Commission pushes El Mar Drive decision back to October

After a lengthy discussion and almost two hours of public comments, the Lauderdale-By-The-Sea Commission voted Tuesday to revisit the future of El Mar Drive in October.

Should a design plan be voted on at that time, construction on the historic street would not begin until April 2023.

“What we heard tonight is . . . the majority, 95 percent of these people don’t understand the project,” said Mayor Chris Vincent. “How we as elected officials can vote to move something that no one understands is like turning deaf ears.”

During the Wednesday night meeting, the commission listened to pre-recorded comments from the public as well as emailed comments that were read aloud, with most wanting the town to “leave El Mar Drive alone” to varying degrees. The street was called everything from “the Champs Elysees of Lauderdale-By-The-Sea” to an “eye sore.”

Vincent, Vice Mayor Buz Oldaker and Commissioner Edmiund Malkoon voted to put off making a decision until the first meeting of October. They felt that officials needed to educate the town further on the design options and that there was no rush to make a decision. However, commissioners Eliott Sokolow and Randy Strauss felt differently, voting to move ahead with a design plan. 

“There appear to be very few advocates – and certainly activist advocates – in favor of anything other than doing nothing and kicking the can down the road,” said Sokolow. “There are a couple, two that I know of, very strong advocates who I believe have been misleading people, have cast aspersions on this commission, have cast aspersions on our design professionals,” he said. “I think it’s time for a lot of us to wake up and make a decision and I think the decision should be to proceed with the design of option one and not kick the can down the road.”

Alex Fenech, the vice president of EDSA, the design firm hired to work on the El Mar project, noted that when those seemingly minor changes of fixing the sidewalks, drainage and lighting are done, it would “trigger a need for a code compliant design,” which the street currently does not abide by. In a presentation, he noted the street has issues such as tripping hazards, deteriorating sidewalks, signage too close to travel lanes, “alligator cracking” in the street, standing water and poor lighting. 

EDSA has provided three designs and recommends option one, which would expand the median from 20 to 22 feet wide while installing 19 truck pull offs. In some areas, the median would have to be deceased to a 16 foot width.The firm created the website lbtselmar.com for the public to see updates on the project, the three design proposals, as well as participate in surveys.

“We don’t want to take away the median, we don’t want to remove the median, that’s not even on the table,” Fenech said.

However, the “Save the Median” movement has taken hold on El Mar Drive, with advocates calling for a fourth option, to simply leave the street alone. They’ve created t-shirts and been vocal opponents of any of the three design options.

Strauss addressed the dozens of comments presented to the commission, saying that while it seems an overwhelming majority don’t want anything done, “there was a ‘but’ following that and the ‘but’ was ‘but fix the sidewalk, but fix the lighting, but do something about the drainage.’”

Added Strauss, “In fact, that’s what this plan is. That’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re not getting rid of the median by proposing this plan. We’re not changing El Mar. El Mar will always be there. We are planning on fixing the sidewalks. We are proposing to add proper lighting. We are proposing to add drainage and that’s what this is about. We’re not changing El Mar, we’re improving what needs to be improved and in improving it it will benefit the town and make it a safer place.”

With the vote, the earliest construction would begin on El Mar Drive is April 2023. Those in favor of revisiting the project this fall noted concerns of what construction would do for businesses struggling during COVID, as well as the fact that the town just fired its town manager last week.

“I still think the community needs a little more time to digest this,” Oldaker said. “I don’t think there’s a full understanding of every aspect of this, why we have to do certain things a certain way if we do them at all.”

Originally published in The New Pelican

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