you ask for 20 more years when you don’t know how the money was spent for the past decade?” he asked. “The downtown property owners/taxpayers deserve to know what they’ve gotten for their taxes and what is now necessary for the DDA to exist an additional 20 years to accomplish.”
Is an audit needed?
Schnidman would like to see the Broward County or state inspector general take a close look at the DDA’s income and expenditures over the past 10 years. He said such an audit would reveal it has become primarily a marketing and lobbying arm of development interests, and that it has strayed too far from its mission: making the downtown of Broward’s biggest city not only good for business, but livable for residents.
“The DDA has lost its moral compass,” he said.
Jenni Morejon, the DDA’s current executive director, did not respond to Florida Bulldog’s request for comment.
The authority has a $3 million budget for fiscal year 2018-2019, nearly a third of which is “intragovernmental,” meaning the money comes mostly from the city and county. For example, the DDA leases Bubier Park, a plaza at Andrews Avenue and Las Olas Boulevard, to the city for $100,000 a year.
People outside the DDA’s circle complain they have no voice in it, creating an echo chamber for big business.
“Responsible downtown organizations look to residents, listen to them,” said Stan Eichelbaum, a downtown resident who speaks from experience. After three decades in marketing and urban development, he’s been an economic advisor to Portland, Oregon, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and other cities.
But there’s evidence to suggest the DDA and like-minded groups purposely exclude residents.
Minutes obtained by Florida Bulldog from a Nov. 14 meeting of a new Downtown Coalition list DDA board member Alan Hooper, Morejon and DDA executive vice president Elizabeth Van Zandt as three of 17 attendees. Two others came from Mad 4 Marketing in Fort Lauderdale, and the rest were from business and cultural alliances such as Property Owners of Las Olas and History Fort Lauderdale.
“We will not include any HOAs at this time,” say the minutes, referring to homeowners’ associations, the main vehicle for resident participation. “Our goals may not necessarily align with those of residents who are anti-development.”
“This coalition is necessary because the needs of the (downtown) business community are underrepresented,” the minutes say by way of explaining the coalition’s “intent.”
Nancy Thomas said she and her neighbors who support the group Lauderdale Tomorrow are not anti-development, a charge she hears leveled at anyone who opposes unchecked building in the dense Las Olas corridor and environs.
“People like me are not naysayers and negative and don’t want anything to change,” said Thomas, who lives east of downtown in the Harbor Inlet neighborhood. “We want a seat at the table and responsible redevelopment. It needs to be controlled and not disadvantage, especially, the people who live here who are committed to the area.”
Downtown resident and activist John Bordeaux has a list of infrastructure issues that seem vital to him, like water and sewers, sea walls and traffic. He said he isn’t aware of the DDA doing anything to address them, such as making sure new construction is linked to remedies.
“There’s just a ton of issues they could be involved in,” Bordeaux said. “I have no idea that they’re involved in any of them.”