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Long-Delayed Bjarke Ingels Project Planned For Fort Lauderdale Is Still On The Table

The name Bjarke Ingels inspires "oohs and "aahs"; the Danish “starchitect” has designed amazing projects all over the world.

But in Fort Lauderdale in 2013, citizens fought one of his designs, partly because the proposed 856-unit, three-tower project would change the character of a quiet neighborhood, and partly because it would require moving a 100-year-old tree that had been protected by law.

A rendering of Bjarke Ingels Group's design for Marina Lofts in Fort Lauderdale

Ultimately, the Fort Lauderdale City Commission approved the project, but five years later, it still hasn’t broken ground. Nevertheless, its developer told Bisnow that the project is still on the table. 

"We’re talking to potential [joint venture] and equity partners and hope to make a major announcement by year’s end,” Asi Cymbal said.

In 1987, the city commission passed a resolution declaring that a nearly century-old, 76-foot-tall African rain tree — scientific name Samnea saman — was historically significant. It had even been named a “Florida Champion” by the state’s Division of Forestry. The approved protection meant the tree couldn't be moved or damaged without commission approval.

In 2011, an entity controlled by Cymbal bought the property on which it sits, stringing together several tree-lined parcels along Fort Lauderdale's New River that are also home to a marina and restaurant.

Cymbal had begun his career working for controversial New York developer Shaya Boymelgreen on Manhattan projects, including Downtown by Philippe Starck. He later made his name in Miami by flipping property in the Design District for a $9M profit. He also helped develop properties in Midtown, and when tenants were scarce after the housing crash, he brought in operators to run a trendy restaurant, Gigi, and nightclub, Bardot. 

Cymbal bought the 6-acre Marina Lofts site, which had once appraised for $31M, out of bankruptcy for $11.2M. When he announced plans for the Ingels-designed project, neighborhood activists organized to fight it.

Cymbal promised to hire the region’s foremost tree expert to move the rain tree and create a park around it. He said rents would be affordable, about $1,100 a month. The commission approved the project in August 2013.

Since then, Cymbal's team has promoted Marina Lofts on social media. In 2014, Cymbal tweeted, "We're still on track: Step 1: Relocate African Rain Tree to its new home-6-9 months." He linked to an article in Mortgage Observer that reported he had hired DTZ to seek construction financing. Even last year, the project's Facebook page was active. But ground never broke. 

“We’ve been waiting for the Fort Lauderdale market to mature," Cymbal told Bisnow in a phone interview last week. "When we acquired [the site] out of bankruptcy in the height of the Great Recession, it was an amazing investment.”

But rents five years ago, when the project was approved, were not high enough to justify construction, he said. Fort Lauderdale, like most of South Florida, has experienced a building boom since, and the average rent is now $1,858.

“With development advancing, now is the time to start developing and building," Cymbal said.

He declined to name potential partners except to say that they are “significant players in the multifamily and hospitality sector, as well as some condo players.”

In the intervening years, Ingels was hired to design two 20-story towers in Coconut Grove called the Grove at Grand Bay. They were built and the condos sold out. Miami Marlins owner Derek Jeter recently moved to the 19th floor.

Several luxury projects have begun to take shape near Cymbal's property along the New River. Property Markets Group and Dev Motwani's Merrimac Ventures have knocked down a poorly performing outdoor mall, Riverfront, and are building 1,200 units in two towers — 46 and 42 stories, respectively — with retail. Silverback Development has partnered with Bizzi & Partners Development to build the 35-story New River Central, expected to break ground in Q4. The proposed Alexan-Tarpon River, with plans for 181 units in 22 stories, is set for a public hearing in May. 

Motwani and Related Group's Patrick Campbell each told Bisnow recently that they had considered Cymbal’s site for their own projects, but ultimately passed it over because it is on the harder-to access south side of the river, so they opted instead for beachfront or downtown sites.

The Bjarke Ingels-designed Grove at Grand Bay in Miami's Coconut Grove neighborhood

Cymbal noted that land near his site on the edge of downtown recently traded for $12M an acre, so he's confident that the area could draw high rents — even more so on the water. Whether buyers are attracted to the Ingels name or not, Cymbal said, "high-quality design always matters." 

"We're finishing a market study," he said. "We've seen amazing rents at [nearby luxury project] Amaray Las Olas and Icon Las Olas. We're encouraged by the rent growth in Fort Lauderdale." 

Cymbal said that the Bjarke Ingels design is still the intended plan, “but we’re exploring tweaking it so that it better matches the development in downtown and where we are in that cycle. We’re in a heavy multifamily cycle. That seems to be the product type that’s most popular — that financing is easiest to obtain. We’re tweaking it to accommodate that.”

He declined to get into specifics about the rain tree; his tree expert, Bob Brennan died in 2016.

“We certainly will have the rain tree park," he said. "We are without question committed to the rain tree.”

Fort Lauderdale spokesperson Chaz Adams told Bisnow Marina Lofts had received several permit extensions and that Cymbal has until June 4, 2019, to apply for a building permit and until Dec. 4, 2019, to obtain one.

As for Cymbal's other projects, Gigi and Bardot both closed, but the team from popular Wynwood restaurant Beaker & Gray will soon open a diner called Mason inside the space at 3470 North Miami Ave. Cymbal settled a legal dispute over a contentious project, Design41, and sold out of the deal. 

“We have sites in Wynwood and Allapattah that we’re looking to acquire, and more in downtown Fort Lauderdale," he said. "For us, it’s really about the buy and the home-run deal. We focus on home-run deals. We’re not in development to generate development fees. We're in it to generate significant wealth for our partners. So we’re extra picky on deals we take.” 

He said his investors started with friends and family, but now include a wide array of more significant partners. Cymbal said it isn't too late to find good projects in Fort Lauderdale.

"Generally speaking, prices are on the higher side, but there might be opportunity on deals and ownership structure, what we can bring to [the] table as a buyer or JV partner, he said. "We do typically look at hundreds of deals before we acquire one — it’s a long and selective process."

"We believe strongly in Fort Lauderdale," he added. "Our intent is to be a long-term landlord there."