By Eric Barton
City & Shore Magazine
There’s a good chance you can think of a building or development down the road that nobody wanted. You know the one, where residents printed up Not In My Back Yard T-shirts and bumper stickers and flooded city hall with protest signs. Density, height limits, zoning restrictions – the rallying calls in the fight to stop the paving over of another piece of our paradise.
It used to be that the developers lawyered up, stacked the deck with lobbyists – and always seemed to win.
No, not anymore. Not always.
Neighbors beat back the behemoth buildings they wanted to put up at the Bahia Mar on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. Residents forced The Galleria owners to scale back plans on Sunrise Boulevard. And anti-development protests and lawsuits killed Palazzo, a mixed-use development at the foot of the Las Olas bridge. That’s three points for the NIMBY crowd.
But there is a different way. There’s a path that builders can take that doesn’t label them as evil developers, or supporters of growth at all costs. This is one of those stories.
ANDY MITCHELL FIRST came down to Fort Lauderdale in 1971 for spring break with his girlfriend, Kathy. He showed up at the hotel in flip-flops and swim trunks, curly hair down not quite to his shoulders. He had no idea Kathy’s parents owned the hotel, Ireland’s Inn.
“Oh, you must be Andy,” Marilyn Ireland, his girlfriend’s mother, greeted him. That night, she made him ham and scalloped potatoes, and they dined together with Lillian, Kathy’s mother and matriarch of the Ireland family. Jack Ireland, his girlfriend’s father, tossed him the keys to his 25-foot cruiser, a boat named Heidi-Ho.
“They were just like that,” Mitchell recalls. “They just saw the best in every person they met.”
Mitchell married Kathy and then had a career in the furniture business in North Carolina. In 2001, he had to make a big decision. The furniture industry had moved the bulk of its production to Asia, and it meant he’d be spending more time out of the country. Then Jack Ireland called. He wanted Mitchell to come down and take over the hotel. That sounded a whole lot better than spending countless overnights on planes or up and moving to China.
Three or four times a week back then, when Mitchell first moved to town, he’d ride bikes around the neighborhood with his father-in-law. They talked about ideas for what could replace the old Ireland’s Inn – perhaps some five-star resort that would be a headliner on Fort Lauderdale beach.
But Jack Ireland wanted to be sure the development wouldn’t change things. His family would be living here afterward, riding bikes around the neighborhood, and he didn’t want to feel like a stranger.
Mitchell decided to follow a rule he used to hear around his house in Jacksonville as a kid. “My dad told me, ‘You may only withdraw from the bank of life that which you have on deposit.’”
So it was time to make a deposit.
FOUR-HUNDRED-and-seventy-six meetings. That’s how many Mitchell says his family held to tell people about their plans to replace Ireland’s Inn. And the first ones, he says, they didn’t go so well.
Steve Glassman, president of the Broward Trust for Historic Preservation and a member of the city’s planning and zoning board, was at one of those initial meetings, when Mitchell unveiled the original artwork. “There was really very little in that first plan that we liked,” Glassman recalls.
First problem, Glassman says, was the original plans called for demolishing the old inn, with its mid-century curvy lines, evoking an ocean wave. Then there was the fact the building sat on several stories of parking garage, an eyesore out there on the beach.
Glassman fought to keep the original building part of the new project. And he lost. It was deemed not historically significant enough to force the owners to save it.
“I had really fought them on that,” Glassman says. “After that, a lot of people would have really dug in their heels and seen me as the enemy. But Andy was magnanimous. It was just constant dialogue.”
It wasn’t easy to take that initial rejection, recalls Bruce Brosch, the lead architect on the project since the beginning. His initial design looked a lot like just about every other building in South Florida, so he didn’t expect it to be so shot down by Glassman and other neighbors. But from the start, Brosch says the project wasn’t about steamrolling a design.
“Our marching orders were always to do a fancy new building but a fancy new building that would have the ambience and the welcoming nature of the Ireland’s Inn,” says Brosch, a partner at Nichols Brosch Wurst Wolfe & Associates in Miami. “We felt from the start that we must kill them with kindness.”
KNOWING HE NEEDED to rethink things, Mitchell started traveling. He and the Ireland family would visit resorts, crib ideas they liked, note things they didn’t.
One of the financial backers of the project, Argentinian developer Edgardo Defortuna and his wife, Ana Cristina, suggested a project with more drama. So they flew in Uruguayan architect Carlos Ott. He designed the National Bank of Dubai, with its sail-like wall of glass forming a dramatic confluence of glass and metal. He also dreamed up the combination of glass and metal structures that make up the Opéra Bastille in Paris. Mitchell asked Ott to sketch some thoughts on what the project should look like, and he came back with dramatic ideas that were far more creative than the original plan.
Next, Mitchell reached out to the architecture school at Florida Atlantic University in downtown Fort Lauderdale. In 2005, students put together drawings of entirely different developments. Each student did a two-hour presentation on their ideas.
The main takeaway was a new concept for the project where visitors, even people walking by, would get the idea of being on the beach, says Anthony Abbate, associate provost for Broward Campuses and professor at the School of Architecture. The students suggested ditching the above-ground parking garage, meaning the building’s lobby would look out on the sand and ocean beyond.
They walked out of the meeting and Kathy Ireland told Mitchell: “We missed it.” It was time to rethink things.
Brosch worked up a new design. It would have a complicated system of pumps to allow underground parking below sea level. It would feel open, like anybody should just stop on in, as they used to at Ireland’s, where the restaurant was famous for prime rib and pan-fried chicken.
It would also be exorbitantly more expensive. But this kind of compromise is what’s often needed to get projects approved, says Jenni Morejon. She’s currently deputy director of the Downtown Development Authority, but when Mitchell’s project was making its way through approvals, she led the Sustainable Development department for the City of Fort Lauderdale. “They understood that there needed to be trade-offs,” Morejon says of Mitchell’s squad. “Sometimes you see development teams and there’s no room for change. They made a huge financial commitment to compromise.”
The new design might have been more neighborhood friendly; still, Mitchell needed to convince the neighbors. He formed what he called a Blue Ribbon Committee of influential neighborhood residents, many of them initially against the plan. His job was to win them over.
ONE OF THE FIRST neighbors Mitchell called was Gary Kalb. He lives just across the street in a home on the Intracoastal. He was also president of the Dolphin Isles Homeowners Association, representing 130 houses, many with owners reluctant of any new development.
A big part of that reluctance was The Palms. The development just down the street features two 31-story towers with 97 condos in each. To the anti-development crowd, it’s a symbol of how a project can dwarf a neighborhood, adding too much density, too much traffic, and too much shade on the beach.
So, when Mitchell walked in to that first meeting with Kalb and about half of the 130 homeowners, he had a reluctant crowd. “We had probably eight to 10 meetings where Andy came in with charts and graphs and said, ‘This is what we want to do, what do you think?’”
Kalb couldn’t believe Mitchell was asking their opinion. And you can bet they gave it. More than anything, the neighbors wanted beach access. Mitchell answered by adding paths on both sides of the project to give neighbors a way to reach the sand.
Pio Ieraci had the same experience. He’s president of the Galt Mile Community Association, a neighborhood north of the property. Ieraci knew the Ireland family, and so right off, he was optimistic.
“They came to us sincerely asking for our support. We didn’t see this as a developer coming in, making money, and leaving. We knew they’d be around afterward,” Ieraci.
In 2008, Mitchell brought plans to the city for a Mandarin Oriental. Six-hundred people showed up to a City Commission meeting. Twelve-thousand people eventually signed a petition in support. He had signed agreements from every neighborhood group on the beach.
Seven years in, Mitchell had the city’s approval and the neighborhood’s support.
And then the economy tanked. He had to shelve his plans.
TWO YEARS WENT BY before Mitchell started again. This time, the family knew they’d need a financial partner, someone who could go in 50-50 on the costs. Mitchell set up a meeting with Jorge Pérez.
If Mitchell is the patient, magnanimous developer, Pérez has a reputation for being strong-willed and un-bending. When his company, The Related Group, proposed building Fort Lauderdale’s tallest building on Las Olas Boulevard, the neighboring historic Stranahan House brought him to court. Rather than scaling back the plans, Pérez litigated. And won. Icon Las Olas is now on its way to becoming the tallest building in the city.
But Mitchell says he made it clear right off during a meeting with Pérez in 2010 that his family would be making sure the final project would be something neighbors would be happy to see coming in. “We have to live in this town after all this is done,” Mitchell recalls telling the developer. “We have to make sure people love what’s coming.”
Carlos Rosso, vice president of The Related Group, says the company has a stance that density is good for a city, something that doesn’t always make neighbors happy. “We are not afraid to say we’re urban optimists. Vertical is the way of the future in South Florida,” Rosso says. With Mitchell as a partner, they had someone who could sell that vision. “Andy Mitchell made sure everyone had a chance to speak.”
Pérez suggested they could build something unique, something modeled after a project in California called Auberge du Soleil, the “Inn of the Sun.” Unfamiliar with the concept, the Ireland family hopped on a plane to visit the Auberge in Napa Valley, a hilltop resort and spa.
Immediately they started envisioning a similar property in Fort Lauderdale. It would be a condo, not a hotel, but with a spa, restaurant and other amenities open to the public. They imagined selling it for $1,200-per-square-foot, even though, Mitchell says, everyone said Fort Lauderdale couldn’t support anything over $1,000 a square foot. If they could command those prices, it would become the most expensive residential building in town.
The boat show in 2014 served as the venue to unveil the Auberge Fort Lauderdale plans. Mitchell recalls feeling like a proud father. He showed off a vision that had taken more than a decade, encapsulating ideas from all 476 meetings.
Brosch’s final design included the underground parking, so that the open lobby showed off the ocean to anyone walking by, and also easy access in the lobby to the spa and restaurants, giving pedestrians a welcoming feel. The twin-building design also featured something novel: the north tower would feature a swooping staircase-looking design, where the building got smaller from bottom to top, getting farther from the ocean at the penthouse. The south building would continue that shape, albeit less dramatically. The architectural idea was to imagine the crashing waves at the edge of the property continuing into the shape of the buildings. But it was also something well thought out: As neighbors requested, the shape would limit the project’s shadow on the beach.
“We did, I can’t tell you how many, shadow studies. We went out to that property every time of the day, at every time of the year,” Brosch says. “What we did in the end greatly limits the shadow on the beach.”
The design was neighborhood-friendly, but it was also costly. It meant 250,000 less square feet, down to 400,000 square feet. Even at the lower $1,000-per-square-foot estimate, that could cost Mitchell and The Related Group tens of millions.
Joe Amorosino wasn’t surprised to see that the design took on so many of the suggestions from neighbors. At the time, he was president of the Lauderdale Beach Homeowners Association, representing a neighborhood just north of the property. Mostly single-family houses, it was the neighborhood that would be most affected by the project.
“They paid attention to every single detail. They listened to everyone,” Amorosino says. Mostly that was because of Mitchell, he adds. “His personality fit the project: patient, a good listener, willing to keep going back to the drawing board. How would you not like someone like that?”
As of this writing, the north tower was 95 percent sold. The second tower was moving fast, about 40 percent sold. Mitchell’s prediction of $1,200-per-square-foot has held true, with condos, averaging at 2,500 square feet, running from $1.5 to over $9 million.
Lillian Ireland, Kathy’s grandmother, died in 2008, before she could see the final design. Jack Ireland celebrated his 90th birthday this fall. Mitchell will be one of the residents when it opens next year, steps away from where it all started for him on spring break in 1971. He says the whole thing is happening, while other developments are rejected, because he listened.
“I went to all 476 meetings. No one spoke for me. I was at every one of them,” he says. “And I’ll be there the day the doors open. You’d better believe it.”