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Downtown condo boom a tall order of concerns

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Fort Lauderdale is bracing for a new wave of downtown homeowners and renters --with high hopes and not a few worries about the potential costs of growth.

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BY SAMUEL P. NITZE

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After 35 years on the beach, Joseph Campanella is settling into his new condo high above downtown Fort Lauderdale, views of the New River and the rising towers of concrete and glass spread out before him.

Campanella, single and semiretired, said he likes his proximity to the restaurants and shops on Las Olas Boulevard. He likes that he can walk to the bank. He likes his night sky glowing with city light.

''This is very satisfactory,'' he said. ``It's easy to get around and you have everything you need. It's like living in New York with the beach at your fingertips. Very cosmopolitan.''

He's not alone. New condos are soaring all along the river. And a few blocks north of Campanella's home in the newly opened WaterGarden, a younger, hipper crowd is moving into lofts and apartments in the up-and-coming Flagler Village neighborhood.

Together, they form the vanguard of a new group of ''urban pioneers'' expected to fill thousands of new homes beginning to open near the heart of the city's business and arts districts.

Roughly 3,600 new units have opened, are under construction, or are in the development pipeline, according to city estimates. Hundreds more are tied up in litigation or awaiting approvals. And redevelopment boosters are touting the ''residential renaissance'' as a key step in creating a downtown that feels alive every hour of every day.

''It's always been our dream to have a downtown that comes alive after 5 and on weekends,'' Mayor Jim Naugle said.

In a sense, Fort Lauderdale has been preparing for and courting new arrivals for decades, attracting government buildings, then office towers, then the cultural institutions that make up the arts and entertainment district. Last year, the city approved a downtown master plan calling for design geared toward pedestrians and a mix of homes and retail stores all within walking distance.

It's the sort of urban activity underway up and down the coast -- and likely to continue as the population grows and undeveloped land disappears, said James Murley, director of the Catanese Center for Urban & Environmental Solutions at Florida Atlantic University.

''It's reflective of development going on in Miami and downtown West Palm Beach and even some of the smaller cities,'' he said. ``They've all had exciting residential development in downtown areas, which is so key.''

But for all its promise, Fort Lauderdale's growth has raised serious questions. What effect will it have on traffic? Water pressure? Parks? Housing prices? The city's older neighborhoods?

As developers push for permission to build more, some county and city officials -- Naugle among them -- have said they are inclined to hold off until the wave now cresting reaches shore.

''Certainly, downtown is not a ghost town any longer -- you do have nightlife, you do have restaurants -- and maybe we'll find it can absorb these residents without any trouble,'' Broward County Commissioner John Rodstrom said. ``The problem is none of us knows. And it's going to be a lot of absorption in a very short period of time.''

Downtown leaders say the new homeowners and renters are essential to the ''live, work, and play'' city advertised by the Downtown Development Authority.

''Housing is the key to everything,'' said DDA member Alan Hooper, who is developing lofts in Flagler Village. ``Right now the restaurants do well on Friday and Saturday night, but during the week they're pretty sparse. To get synergy going seven days a week, you need to have people living in the area.''

The master plan envisions a thriving downtown that could accommodate more than four times the 7,300 people estimated in 2000 to live in the area. The DDA is working with city staff to prepare a land-use amendment seeking permission to allow for 13,000 to 18,000 more residential units, said Chris Wren, the authority's executive director.

Those units would come on top of 2,960 recently added to the previous downtown cap of 5,100 -- a move still awaiting final approval.

''There is huge demand from people who want to be part of this vision,'' Wren said.

He noted that the vision includes public transportation. The authority is pressing ahead with plans for two light-rail routes to circle through downtown. One would loop east to west and could be ready in 2007; the other would loop north to south and would come later. The federal government and state are expected to cover most of the $39 million project, said marketing and program director Kathleen Ogden. About $9.7 million would come from the authority, which collects taxes.

Meanwhile, the authority plans to unveil lunchtime trolley service headed north and south across the river on weekdays -- the exact route is still being worked out -- and afternoon and evening service along Second Street on Fridays and Saturdays, possibly as soon as August, Ogden said.

It's not clear what effect trolley or rail service will have on congestion. To Tim Hernandez, developer of the East Village homes off Northeast Fifth Street, traffic can be a sign of vitality.

''Tell me a healthy city that doesn't have some measure of traffic congestion in the downtown area?'' he said. ``We are trying to create a city here, not a suburb.''

There are other uncertainties.

Skeptics point to a thriving speculative market -- investors snapping up homes in hopes of reselling them for a profit -- as evidence that demand for condos may not be as strong as people think. Others point to a possible glut in the high-end rental market.

''It's too much too soon,'' said Vice Mayor Dean Trantalis, a real estate attorney who represents part of the downtown area. ``We did not pace ourselves.''

The issue of affordable housing is also serious, with few of the new homes selling for less than $200,000 and many selling for twice that or more. Campanella, a semiretired real estate agent, said he could afford the roughly $400,000 he spent on his two-bedroom, two-bath condo after decades of saving and budgeting. But many cannot.

Officials say they aren't sure who is buying the homes -- what combination of speculators, locals, foreigners, second-home buyers, snow birds -- though it's clear many come from outside the city. And a boom that prices the vast majority of the city's residents out of the market has bred resentment, some of it along racial lines, said Jerry Kolo, a professor of urban and regional planning at FAU.

''The question becomes progress and development at what cost to the general population?'' Kolo said. ``It's not time for champagne yet.''

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