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Leave the lovely Las Olas median alone | Editorial

Leave the lovely Las Olas median alone | Editorial

The most fiercely debated patch of real estate in Broward County is only about 10 feet wide, but it’s instantly recognizable to everyone.

It’s the tree-shrouded median along Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, and it’s so familiar because so many people love it just as it is. For that reason, it should stay that way — permanently.

For eight years or more, debate has raged over the future of this signature street of high-end retail shops, restaurants, bars, outdoor cafes and the classic Riverside Hotel. It’s the gateway that connects downtown Fort Lauderdale to the city’s famous beach.

A proposed redesign calls for eliminating the median, which would free up precious space on the crowded boulevard to widen the sidewalks, which would be shaded by newly planted trees.

On-street parking, a highly controversial change to Las Olas made about 15 years ago at the request of merchants, would remain, but could be reduced to the south (eastbound) side only.

‘Remove the median’

The city’s 2021 Las Olas Mobility study says in part: “The Black Olive trees, in addition to being a non-native species that create issues for the maintenance of the road, are also planted in a manner as to shade cars, not people. Redesigning this area of the corridor to remove the median and provide shade trees on both sides of the street will create a better walking experience to encourage foot traffic beneficial for local businesses.”

Central to the debate is the median and those 16 large black olive trees. If the median is removed, the trees would disappear, and the possibility of that has infuriated residents passionate about preserving the median.

Joe Cavaretta/Sun Sentinel
Residents held a “Save the Trees” rally on Las Olas Boulevard on April 21.

Residents recently held a “Save the Trees” rally, and Mayor Dean Trantalis is calling for a step-by-step approach to a makeover and keeping the median and the trees intact.

“We have to make changes in baby steps,” Trantalis told the Sun Sentinel. “We can’t lurch into changing Las Olas from what people have enjoyed all these years.”

People vs. property owners

Long-time property owners have made substantial financial investments in Las Olas and played a leading role in shaping the proposed redesign. The mobility study emphasizes the need for wider sidewalks with more shade trees, to provide a welcome canopy for pedestrians.

But people in Fort Lauderdale have a deep emotional attachment to a street that is a civic treasure and central to the city’s identity.

In a place experiencing such breathtaking change — some good, some definitely not so good — the traditional look of Las Olas is a touchstone, something that gives a warm feeling of history and tradition.

The median traditionally comes alive with outdoor lighting during popular seasonal events such as the Las Olas Art Fair and Christmas on Las Olas.

There are other factors to consider, too: Removing the median raises traffic safety issues, and keeping the westbound lanes of Las Olas open is critical to an orderly evacuation of the beachfront in a hurricane.

All over South Florida, shade and greenery are in such short supply that even the talk of cutting down more trees amounts to fighting words — even if, as in this case, it includes promises of planting even more trees in their place.

A 1971 Fort Lauderdale News article on Las Olas Boulevard’s prize-winning trees.

It’s a campaign issue

City Commissioner Warren Sturman, who like his colleagues faces re-election in November, will fight to save the median and the trees.

“I am not going to let the median go,” Sturman said.

But Commissioner John Herbst said he respects the wishes of property owners who have so much at stake financially, and he wants the city to make a final decision.

“We have literally beat this damn thing to death,” Herbst told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board.

They will debate it again Tuesday, as they discuss a $3.5 million contract for one stage of the redesign. The project is split in two parts, with a dividing line of Southeast 17th Avenue, roughly where the retail district ends.

We encourage the city to consider two other ideas.

One is eliminating all traffic and creating a pedestrian promenade along a three-block section of Las Olas, from Southeast Sixth Avenue to Southeast Ninth Avenue, on weekends only.

The other is asking people their preference in a non-binding straw poll in the November general election: Keep the median or do the makeover?

The good news is, those trees aren’t going anywhere soon, and one reason is money.

The latest estimated cost of the makeover is $167 million. As a city agenda item notes: “Currently, there is no construction funding in place to advance this project from design to construction.”

That’s one more reason to save the median — and leave Las Olas alone.

The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Opinion Editor Steve Bousquet, Deputy Opinion Editor Dan Sweeney, editorial writer Martin Dyckman and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Editorials are the opinion of the Board and written by one of its members or a designee. To contact us, email at letters@sun-sentinel.com.


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