Special to South Florida Times
FORT LAUDERDALE —Motorists traveling through Sistrunk Boulevard, the heart of Fort Lauderdale’s black community, are apt to find delays as the historic corridor undergoes a long-awaited renovation.
The move comes after years of debate between Fort Lauderdale and Broward County. It began when the city requested transfer of the county-owned road in hopes of revitalizing the black community. While the city plan restored the street to its original two-lane design, county commissioners argued that it should remain a four-lane throughway for downtown Fort Lauderdale commuters, thereby preventing an influx of traffic onto the side streets.
And as the dispute continued, residents wondered whether the project would come to fruition and, if so, when. It took several public meetings and a threat by U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, to pull federal financing before the two governments reached a compromise.
“This struggle is not about turning Sistrunk into Las Olas Boulevard,” Hastings wrote in a letter in the Sun-Sentinel in 2006. “Instead, it is about freeing the Corridor from the neglect of the past, and giving its residents hope for the future.”
The NE/NW 6th Street Streetscape Enhancement project, as it is called, will extend from Northwest 24th Avenue – the city limits – to Federal Highway.
The section of the road from Andrews Avenue to Ninth Street will be four lanes; Ninth to 19th avenues, three lanes; 19th to 24th avenues, four lanes and Federal Highway to Andrews, two lanes.
It will include on-street parking except during rush hours, upgraded infrastructure, buried utility lines, wider sidewalks, landscaped medians, decorative street lights and new bus shelters.
“It struck a balance to where people would still be able to come downtown without being at the mercy of Broward Boulevard which is pretty tied up during the morning rush hour,” County Commissioner John E. Rodstrom, District 7, said in an interview. “I don’t know if everybody is completely happy but the fact that it’s three lanes means there will be a reduction in traffic, which, the theory was, that the businesses would benefit as the traffic would move more slowly through the neighborhood.”
The city eventually hired a construction company, Central Florida Equipment, and hosted a ground-breaking ceremony on Jan. 12. Though the work started three years after the compromise was reached, the timing could not have been better for the city, which is celebrating its centennial anniversary.
“When we came into office, we sat down with the county commission and had some discussions,” City Commissioner Bobby DuBose of District 3 said in an interview. “One of the things on the top of our list was the Sistrunk Streetscape project. There were a lot of things that needed to be done but, once we did that, things started to move better. It’s been a while, so we’re excited, we’re anxious. However, one thing we’ve learned in waiting on this project is patience.”
The city is covering most of the $15 million price tag, with its Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) pitching in almost $10 million. The county is giving $800,000; water and sewage funds equal $1.2 million; and grants from the state and federal will provide another $3.7 million. The project is expected to be completed within 16 months.
Sistrunk Boulevard, named after Broward’s first black physician, Dr. James Franklin Sistrunk, was a bustling commercial district until the 1960s. The area boasted black-owned businesses that were vital to the then segregated community: drug stores, a grocery store, gas stations, dry cleaners, nightclubs and a movie theater.
Upon integration, the black middle class, who owned businesses on Sistrunk, began to move west, leaving storefronts vacant. City and county administrations did little to invest in the area except turn the street into a main route for motorists.
“Sistrunk is more that just the physical make-up,” DuBose, a Fort Lauderdale native, said. “There’s a sense of pride, a rich tradition, along with deep family roots. We made a commitment to pay attention to the Northwest. In the past, there’s been neglect and, when you neglect an area, the infrastructure goes down.”
City officials hope to restore Sistrunk Boulevard to its former glory. The city owns some of the property along the street and is welcoming the opportunity to work with developers and entrepreneurs. Recently, several new businesses have opened on the street, including the city’s CRA office, the Midtown Commerce Center and the Chris Smith Plaza which houses the office of state Sen. Christopher “Chris” Smith, D-District 29, a bail bond company and barber shop.
The city’s broader plan includes opening a grocery store on Northwest Seventh Avenue and the city’s Building Department.
“This is a city initiative,” said CRA director Alfred Battle, “and it will be a significant upgrade to the physical, as well as to the cultural attitude, that this is a good place to do business again.”
While some residents welcome the project, Vivian Williams, 56, says the two-lane design will push the traffic into the residential streets and she says the renovations will do little for the black community.
“It would bring some pride and respect to the neighborhood,” said Williams, “but after the blacks sold out, Arabs came in and now they’re taking all the money back to Miami where they live. The only one that puts money back into the community is Tony’s Store. Willie Walker is the only black-owned store left and he’s the only black man that gives back to the community—just like his father did. That’s what we really need.”
TRAFFIC DELAYS: Sistrunk Boulevard is currently closed between Andrews and Northeast Third avenues and reduced to one lane between Northwest 19th and NW 24th avenues. Work on those sections is expected to last through July, but local access will be maintained and businesses will remain open during construction. Traffic updates are posted on the city of Fort Lauderdale website, http://www.fortlauderdale.gov.
PHOTO COURTESY OF CITY OF FORT LAUDERDALE. SISTRUNK IMPROVED: This is an artist’s rendering of how Sistrunk Boulevard will look after enhancements are completed over the next 16 months.