City Commission decision on Sistrunk zoning changes likely January 21
By Audrey Peterman
It felt like déjà vu all over again, walking into City Hall last Wednesday night to speak on behalf of Sistrunk. In the late ‘90s and early into the 21st Century, Frank and I were among community members encouraging local governments to consider the impact that proposed new development would have on the historically Black neighborhoods of Fort Lauderdale. Laying mainly between the Florida East Coast Railroad tracks on the East and the CSX tracks to the west, neighborhoods such as Sistrunk contain the churches, schools, museum and artifacts of the Black presence in the area since the early 1900s. We cautioned that it was important for the urban development plan billed as “Eastward Ho!” to take this heritage into consideration so as not to displace this community.
Following a 10-year hiatus to Atlanta, we returned home to find Sistrunk Boulevard widened, “street scaped” with traffic calming medians and looking considerably more prosperous. A new shopping center, including a Bank of America, graced the neighborhood and multiple bright office and commercial buildings bear the names of prominent Black Fort Lauderdale families. We wondered about the impact on those families whose properties had been bought up to enable the change. Still, it’s clear that the neighborhood is now much more attractive and consistent with its prosperous downtown Fort Lauderdale location.
So when my friends at the Westside Gazette (in which we’d written copiously on the issue) told me that the zoning plan determining the future of the Sistrunk Corridor was on the agenda at the City Commission meeting Wednesday night, I felt obliged and privileged to have the opportunity to offer public comment. I thought I might even be able to add a long term perspective based upon our previous involvement.
From the moment I entered the Commission chambers, I could see and feel that things had changed. As I expected, the chamber was packed with members of the Sistrunk community, longtime residents and advocates I recognized as well as many younger people. On the dais where our (deceased) commissioner Carlton Moore had been the only Black representative, District 3 Commissioner Robert McKinzie is now the sole Black member. But the greatest change appears to have taken place among the staff which is much more diverse. Where the mood between the commission and members of the Black public used to be combative, it now appears far more collegial.
The change was evident when the mayor called upon the Director of the Department of Sustainable Development, Greg Brewton who was retiring after more than 30 years with the City, and gave him the opportunity to lead the Pledge of Allegiance. Mr. Brewton and his colleague, 10-year Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) Director Alfred Battle, Jr. who is also African American, led the presentation of the proposed zoning changes.
The presentation centered upon zoning changes developed by the CRA in consultation with members of the Sistrunk community that would hold the height of new development on Sistrunk west of Seventh Avenue around 45-foot or five-stories. The changes to the Northwest Regional Activity Center (NWRAC) as the area is described were previously approved by the City’s Planning and Zoning Board Nov. 19.
At the public comment period It quickly became clear that the Sistrunk community is fully in favor of the changes, as conveyed passionately by speakers including Mickey and Mrs. Hinton; Ms. Sonya Burrows whose family has owned Bur-rows Electrical Company on Sistrunk Blvd. for more than five decades; Ms. Jana Gray-Williams and NBA star Keyon Dooling who talked about his roots in the area and his drive to help retain it.
The political leadership, including Commissioner McKinzie and State Senator Chris Smith are also fully onboard.
Of approximately 10 people who spoke before I left the meeting near midnight, only one – Burnadette Norris-Weeks who identified herself as an attorney with offices in the area – spoke against adopting the changes.
The Commission appears favorably disposed to accept the zoning board’s recommendation, with minor tweaks to satisfy the interests of adjacent communities such as the Progresso neighborhoods, who want to be able to exceed the five-story height limit as the need arises. Developers interested in building east of Northwest Seventh Avenue also asked staff to think about raising height restrictions to make the area along the railroad tracks more attractive for development.
The discussion is taking place in an environment that is once again poised for explosive growth, particularly with the coming All Aboard Florida train service which will provide rapid transit from Orlando to Miami. The Fort Lauderdale station will be erected at Northwest Second Avenue, just southeast of Sistrunk and Northwest Seventh Avenue. Its website promises that the rail will “stimulate a currently underutilized area, driving new visitors into downtown and the surrounding cultural, economic and shopping destinations.”
This being the first reading of the proposed change, the Commission will hear the issue again at its Jan. 21 meeting and is likely to vote on it then. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. but the discussion and decision may come as late as midnight or beyond.
(Audrey Peterman is a national award winning environmentalist and writer living in Fort Lauderdale. Audrey@legacyontheland.com)