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The famous beach is having its day in the sun once again Fort Lauderdale's Sea Change

THE BALTIMORE SUN

No beach, not even Malibu or Waikiki, is more celebrated in popular lore. College students, on the screen and off, romped on Fort Lauderdale beach, the place "where the boys are." Travis Magee, the fictional detective, lived there aboard a boat at Bahia Mar.

Yet over the years, Fort Lauderdale beach flourished and fell, its famous Strip becoming a seedy string of T-shirt shops and bars. Roadways congested, sidewalks littered, the sand smelling of old beer and coconut oil, the beach was held hostage by young revelers -- Spring Break year round.

Today, Fort Lauderdale beach presents a far more urbane face to the world, with an elegant new two-mile promenade that runs from Seabreeze north nearly to Sunrise Boulevard. It is the result of a four-year, $60 million city project that has rerouted streets, planted trees, broadened sidewalks, added lighting fixtures and built a stunning, serpentine wall.

Hundreds of coconut palms now sway in the breeze, and the sand and the sea come close to the street: There are few places so dramatic anywhere, places where the ocean and the city are so intimately connected. It is a rare urban design project that creates an indelible image, and this one does so gracefully and with great panache.

Fort Lauderdale beach can aim at greatness now, but only if the city of Fort Lauderdale courts the kind of sensitive and intelligent redevelopment that will maintain its hospitality and enhance its beauty. Decisions loom -- about the scale of development and the fate of an ill-conceived skywalk -- that are crucial to its ultimate success.

The wall is the focal point of the project, which was carried out under the guidance of the Fort Lauderdale landscape architecture and planning firm EDSA. It undulates along the sand, shiny-white by day and lighted with multicolored fiber optics by night. It is an architectural sculpture, with breaks every block marked by whorled gate posts reminiscent of the markings on shells.

Those breaks form a series of gateways, one at the beach terminus of each east-west street. The mood is marred only by wooden lifeguard stands, the product of an earlier era and a different architectural sensibility, that block what otherwise would have been a dramatic vista.

The wall itself is a place to sit and watch the waves, a challenging course for expert in-line skaters who zoom atop it, an easy balance beam for toddlers. It is low enough to allow affinity with the ocean, broad enough for comfortable seating, handsome enough to be an object of pride.

Nearby, the International Swimming Hall of Fame has been renovated with a striking new image, a profile that looks like three waves cresting.

A handful of open-air cafes has opened, bringing a new sophistication. The Cafe Mistral, at the corner of A1A and Poinsettia, opens a whole corner to diners, some of them suited businessmen and women and others bikini-clad beach-goers.

Cutting the mustard

And at the Elbo Room, long a beer-laden bastion of Spring Break, a new awning shades patrons and a new atmosphere prevails. "What symbolizes the change in Fort Lauderdale beach to me," says City Commissioner Jack Latona, "is that the Elbo Room now serves Grey Poupon."

The changes are both subtle and dramatic. It used to be that beach-goers would zoom along A1A looking for an angled beachfront parking space -- another instance where parked cars got the best South Florida views -- and traffic was at once reckless and congested. The west side of A1A was cluttered with shops, its narrow sidewalks offering no place to walk or stop.

To change all that, more than a mile of A1A was made one-way northbound and just two lanes wide. Parking was moved inland. The narrower street yielded wide sidewalks on both sides, making way for pedestrians, bicyclists, skaters and sidewalk cafes.

It is at once formal and elegant -- and informal and accessible -- LTC an urban beach with the easy sophistication of the Riviera, or even -- to cite the best example close to home -- Miami Beach's art deco district.

The new cafes reflect that sensibility, and there are more to come. Just north of Las Olas Boulevard, an old Spring Break hangout called Summers on the Beach is being rebuilt as a complex of shops and eateries. Three blocks away, plans call for replacing the old Marlin Beach Hotel with a three-story complex of shops and restaurants patterned after CocoWalk in Coconut Grove, only more restrained in its architecture -- "a cleaner, crisper look," says developer Lee Banks.

So far, so good: And yet, care and caution ought to be the bywords for Fort Lauderdale beach, for it could easily lose all it has gained.

The danger is there: The two miles of renovated beachfront are dominated by older, run-down hotels and empty land. New construction at the wrong scale -- too high, too wide, too bulky -- could drive people away; no beach-goer wants to be oppressed or overshadowed by buildings.

But a worthy model also is at hand: The lesson of South Beach is more than just style. Without history and architecture, without the scale of the buildings and the cadence of the streets, there would be no art deco district.

Fort Lauderdale beach has similar potential. It's less historic; there's not really an architectural district there, despite a handful of buildings that date back to the 1930s. It is more a creation of the 1940s and '50s, more modern than Mediterranean, with buildings that showed just a little spunk. But the scale is still intact; the beach area is walkable and not oppressive.

Redevelopment district

The city of Fort Lauderdale has designated 125 acres of the beach area as a major redevelopment district with plans for a marina, hotels, apartments, a maritime museum, shops and restaurants in the area between Alhambra and Bahia Mar.

A first stab at getting a developer fell apart a year ago, the victim of politics (the governor vetoed a one-penny hotel room tax that would have financed the public portion) and a bad economy. Three developers looked at the project -- one spent almost three years on a proposed marine merchandise mart -- and then pulled out.

Which is just as well: The project wasn't well-conceived. The city went looking for developers without first establishing urban design guidelines to protect vistas, safeguard the pedestrian nature of the beach or conceiving an architectural philosophy.

The politicians who make decisions that have a long-lasting impact on our lives often tend to be reactive, rather than pro-active. They wait for ideas rather than formulating them.

A case in point: Over the summer the Fort Lauderdale City Commission gave the owners of the Sheraton Yankee Trader permission to build a skywalk, complete with an elevator descending to the beach, across A1A, a visual obstruction with no redeeming aesthetic value.

Gill Hotels wants to build the $750,000 skywalk so it can market the Yankee Trader in Europe as having direct beach access. Long contested by a group of local citizens, the skywalk nonetheless won an early round of state approvals but now is being questioned by the state's Department of Environmental Protection as a threat to sea turtle incubation areas.

The skywalk plan is an example of the kind of short-sighted thinking that ends up hurting a city. It would instantly mar the beauty of the new beach, setting a terrible precedent. It would be better to put in a pedestrian-operated traffic light that would let beach-goers cross A1A and have an added benefit of slowing traffic.

With $60 million already invested in making Fort Lauderdale beach a sophisticated and consequential place once again, it would be a shame to blow it.

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