A new dawn in Sunrise?
Broward County is hoping to score a win for its 20-year-old arena, the BB&T Center, home of the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers. In September, the county government was in the process of selecting a private firm to produce a master plan for the redevelopment of approximately 140 acres of surface parking space around the Sunrise arena.
Finding feasible ways to repurpose all that arena parking won’t be easy, though, because new hotel rooms, residential units and offices are already being developed at properties nearby, including the 32-acre, mixed-use Westerra project and the 65-acre Metropica megaproject.
“There’s a lot of stakeholders involved,” said Lary Mahoney, the county’s director of real estate development and its point man for the arena project.
Bernie Werner — president of the development company behind Metropica — is one of the members of a non-voting council formed to guide the redevelopment of the BB&T Center property. Asked how the BB&T arena parking lots should be redeveloped, Werner said that as neither Metropica nor Westerra will provide “large-scale entertainment or family-lodging opportunities,” he felt that was the “best complement to what the larger landholders in the area might be developing over the near term.”
Instructive to the entire effort is a county-funded 2016 study by the Urban Land Institute, which determined that the arena’s asphalt parking lots were best suited for a 20-year master plan that would encompass hotels, apartments, entertainment centers and office space, among other uses. The ULI study also urged a long-term redevelopment design that creates a cohesive suburban counterpoint to downtown Fort Lauderdale.
Broward’s public request for proposals (RFP) specified that the county expected to pay about $350,000 for master planning services to support “a phased, 10-year buildout of the [BB&T Center] property … The development should be pedestrian-oriented, and the design of the spaces between buildings should be paramount in creating a living and working community.”
According to the RFP, the property is a viable location for 80,000 to 100,000 square feet of office space and a hotel with at least 200 keys, plus residential development and “limited retail.”
But if the BB&T project does include office space, leasing could prove difficult given the amount of local office space coming online ahead of it. Werner’s firm has hired CBRE to prelease a 170,000-square-foot office building called 1700 Metropica, scheduled to open in 2020 — long before any master-planned office space is likely to open on the BB&T property. For a modern office building in a town square-style setting, “there is definitely demand” in western Broward, said Christopher Gallagher, a senior vice president of brokerage firm CBRE. But developments in “final planning stages, like Metropica, will definitely have the leg up on the competition … that are more in the conceptual planning stages,” he said.
No matter what the arena project ultimately includes, Broward County wants it, Sawgrass Mills, Metropica and Westerra to function as a community with a branded identity where people can work, reside and recreate. “The better able we are to link the large attractions in this area to create a seamless whole, the more attractive the larger area will become to the average consumer,” said Alan Cohen, Broward County assistant administrator.
Cohen said the proposed plan would likely include easy transportation between those projects, as well as the 400,000-square-foot regional headquarters of American Express, which opened last year. “I’m presuming that, because of the distances, there would have to be some sort of transportation-related solution,” he said. “It could be autonomous minibuses, for all I know, by the time we get to that point.”
Werner agreed that his and other major developments near the arena would benefit from “improved connectivity” between them, “which would comprise pedestrian, vehicular, public transportation or shuttle service, and bicycle.”
The list of who might emerge as the arena property’s master planner was opaque as summer drew to a close. County policy prohibits Mahoney from identifying any of the bidders or disclosing the number of bidders and the content of their proposals. Broward’s commissioners will determine the winning master planner after county staff vets the submissions. Mahoney declined to say how long the selection process might take.
Flight of the Panthers
As planners weigh proposals for the new project, they’re also looking to anticipate the future of the BB&T Center’s key tenant: the Florida Panthers hockey team.
The NHL’s 25-year-old Florida Panthers franchise is a cellar dweller in terms of the number of people who buy tickets and attend games at the BB&T Center. Sellouts are rare for hockey games at the 19,250-seat arena, where the Panthers filled about 13,800 seats on an average night during the 2017-18 season. The team’s average home-game attendance consistently ranks the Florida Panthers in the bottom third of the league.
Indeed, the team’s disappointing attendance and feeble financial condition led indirectly to the county’s effort to bring new development to the property surrounding the BB&T Center.
The 55-page RFP states that the county wants a two-scenario master plan “flexible enough to redevelop the BB&T Center property with or without an arena.” Beyond the 2028 expiration of the Florida Panthers contract to lease the BB&T Center, the arena “may be torn down, and the land it occupies will be developed and be part of a new master plan.”
Under its agreement with the county to lease the BB&T Center, the Florida Panthers get a share of county tourist-tax revenue. Three years ago, the county increased this subsidy after the team’s current owner, billionaire Vincent Viola, said the Panthers could face bankruptcy after operating losses totaling $157 million from 2008 to 2015. At that point, county commissioners raised the amount of tourist-tax revenue that Broward will funnel to the Florida Panthers by $86 million over 13 years — through 2028, when the team’s arena lease expires. In exchange for the fattened subsidy, the Panthers transferred the rights to develop the parking area around the arena to the county.
Whether those development rights are worth $86 million will hinge on Broward’s ability to foster successful development of the arena property.
Werner, for one, is confident. “It will draw more people out to western Broward who otherwise might have come only for a game,” he said. “The more critical mass in this western county corridor, the better.”