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

December 05, 1993|By Beth Dunlop | Beth Dunlop,Knight-Ridder News Service

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.

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