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South Florida cities, known for spring break and seniors, are transforming

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In the midst of makeovers, downtown Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton are becoming more dense and walkable

A food truck near downtown Fort Lauderdale.
Courtesy MASS District

Dylan Lagi remembers when Fort Lauderdale, Florida, had a different kind of draw for 20-somethings. Decades ago, the sleepy Broward County city on the beach, known for snowbirds, retirement living, and a downtown that would clear out before 6 p.m., was the epicenter of spring break, offering sand, surf, cheap motels, and even cheaper drinks to hordes of college students. Every March and April, his family stayed far away from the beach.

Today’s Fort Lauderdale exerts a different kind of magnetism for millennials, especially those from Miami. The city’s compact, riverside downtown has long been an afterthought on the way to the beach. Now, it’s the main attraction.

Apartment complexes and condo conversions have attracted thousands of new renters, and scores of additional projects are on their way. Former warehouses in Flagler Village have made way for arts districts and business incubators, such as the MASS District (Music & Art South of Sunrise) and FATVillage (Flagler Arts Technology Village), which hosts a popular art walk, as well as coworking spots and even proposals for micro-unit apartment buildings. The soon-to-open 223-room Dalmar Hotel, the first in a long time that won’t be on the beach, will feature a rooftop patio, and the luxury Icon Las Olas, a 272-unit luxury apartment tower, will take up prime real estate downtown.

A district formerly known for warehouses, run-down single-family homes, surface parking lots, and a beat-up old Sears department store—locals used to call it Sears Town—has gone from blighted to being an engine for the city’s redevelopment, a prime reason why it was listed as one of the hottest real estate investment markets in the country in the Urban Land Institute’s annual Emerging Trends report.

“We’re taking the energy of what was an area of mechanics and makers and turning it into a center for art, food, and business,” says Lagi, executive director of MASS District. “We want Fort Lauderdale to grow.”

A mural in FATVillage, in Flagler Village in Fort Lauderdale.
Courtesy MASS District

Going from zero to a developing downtown

A city of 180,000 that’s always grown up in the shadow of Miami, Fort Lauderdale is having its own moment, exemplifying the way smaller cities in dense metros are angling to become destinations in their own right. With a new transit hub taking shape, and an inner-urban streetcar system, the Wave, inching toward breaking ground, it’s also primed for continued growth.

“Flagler is the epicenter of the walkable downtown the city is trying to create,” says Shawn Williams, who runs URBNPLANR, a Facebook group that chronicles the city’s development boom. “It was mostly single-family houses before, and now it’s the heart of everything happening downtown.

What was once single-family homes and warehouses has become a center for hot new projects: the Hive, a warehouse-turned-business center across from the old Sears; a mural by street artist Herbert Galarza that overlooks the Glitch Bar; and art and music at Next Door. Williams’s map of upcoming projects shows clusters of activity along the Tarpon River, which encircles downtown.

A rendering of FAT City, a recently approved project that will bring two 30-story towers with 612 apartments and 270,000 square feet of office, hospitality and retail space to Flagler Village.
Adache Group Architects

Developer Charles Ladd, who has worked in the area for decades, says the rental boom in Flagler and surrounding areas has been meteoric.

“We’ve gone from essentially zero units in 2000 to what will be 13,000 when all the projects underway are finished,” he says. “It’s an amazing story. The land is gone in South Florida. The next thing that’s going to happen is density.”

Ladd sees the crowded and increasingly expensive Miami market as a big driver pushing people north to Broward County. But it’s also a perfect encapsulation of what’s happening across the country.

“So many people in development, as well as cities, have pushed the idea of bringing a big company in first as a way to change an area,” he says. “But Fort Lauderdale shows that if you bring in the housing and the lifestyle, the educated people and the workforce employers want, show up. Forget the chicken and the egg idea. This is the egg”

College students sunbathe on the beach during Spring Break in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
Kevin Fleming/Corbis via Getty Images

Benefiting from shifts in South Florida

Fort Lauderdale had already made moves to shed its reputation as the country’s spring break capital decades ago, with a crusade to drive out college students, including fines and tougher enforcement, that has ultimately made way for more expensive coastal real estate (a Four Seasons and the new Paramount Residences don’t exactly pull in drunken revelers). But, as prices continue to rise in Miami, Fort Lauderdale has become a more appealing destination.

“Fort Lauderdale has a lot to do to mature into a world class city, but until then, there are so many affordable places to live where you can ride the train and work in Miami,” says Williams.

Many locals see a generational shift underway benefitting Fort Lauderdale. Always thought of as the little sister to Miami, it’s becoming a destination for locals who don’t want to move to the suburbs. Ladd says he’s seen growth with starting trajectory similar to cities such as Portland, Austin, and Nashville, but it’s still under the radar. While Miami neighborhoods such as Wynwood get all the hype, Fort Lauderdale is quietly changing.

“Fort Lauderdale has quietly been happening for quite a while,” says Jaime Sturgis, a local developer and founder of Native Realty. “Lauderdale has a lot of culture now, and we’re seeing a lot of people move here from Miami.”

The Hive in Flagler Village
Native Realty

Sturgis’ portfolio—Flagler Uptown, with a brewery and art gallery, and the Hive, which boasts a retro arcade bar and yoga studio—scream upward millennial market. But the city’s also been matching lifestyle development with new companies. General Provision, a tech hub and coworking space, hosts workers from tech mainstays, the region’s startup scene is growing, and the much-hyped augmented reality company Magic Leap is based in a nearby suburb.

This wasn’t what many who saw the city’s downtown in the ‘70s or ‘80s would have expected. Jenni Morejon, who works for the public-private Downtown Development Association (DDA), says back then, it was sort of a leftover area, with vacant buildings and no street lights. It wasn’t until a few pioneering developers in the ‘90s and 2000s, such as Alan Hooper and Tim Petrillo, and then projects like FATVillage, arrived that change started accelerating.

A rendering of Via Mizner, a forthcoming $358-million project reshaping downtown Boca Raton, Florida.
Penn-Florida Companies

From seniors and snowbirds to the Mandarin

Fort Lauderdale isn’t the only city in South Florida benefitting from sky-high Miami prices and demographics shifts. Further north, Boca Raton is also in the midst of a downtown revival. A historically high-rent beachfront city for the wealthy—the city’s centerpiece Boca Resort was a pastel-colored vacation destination for decades—it’s been pegged as a home for seniors and snowbirds, a characterization fueled by its choice as the home for Jerry Seinfeld’s fictional parents.

But that’s fast becoming an outdated stereotype. A series of smaller, multi-level, multi-family developments over the last few years has led to Via Mizner, a $398-million project that represents a crescendo of activity for the city’s downtown. A massive development that will include a new Mandarin Oriental Hotel and retail when finished in 2020, the project will put an exclamation point on downtown’s redevelopment. It’s rental component, a 366-unit rental apartment building, opened earlier this year, and may soon be joined by another proposed project, the the 350-unit Camino Square.

Albert Piazza, Senior Vice President at Penn-Florida Companies, the project’s developer, says he’s seen the demographic and developmental shift over the last decade or so. Dozens of new restaurants have come downtown, the number of rental units is shooting up, and nearby Florida Atlantic University, with its 30,000 students, plans to expand and shed its commuter-school reputation. While Boca and Fort Lauderdale are densifying for different reasons—Boca is benefitting from a move by older adults and seniors towards rentals—they’re both indicative of shifts towards downtown, urban living.

“I don’t think it’s price driven,” he says. “Rental rates in downtown Boca are rivaling those in Miami now. It’s convenience driven and lifestyle driven. It’s the critical mass. Enough things have happened, and now it’s a cool place.”

A proposed station design for the Wave Streetcar in Fort Lauderdale.
Courtesy City of Fort Lauderdale

Planes, trains, and (streetcars instead of) automobiles

Many believe the rapid growth in Fort Lauderdale is only beginning (forecasts project its population will swell to 194,000 by 2021). Part of that optimism is based on transportation. The city’s airport has massively expanded capacity, making the city a more attractive space for starting businesses and corporate relocations. Morejon says the forthcoming mobility hub will be a game-changer, and the center of a new, signature public space. Its connection to the expanding, soon-to-open Brightline private rail system, as well as a forthcoming transit hub, will make commutes to other cities in Florida easier, and spur additional transit-oriented development. The two-tower FAT City project, a few blocks from the station, was recently approved by the city. A protected bike lane experiment is even coming to Las Olas, a key commercial artery.

“People want to get out of their cars and find cities connected by arts and culture,” says Williams. “The city is responding to what people want, and they don’t want to be dependent on their cars.”

In addition to all the action in Downtown Fort Lauderdale, Sturgis points to new growth in the nearby Oakland Park Culinary Arts district, and Las Olas is also seeing additional commercial activity and growth. Fort Lauderdale still has room to grow, and has hit a great equilibrium, he says. It’s gaining the benefits of a big city while maintaining its small-town feel.

“It’s just hitting on a national basis right now,” says Ladd. “I’ve been working in this area for 25 years, and while there’s a lot of attractive cities in South Florida, Fort Lauderdale is becoming a real city.”