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Mega-upgrade to Fort Lauderdale beach looms on horizon

More upscale hotels are on the way. An urban village of resorts, restaurants and boutiques similar to South Beach is planned. So is an iconic gateway entrance from Las Olas Boulevard.

Private developers and city officials are coming together in the next step of transforming Fort Lauderdale beach. It’s a push to cement the beach as a chic, bustling destination that offers visitors more than sun, surf and cocktails.

More than $450 million could be spent.

Plans include upgrading promenades along the beach and building one along the Intracoastal Waterway. More plazas and parks are in the offing. And there is the renovation of the International Swimming Hall of Fame and a permanent home for the annual international boat show.

“We were taking baby steps, but now we’re taking giant leaps,” said public relations executive Chuck Malkus, who serves on the city’s beach redevelopment board. “It’s been a journey. The beach is maturing to reach the highest level as a world-class destination.”

The recession brought development of Fort Lauderdale beach to a standstill, but that has begun to change. The projects beginning to emerge would build upon the earlier wave of high-end hotel openings on the beach – the Ritz Carlton, the W, the Atlantic, the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort.

The most expensive of the new projects is the remodeling of the Bahia Mar hotel and marina complex. The most unexpected is Swedish investor Par Sanda’s quiet purchase and renovation of more than a dozen struggling mom-and-pop hotels in the North Beach neighborhood.

Last week’s grand opening of the B Ocean Hotel also portends new interest in the Sunrise Lane area long known for tattoo parlors and T-shirt shops. The recession killed plans for a luxury high-rise at the old Howard Johnson‘s, but developers now suggest renovating the shuttered building to a three- to four-star hotel.

For tourism executives and city officials, the projects represent the culmination of a sweeping vision laid out in late 2009 by the international consulting firm Sasaki Associates. The firm has helped with urban planning from Beijing to Abu Dhabi.

The consultants urged the city to offer more activities at the beach. They suggested a gateway of public spaces and landmarks that would define Fort Lauderdale the way Jackson Square defines New Orleans or the Ramblas defines Barcelona in Spain.

The consultants also were concerned that the beach is too disjointed. They said the Intracoastal Waterway was underemphasized and that the barrier island is ripe for more boutiques, art galleries and cafes.

“We are really crafting what the beach will look like in the next 20 years,” said City Commissioner Charlotte Rodstrom, who represents the beach area.

The city is set to make its biggest investment in the beach in decades – almost $100 million.

Much of that money comes from property taxes collected under a decision made in 1989 to designate the area as blighted. That decision allows the city to take all city and county property taxes paid by beach residents and businesses and spend it on beach improvements.

The largest single city project is called Oceanside Plaza.

The city plans to take its parking lot at A1A and Las Olas, build a garage and turn most of the lot into a plaza and park. The Sasaki plan suggests a performance stage for evening activities and landscaped terraces facing the beach. It also called for a viewing tower as part of the parking garage.

The beach entrance across A1A would be expanded to create the landmark gateway. Along the Intracoastal nearby, city plans include a visitors center and a transit stop from both the Water Taxi and trolleys.

Another plaza and park is planned alongside a garage at the city parking lot off Sebastian Street. It and the Oceanside Plaza would include shops and cafes. Almond Avenue would be upgraded to create a more upscale atmosphere for the beach entertainment district.

Beach activist Judith Scher said the changes are not just important to tourists, but will turn the beach into an urban village.

“What’s transpired up until now is nothing but concrete high-rise hotels, and now we’re working on things that are community-oriented and that everyone can enjoy,” Scher said.

Parking looms large in the plans.

The Sasaski study estimated the amount of parking must grow from 2,900 spaces to almost 5,300 by 2014 and be better distributed at the north, south and western entrances to the beach. The new city garages would add at least 1,000 spaces.

“Are we going to have parking for the public or will this be an exclusive place that only rich visitors can enjoy?” beach activist Fred Carlson said. “We need to nail down parking for the next century.”

While the promenades, parks and outdoor stage are part of plans to expand beach activities, there also is a push to upgrade trails in Hugh Taylor Birch State Park and open a south entrance at the Bonnet House.

The Sasaki study also called for much more retail, noting there is little on the beach today despite 4 million visitors.

The plans underway envision more shops and restaurants throughout – from a new plaza adjacent to Bahia Mar to a revitalization along Sunrise Lane. Tourism officials predict high-end shops comparable to those in Bal Harbour within the next decade.

The renovation of the Swimming Hall of Fame is a main component of offering more to do at the beach. It would include new Olympic-size pools, an aquatic theater and state-of-the-art artificial wave machines.

The overhaul is hoped to turn around the fortunes of the Hall of Fame complex. Tourism officials say visitors to the facility spent a total of 150,000 nights in area hotel rooms in 2005, but estimate 40,000 room nights this year and just 20,000 next year.

The changes to the beach could come rapidly.

Sanda will open the new Royal Palms Resort in North Beach on April 11. His staff said the hotel, which is marketed as the largest luxury gay resort in North America, embodies the improvements he wants for his properties.

The city will soon seek bids to design its projects. The Bahia Mar developers expect to seek city approval of its plans in May. Swimming Hall of Fame developers are working on securing the needed $71 million and expect to discuss the project with city commissioners at the end of the month.

“The beach is the core asset of the city, and the things that are going to happen will take it to the next level,” Bahia Mar developer Peter Henn said.

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