South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL) - March 19, 2005


Dum dum dah dum.

That's the sound of a funeral march. Could it be playing for the political careers of Fort Lauderdale Commissioners CindiHutchinson , Christine Teel and Dean Trantalis after what some call an astounding flip-flop?

The three commissioners, who got elected as slow-growth candidates, now want a lot more development -- 13,000 new residential units in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

"It's apparent that this city suffers from a serious lack of leadership," charges Dan Lewis, a campaign operative who lives in Fort Lauderdale.

A take-no-prisoners political heavyweight strategist, Lewis has stayed away from helping any challengers in next year's city races. That might not be the case in the future. Lewis says he hopes new leaders show up to run against the incumbents. And Lewis isn't alone in those sentiments.

If I were Hutchinson , Teel and Trantalis, I would be worried. Potential challengers now have a big issue to work with.

The 13,000 new housing units the three commissioners backed is approximately equal to all the apartments and houses in Dania Beach, according to the U.S. census. One estimate figures that at 300 condominiums per building, that would amount to 43 new high-rises downtown.

Fort Lauderdale's planners estimated raising the units would more than double the traffic on the roads during rush hour. It would tax water, electricity, police and fire services.

Luckily, the County Commission stepped in this week and stopped Fort Lauderdale's headlong rush to overcrowding. Instead of 13,000 units, the County Commission allowed 3,000, which is still a lot in a downtown already choking on traffic.

County Commissioner John Rodstrom, who represents Fort Lauderdale, convinced his fellow county commissioners this week to step in and block Fort Lauderdale's plans. He describes himself as "stunned" that Hutchinson , Teel and Trantalis would back the explosion of growth.

"It's absolutely amazing. I can't believe it," Rodstrom says.

The push for 13,000 units comes on top of a 24 percent property tax increase. That makes the three flip floppers even more politically vulnerable, Rodstrom says.

He says Hutchinson is in more trouble than the other two because her district includes areas of downtown that would be affected by the new high rises.

Hutchinson has definitely changed her tune since 2000, when she won office. A campaign flier that year stated: " Cindi will work to protect our historic resources, control traffic and preserve the quality of life of our residents... and bring reason to decisions on density and building limits."

She now says, "I never said I was against development."

Hutchinson says she voted for the new units to contain all the new growth downtown and spare the rest of Fort Lauderdale.

"I want the critical mass in one area, not spread out all over the city," she says.

Trantalis said at a September commission meeting that the 13,000 new units would take many years to build and that the traffic and other problems would be solved by then. Teel had no comment.

The explanations won't help politically, Rodstrom says.

"Instead of pushing ahead, they should have had ways to cope with the growth in place first," he says.

The extra traffic may be the biggest problem. The study counted on proposed rapid transit taking cars off the road. It mentioned a people mover from the airport, a train down West Broward Boulevard and another on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks.

These rapid-transit projects are no more than a planner's fantasy. Where will the billions of dollars come from to pay for them?

There is little prospect that deficit-plagued Washington or tight-fisted Tallahassee will pay. Broward voters, most who live far from Fort Lauderdale, are not going to tax themselves to solve traffic problems in a downtown they seldom visit.

"The city had no plans to deal with the traffic other than pipe dreams," Rodstrom says.

Hutchinson pledges that the city will be back at the County Commission in the future, asking for the 10,000 housing units that were rejected this week. She may be right. The city may come back.

But will voters send Hutchinson , Teel and Trantalis back to city hall when their terms expire in March 2006?