Matthew Schnur

How Fort Lauderdale is pioneering a new type of downtown for the post-pandemic era

With its transformation into a central connectivity district, Downtown Fort Lauderdale offers a template for other cities.

The earliest stages of the pandemic marked a drastic shift in views on the future of downtown areas across the US. A dystopian vision featuring empty downtowns and rows of shuttered businesses driving a flight of residents from city centres to the suburbs. A bullish vision for the future, according to urbanist Richard Florida, is the evolution of downtowns from central business districts to “central connectivity districts”. One model for how cities can evolve into this new type of district is Downtown Fort Lauderdale. 

Fort Lauderdale
The creation of Tunnel Top Plaza will connect Las Olas Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale’s most iconic dining and retail street, to the city’s most intense mixed-use office and residential hub. (Photo courtesy of the Fort Lauderdale DDA/Sublime Imagery)

Downtown Fort Lauderdale, located at the centre of the South Florida region between Miami and West Palm Beach, is a leading example of this model of the post-pandemic city. Three key pillars are driving Downtown Fort Lauderdale’s evolution from a central business district to a “central connectivity district”: prioritising the development of thousands of new downtown residential units; successfully blending the line between living and working; and investing in public spaces. These investments are significantly enhancing the walkability and connectivity of a compact urban core.

Growing Downtown Fort Lauderdale’s residential density

The framework for Downtown Fort Lauderdale’s evolution into a central connectivity district was set in motion well before the pandemic. Downtown Fort Lauderdale has experienced an 80% increase in population since 2010 and now has over 24,000 residents living in a two-square-mile area according to FTL DDA. This explosive growth put Fort Lauderdale on the map for the over 6,000 new residents that moved downtown in the two years since the start of the pandemic. Given the recent perception across the US that residents are leaving cities for the suburbs, Downtown Fort Lauderdale’s growth during the pandemic showcases the appeal of a new type of city. 

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Historically a major employment centre, Fort Lauderdale made it a priority to grow its residential density over the past decade. The city adopted policies to encourage residential development and nurture a growing urban core. This in turn has started to fill in the existing street network with new streetscapes, better connecting downtown neighbourhoods. Over 80% of the approximately 10,000 units in Downtown Fort Lauderdale were built since 2010. As a result, 55% of all real estate square footage in the area is residential (FTL DDA), a rate 20 points higher than most downtown areas across the country.

The level of residential density in Downtown Fort Lauderdale has curated a vibrant community that sustained local businesses during the pandemic while many downtowns struggled due to a lack of activity from office workers. The balanced share of residential and commercial use in Downtown Fort Lauderdale builds the foundation for a thriving downtown of the future. 

Blending living and working in downtown Fort Lauderdale

The pandemic shifted the way that people think about and want to work, putting Downtown Fort Lauderdale in a solid position to thrive in this new future of work. Central connectivity districts like Downtown Fort Lauderdale provide high-quality options for in-person, hybrid and remote work. As a result, Downtown Fort Lauderdale is seeing a high rate of employees returning in person due to a flight to quality, new world-class spaces. About 60% of Downtown Fort Lauderdale office workers are back in the office compared with pre-pandemic levels, a rate 15 points higher than the Kastle Systems national average.

Fort Lauderdale performs well on this metric because the newest office buildings have adopted the best qualities pioneered by co-working labs: state-of-the-art indoor and outdoor amenity spaces. The Main Las Olas, the newest Class-A office building in Downtown Fort Lauderdale, opened during the height of the pandemic and is nearly 100% leased. Older buildings are now striving to upgrade their amenities to compete with the newest Class-A spaces to remain viable and attractive to new tenants. 

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Downtown Fort Lauderdale
The development of nearly 10,000 residential units since 2010 has created a vibrant urban core that is blending the line between living and working. Increasing levels of density have sustained businesses throughout the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of the Fort Lauderdale DDA/Sublime Imagery)

Downtown Fort Lauderdale was an early adopter of remote work before the pandemic made it more typical. As a result, new residential developments that have come online over the past five years have created world-class work environments with shared amenities and a sense of community that rival any office or co-working lab. In 2019, about 17% of Downtown Fort Lauderdale residents worked from home compared with the national average of 6%

Traditional office buildings and co-working labs are now competing with the unique amenities in these residential spaces. This healthy competition further blends the line between living and working, expanding the number of flexible and convenient opportunities available for workers looking to call Downtown Fort Lauderdale home. 

Investing in public space

The final piece of the puzzle is the major investments being made to expand and improve the downtown public space network. Two notable projects, the creation of Tunnel Top Plaza and the reimagined Huizenga Park, mark over $25m of improvements to downtown public spaces. Built over traffic lanes that flow in and out of the Henry E. Kinney Tunnel on US Route 1, Tunnel Top Plaza creates a new 117ft-long pedestrian plaza with connections to the Riverwalk and New River. This plaza is a major step forward in connecting Downtown Fort Lauderdale’s civic spaces with best-in-class office, residential and retail amenities in the heart of Las Olas Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale’s most iconic street.

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The reimagining of Huizenga Park celebrates Downtown Fort Lauderdale’s evolution. This signature riverfront park was built more than 25 years ago at a time when Downtown Fort Lauderdale was an employment centre with few residents. Since its inception, the park has traditionally been used for large events to bring foot traffic downtown. The new vision for the park creates a series of unique outdoor rooms that can be enjoyed every day of the year by residents, employees and visitors alike seeking an oasis from the bustle of the city.

Huizenga Park will be a destination for families in search of a fun space to play, for employees enjoying a lunch break in the park, for visitors to snap a selfie in front of the iconic fountain and for remote workers in search of a comfortable outdoor space to hop on a virtual meeting. In creating public spaces like Tunnel Top and Huizenga Park, cities like Downtown Fort Lauderdale are making bold statements that the quality of place is central to the future of downtowns. 

Building a new type of downtown

Cities that buy into the emerging consensus of transitioning their downtown areas from central business districts to “central connectivity districts” will be well positioned to blossom over the next decade. While this trend is well under way in cities like Fort Lauderdale, it is clear the pandemic has created a new sense of urgency for more of these districts to emerge. By prioritising the development of new downtown residential units, blending the line between living and working and investing in public spaces, cities could enjoy the recent success experienced by Fort Lauderdale well into the future.

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