Sunny day flooding near the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
(Fort Lauderdale’s Downtown Development Authority)

ULI Advisory Services panelists spent a week in October visiting various sites in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to evaluate buildings as well as the infrastructure, especially connected to the area’s water management. The panel made several recommendations for how the city of Fort Lauderdale, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), and local developers can create a greener, more connected, less congested, and more resilient downtown.

South Florida is growing and is already home to more than 6 million people, making it the 12th-largest economy in the United States, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. In Fort Lauderdale alone, there are a number of large corporate tenants, such as AutoNation, Citrix, and American Express to name a few, who need office space and amenities to attract a talented workforce. As the amount of office, retail, and residential space has increased in the Fort Lauderdale area, sea-level rise threatens to overwhelm the city’s best-laid plans. The DDA, an independent taxing district, and others in the city hope to make the new density as livable (as well as “waterproof,”) as possible.  

The exploratory ULI panel was sponsored by “The 10 Minute Walk Campaign,” which promotes the idea that all people in urban America should live within a 10-minute walk to a high-quality park. ULI, the Trust for Public Land, and the National Recreation and Park Association are partners in this campaign. Last week’s event was one of nine panels that the campaign has brought to communities across the United States.

At the end of the presentation, the panelists presented recommendations for how to make downtown more livable, including the following:

* Create new parks to supplement the existing ones with climate-adaptive components. Lucky for the DDA, parcels in the area may be suitable to be transformed into new parks and the quasi-government entity has the wherewithal to buy and own these properties.

* Initiate a pedestrian/bike network in downtown. Such a network would not only create more space for recreation but also make it possible for more workers to commute to their jobs without having to use their cars. It is imperative, given the traffic congestion in downtown Fort Lauderdale, that not only should there be multiple ways to get around, but there must also be a separation of bicycles and cars, said Stephen Whitehouse, partner with the New York–based Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners, and the panel moderator.

* Place public art in public spaces downtown.       

Proposed circulation network for downtown Fort Lauderdale. (Credit: Stephen Whitehouse/ULI)

* Locate the new federal courthouse south of the New River, which runs through downtown.

* Create a “green ribbon”: Establish a better connection among parks and green spaces in and near downtown.

* Develop a new vision for Huizenga Plaza, a prominent civic space that can hold up to 2,000 people for an event. Suggestions to improve the site included bringing in food trucks during the day and installing a stormwater pump station to protect the area from flooding.

Proposed Huizenga Plaza upgrades to better manage stormwater and help activate public space. (David Cheney/ULI)

* Relocate the county jail, which is on prime riverfront property. The jail is not the highest and best use.

* Integrate the area south of the New River with the more developed area to the north of the river.

* Upgrade Broward Boulevard, a main thoroughfare, to create greater density.

The panel devoted a lot of attention to “living with water,” which is a fact of life in Fort Lauderdale more than in most large cities. In Fort Lauderdale, as well as all of South Florida, everywhere one goes there are bodies of water—lakes, canals, rivers, the Intracoastal, and the ocean.

Areas along the New River in Fort Lauderdale which should be used to demonstrate key resilience principles. (Josh Murphy/ULI)

Garrett Avery, a landscape architect specializing in resilience issues with AECOM in New York, said that it is necessary “to redefine how and where to build . . . aligning uses to the projected floodplain over the next 40 years.” As an example, he noted that Esplanade Park in downtown floods six times a year.“There isn’t a wall high enough to solve this problem,” he said.Fortification is one method of dealing with encroaching sea-level rise, “but accommodation through the active management of stormwater is better,” said Avery.  

Josh Murphy, a senior spatial analyst at NOAA whois based in Silver Spring, Maryland, suggested setting up cisterns to capture excess water and creating “rain gardens,” where runoff from impervious surfaces like walkways and parking lots can be retained.      

The transformation of Fort Lauderdale’s downtown started in 1986 when the city approved a $47 million bond that was used mostly to upgrade the beach, but some of the money was used to build the first phase of Riverwalk in downtown.   

Last March, voters in Fort Lauderdale approvedan up to $200 million bond issue to pay for new and upgraded parks and recreation facilities. But this will not be enough to do all that is needed, according to panelists.  

To coordinate all of the efforts suggested by the panel, said Whitehouse, it would be advisable to hire a  “chief public realm officer” or “park czar” to direct activities “in the public realm.” Plus, it may be necessary to establish a public/private partnership to fully realize the plans that are being formulated.

Panelist, ULI staff, and sponsor team in Fort Lauderdale.
(Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority.)