Tuesday, March 10, 2015
Losing Fort Lauderdale
Poolside view, Alhambra Beach Resort
In a recent post I wrote a bit about our first trip to Ft. Lauderdale 10 years ago. For that first trip, as I usually do, I made arrangements at the last possible minute. We were lucky enough to book a single night at a motel just a block from the beach that had been recommended by an online friend. We liked it immensely, and we've been staying at the Alhambra Beach Resort ever since. In fact, the last few years we've been making our reservations there a year in advance!
The motel is on Alhambra Street, a short, quiet street running east-west between N. Birch Road along the Intracoastal Waterway and Route A1A along the beach. It's a small, unassuming (and given its location, surprisingly inexpensive) motel, two stories high and with only a dozen units, with a peaceful courtyard gorgeously landscaped with palms around a small swimming pool. The current owners and their staff have maintained the property--and more importantly, treated their guests--so well that it gets stellar ratings on all the online sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor and last year won TripAdvisor's Travelers' Choice Exceptional Service award.
Alhambra Street (yellow building is the Alhambra Beach Resort)
On that first visit 10 years ago, we were there just for the day but arrived early enough to spend some time on the beach. A new high-rise was nearing completion nearby, and in the late afternoon January sun its shadow was already shading out a good portion of the beach. This building is now the luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel, one of the largest and tallest buildings along Ft. Lauderdale Beach and visible from blocks away (including from the Alhambra's courtyard).
Since that first trip, we've gotten to know Ft. Lauderdale and the surrounding area a bit better. Ft. Lauderdale is a small city of approximately 170,000 on the Atlantic coast of southern Florida, just north of Miami. The climate is warm year-round, with winter temperatures rarely falling into the 40's (F). This is a city that has enthusiastically embraced its nearly tropical climate: palms, including numerous coconut palms, dominate the landscape, punctuated here and there by tall specimens of Araucaria columnaris.
Coconut palms at sunset, Ft. Lauderdale Beach
Palms (Sabal palmetto) and Bouganvillea, Las Olas Boulevard
Tourism is a major part of the economy, and Ft. Lauderdale has gained popularity as a beach town that's smaller, quieter, and most of all cheaper than Miami Beach to the south. It gained a reputation as a college break party town in the 1980's, but the city has strongly discouraged both this reputation and the behavior that led to it. Dissected by the Intracoastal Waterway, several rivers, and dozens if not hundreds of canals, Ft. Lauderdale styles itself as the "Venice of America". It's a major cruise ship port, with the ships docking in the Intracoastal Waterway as passengers board and disembark.
Canal along Las Olas Boulevard
Cruise ship docked in Intracoastal Waterway
Why do we like Ft. Lauderdale so much? First and foremost, its sunny, warm winters are a welcome escape from our chilly, dreary Washington, DC winters! It's a short flight from DC and the nearby Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport makes it easy to get to. It's still fairly affordable, but with plenty of shops and good restaurants. It's an easy drive to Miami and Miami Beach, and a slightly longer drive across the state to Naples, where my parents spent their winters before my father's stroke. Ft. Lauderdale, and especially neighboring Wilton Manors, have large gay communities and are very gay-friendly. For plant geeks like me, there are botanical gardens, nurseries, parks, and historic homes like the Bonnet House with their gardens. Boats are everywhere, and drawbridges interrupt several of the major roads. There are some beautiful and very, very expensive homes along the many waterways, most with their own private docks, and the Jungle Queen provides a voyeuristic glimpse at some of these otherwise inaccessible homes.
Drawbridge opens for the Jungle Queen (yeah, I messed up the angle of the shot!)
Bonnet House courtyard (2009)
We try to visit someplace new every time we vacation there, and this time we toured the new Stranahan Botanical Garden, tucked downtown in Stranahan Park surrounding the Ft. Lauderdale Woman's Club building (see A Tidewater Gardener's excellent and thought-provoking blog post, Stranahan Botanical Garden - A Troubled Paradise).
Oxmoxylon lineare (Araliaceae), Stranahan Botanical Garden
Woman's Club building, Stranahan Park
Like any city, Ft. Lauderdale has changed over time and we've seen many changes just in the 10 years we've been going there. And like any city, Ft. Lauderdale has had its economic ups and downs, with the recession years of 2008 and 2009 looking particularly grim with many shops on the main business strips of Las Olas Boulevard and Wilton Drive going out of business or already empty. But construction in Ft. Lauderdale seems to be making up for lost time since then, with empty lots being filled in and older properties being replaced by modern buildings. On our latest trip in particular, it seemed that new buildings were under construction all over Ft. Lauderdale. One long-undeveloped lot along Las Olas Boulevard has finally been cleared and a very long drill was... well, I'm not sure what it was doing, except drilling something very, very deeply. The city's skyline is looking increasingly like that of Miami, with more and more modern high rises popping up in the city and along the beach. This is especially evident as one approaches by air, with highrises looking out over the ocean all along the beach.
Construction cranes in downtown Ft. Lauderdale
New building under construction, visible from Las Olas Boulevard
Ft. Lauderdale, approach by air (click here to see full size)
In the midst of all these new buildings there are still bits of old Ft. Lauderdale to be found, and the Alhambra Beach Resort is one of them. Originally built in 1938 as an apartment building and only becoming a motel in the late 1970's, the Alhambra was purchased by the current owners in 2004. (For more about its history, see Julia Galan's The Alhambra Beach Resort: A Home Away From Home.) Located on a quiet street with several smaller, older buildings, this exemplifies "old" Ft. Lauderdale for us. With small private homes on either side, and--incredibly--a long-empty lot across the street, the Alhambra seems to occupy its own little time warp just a 5 minute walk from the beachside shops and restaurants, but with newer buildings, including several high-rises, pressing ever closer.
Alhambra Street as seen from the other side
At the end of the block towards the ocean is Casablanca Café, a restaurant that has become one of our favorite go-to eateries for its food and service as much as for its convenient location and outdoor seating with a fabulous beach view. It's becoming rarer and rarer to find places like this anywhere near the beach, and even here a tall building looms behind it. Buildings like the Alhambra, the Woman's Club building (built 1917), Casablanca (built 1920's), and Bonnet House (built 1920), give a glimpse into the past, of a Ft. Lauderdale that has been lost--and is still being lost--bit by bit.
Casablanca Café, viewed from another angle
Ritz-Carlton hotel, seen from Alhambra courtyard
The Ritz-Carlton is visible from the Alhambra's courtyard, but I just checked its prices and the rooms start at about $600 per night. Yikes! Is this the future of Ft. Lauderdale? As we walked by the Ritz-Carlton on our latest trip, I wondered out loud what it had replaced, and if anybody missed it. There are still a few smaller resorts near the beach, but they're being gobbled up by developers one by one. As the demand for the land, and its value, continue to increase, how long can a small resort like the Alhambra survive? However good they are, however popular they are, however successful they are as businesses, these smaller places are under incredible pressure from developers who are anxious to bulldoze them and put up something "bigger and better"... meaning more lucrative. The alternative to selling is being sandwiched between high-rises. The way things are going, the days may be numbered for these lovely little oases of old Ft. Lauderdale, and if our favorite motel likewise falls to "development", that will be a crying shame and I'm not sure I could bear to come back.
Saying good-bye to owner Matt on our last day
I can't help but compare Ft. Lauderdale to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Rehoboth Beach is one of our other vacation spots that we've also seen change considerably in the years we've been going there. Small, older homes with large, generous yards are being torn down to build vacation homes or rental properties to the maximum size that zoning will allow, with what little yard remains being paved for parking. Most of the remaining houses anywhere near the beach now command prices that only a developer intent on tearing it down and building something bigger could afford. Resort towns like Ft. Lauderdale and Rehoboth Beach are victims of their own success, with the influx of tourists driving a demand for commercial property. It's all about the money and the bottom line is all about how much money can possibly be made. As a tourist, one of the very people helping to create this situation, am I allowed to lament it?
Sunset over the Intracoastal Waterway