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New development brings attention to how Wilton Manors is growing and changing

Renderings of the Generation Wilton Manors apartment complex coming to Wilton Manors.
Kaplan Residential
Kaplan Residential
Renderings of the Generation Wilton Manors apartment complex coming to Wilton Manors.

Wilton Manors still feels like a small town — a rarity in South Florida. It’s walkable and neighborly with small businesses abound.

But Wilton Manors isn’t immune to the rampant real estate development that is occurring throughout South Florida. The city adjusted their zoning ordinances in 2022 and since has signed off on apartment complexes and a hotel that aims to increase the tax base and has some residents worried the small-town feel will disappear.

One of those developments will be built over a beloved outdoor plaza known as The Yard and has brought attention to how the city is responding to growth.

“Those three restaurants are my favorite. I love the hippie vibe of them and I'm incredibly sad that they're leaving,” said Bill Desautels referring to the restaurants in The Yard.

He serves on the Planning and Zoning board which approved the project that will bulldoze the area.

“I hate the fact that a project impacts these people, these businesses ... I think that the unique character of Wilton Manors somehow needs to be maintained as much as possible.”

Desautels says if developers follow zoning codes, the board has little choice but to approve their projects. That’s in part because the city needs to grow its population and tax base to afford needed infrastructure improvements.

The population of the city has wavered between 11,400 and 12,500 for the past decade, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We have to follow the code and not let our emotions get caught up in the process. But that being said, I've had people knock at my door literally crying because they're upset with what's going on with our community,” he said.

Carlos Cruz, a managing partner at The Alchemist in Wilton Manors.
Amy Beth Bennett / South Florida Sun Sentinel
Carlos Cruz, a managing partner at The Alchemist in Wilton Manors.

Beloved businesses in The Yard

When Carlos Cruz first visited The Alchemist Café seven years ago he fell in love. The vibe — people relaxing as they enjoyed iced coffee in the lush outdoor seating area while cats napped in the shade and coffee roasted in the corner — reminded him of his native Puerto Rico.

“I was a little kid and I saw my great-grandmother roasting the coffee on a pan with wood underneath. She was there for an hour, just stirring that thing over and over,” Cruz told WLRN. “And then she ground the coffee. She went to the field to milk the cow. And then she came back and she asked me: ‘Do you want some?’”

Cruz now tries to recreate some of his abuelita’s magic at The Alchemist where he is one of the managing partners.

The Alchemist is one of the restaurants set to be paved over for construction of an apartment complex called Generation Wilton Manors.

“It is sad when you get to know that all this magic is going to be brought down," he said. "But you know what? You cannot stop progress, you just have to get together and go from there."

The Alchemist is planning to open a second location in Dania Beach, according to Cruz. There is also a chance that the café will operate out of a food truck and a nearby building owned by the developer to be used during construction of the new complex, though that plan hasn’t been finalized.

The new development was unwelcome news to Bethany Limler who has been coming to the café for years. She had just finished brunch in the shade of the outdoor seating area. Being surrounded by plants was something that kept her coming back.

“It's going to be new construction. It's not going to be the same. It's a nice environment and the food is really good … So that's why we came here, because we knew it's going to be gone soon,” she said.

Diva Namé, who ownsLa Mexicana Taco Bar next door, also fell in love with the unique atmosphere of The Yard when she visited over a decade ago.

“I disconnect every time that I enter here,” she told WLRN. “I'm from Colombia, I moved from there and this reminds me of home, you know?”

Namé and Cruz were both caught off guard when they heard about the new development that would force them to move their businesses but they said conversations with the developer have put them at ease.

Morris Kaplan, the developer in charge of Generation Wilton Manors, has pledged to give owners the first right of refusal when he opens retail and restaurant space planned for the complex.

“We'd like to have them back because they've been there for a while and people know them and they're well-liked,” he told WLRN.

The 6-story, 190 unit apartment complex will include a retail and restaurant space where Kaplan says he will try his best to keep the same energy of The Yard.

“We designed the community with the intent of trying to replicate as much of what was there currently as best as we can and make it look like it was a lived-in community, not a brand new, fresh community,” he said.

But it's no small task.

The gravel lot is tucked away across the railroad tracks from the busiest strip of bars, clubs and shops in Wilton Manors. Patrons describe it as a hidden gem, a piece of old Florida.

The lot was once a plant nursery and countless species of flora decorate the outdoor seating areas while also providing shade. Walk past the restaurants and you’ll see murals painted in honor of the students and teachers killed in the Parkland school shooting and a city police officer who died of COVID-19.

Kaplan says he is working to preserve or replicate them in the new development.

A path leads to the back of The Yard, where an abandoned building is decorated with murals.
Amy Beth Bennett / South Florida Sun Sentinel
A path leads to the back of The Yard, where an abandoned building is decorated with murals.

Generation Wilton Manors

Wilton Manors is surrounded on all sides by rivers that lead to the Intracoastal Waterway and there is not much room to build out – so the city is looking to build up.

The new development was years in the making. Kaplan had been looking at the property but waited until after the city changed its zoning rules last year before he purchased the plot. The new rules allowed for buildings to be built higher and with more units. 

Specifically, buildings along heavily trafficked areas known as transit-oriented corridors could be built up to eight stories and have 60 units per square acre.

Former Mayor Gary Resnick voted against the zoning changes while he was still on the commission. Among other things, he said the lack of affordable housing units was concerning.

“They're full market rate. It's not economic development. You know, normally when you think of economic development, you think of something. That's going to create jobs. These units are not going to create jobs,” he said.

Generation Wilton Manors will not have any affordable housing units, according to Kaplan.

Resnick served as a commissioner for 24 years and was mayor for ten of them.

He also says the new construction will be bad for traffic and affect how the city handles their drinking water and sewage, which comes from Fort Lauderdale.

“The roads can't accommodate really more people. The water and sewer lines can't really accommodate a lot of additional development,” he said.

Desautels, the Planning and Zoning board member, says after the board allowed higher buildings and more units in 2022, developers started coming.

“I wouldn't say it was overnight, but it was within months. We had numerous proposals that came forward,” he said.

The city’s need to grow needs to be balanced with keeping the small-town charm that makes the city desirable, says Mayor Scott Newton.

Newton says the city commission is being intentional about how they develop. Among other new zoning rules, they capped building height to eight stories.

“I think eight stories is plenty high enough for our community to get the tax base that we need to sustain the quality of life that this community wants,” he told WLRN. “And it has to be mixed use so we can have mom and pop stores, have restaurants, have a dentist's office or doctor's offices … It's all about walkability. It's all about being part of the community.”

The city will soon be home to a handful of other developments including a hotel planned for the Five Points intersection at the end of Wilton Drive.

Kaplan, the developer, plans to start Construction on the Generation Wilton Manors apartment complex by the middle of next year.

A rendering of the new apartment complex Generation Wilton Manors.
Kaplan Residential
A rendering of the new apartment complex Generation Wilton Manors.

Gerard Albert III covers Broward County. He is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University. He can be reached atgalbert@wlrnnews.org
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