Lauderdale officials want to tear down abandoned condo buildings along river

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Brittany Wallman

Published April 5, 2010

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Waterfront buildings with condos that just five years ago were outfitted with granite countertops and quickly snapped up by dozens of investors stand vacant today, abandoned, and in ruins.

Hunks of countertops are scattered about. Not a window or door remains.

Every shred of metal was a target for looters. The walls are gaping where opportunists ripped in for copper piping.

"It looks like Beirut out there,'' city building official Val Bohlander told elected officials.

The only resident is a homeless man living in the stairwell.

A couch, clothes hangers, cans of food and a 4-foot Winnie the Pooh are among the remnants of the community that called this pocket along the north fork of the New River home.

Once they left, criminals loved the place so secluded, and empty, and open.

Fort Lauderdale officials plan to make a dire move this summer, to demolish all five buildings. The case will be taken to the city's Unsafe Structures Board, which could order the the buildings torn down.

Tucked in a corner of riverfront land on a dead-end road, behind a funeral home, New River Condos could be a public monument to the foreclosure crisis. So many different owners, so many foreclosures, so many banks.

And no one cares enough to save it. Just about everyone walked away, city officials said.

If it were still an apartment complex, with one owner, rescuing it would be easier.

But the four-decade-old complex was renovated in 2005 and converted the next year from rental to ownership. Investors were elated to find waterfront condos for $150,000 or less.

Joseph and Craig Lewis, brothers who work for Vacant Property Security, board up the New River Condominium with steel doors. For the past six months, the city of Fort Lauderdale has been trying to secure the New River Condominiums at 500 NW 24 Ave. because it's been a magnet for crime. 

All told, 53 purchasers bought the 58 riverfront condos on Northwest 24th Avenue, off Sistrunk Boulevard in northwest Fort Lauderdale.

City officials said the "overwhelming majority'' are in foreclosure; most owners were investors, they said.

"When the market took a dive, it was one of those things that there was no tie to it other than a financial investment,'' City Commissioner Bobby DuBose said.

There has been no running water there in a year.

The city has been after the condo association in code enforcement court for twice that long.

The condo association is defunct now, the city attorney said, so the city has to send violation notices to individual owners.

Last month, the city paid to cover the gaping windows and doors with inpenetrable metal shutters, leasing them for $27,653 for three months. The city already spent $26,697 clearing out garbage, mowing and twice boarding the condos with plywood. Both times, the boards were ripped off.

"We have to take it out of the danger zone, if you will,'' Bohlander told commissioners. "We have to secure that building. It's frightening to ride back in there.''

Mayor Jack Seiler asked whether the city could save money by fencing the property instead.

"We tried that,'' Bohlander replied. The fence was "mowed down'' by vandals, she said.

Shawn Oliver, 38, who was living in the stairwell this month, said the place is so dark and deserted at night that he can't persuade other homeless people to stay there with him.

If the land is sold, the city will try to get its money back, plus the estimated $150,000 cost for demolition.

In the coming three months, the city will send notices to the owners, giving them opportunities to appear at public hearings.

However, tearing down the buildings appears to be the best possible ending, Bohlander told city elected officials.

Neighborhoods across Broward County have been crippled by foreclosures. Broward had the state's third-highest foreclosure rate in February.

Also foreboding: A California research firm reported in March that more than half the residential mortgage holders in Broward County owe more than their property is worth.

At the complex earlier this month, Joseph and Craig Lewis, 21- and 23-year-old brothers working for Vacant Property Security Inc. of Miami, worked for two weeks putting up the metal shutters.

The parking lot was littered: a bus schedule, sofa cushion and extra-large black T-shirt, a black velour jacket, for example. Inside one condo, a silver, artificial Christmas tree was knocked over. The unit had been gutted.

A slow but steady flow of traffic appeared on the dead-end road: a sheriff's deputy, and a potential investor who had flown in from New Jersey, among them.

The deputy was checking to see who was at the complex. The potential investor had heard the complex was condemned and city-owned, and wanted to buy it. But he left for the Elbo Room when he found out there were scores of owners.

With the ownership such a mess, he said, it's not worth trying to save.

Condo Complex Abandoned After Foreclosures Hit