With massive waterfront projects, Fort Lauderdale is entering a new era in its yachting history, says Christiana Lilly...
The booming yachting industry of Fort Lauderdale began with a humble gas station back in 1957. It’s a shortcut, true, but hear us out.
While Bahia Mar started welcoming yachts to its marina in 1950, the Phillips 66 gas station, a mere half-mile from the ocean near the inlet, was an important refuelling point that connected the popular cruising grounds farther north to the idyllic Bahamas. And you know the story from there – Fort Lauderdale became the destination, thanks in part to the rise of a resort known as Pier Sixty-Six with a 100-slip marina in the 1960s.
The resort’s 1965 landmark tower, with its revolving cocktail lounge, was the tallest building in Broward County at the time and enticed celebrities, public figures (at one time it had a Liza Minnelli suite) and yacht owners to what the property dubs its "social harbour."
But while yachts consistently came calling over the years, some say for their owners, the city had lost its lustre. In South Florida alone, the powerful poles of Miami and West Palm Beach attracted global guests with their mix of legacy hotels, shiny new luxury branded resorts and waterfront estates, and Fort Lauderdale was falling behind.
To play catch-up, the city is doubling down on its maritime offerings. Pier Sixty-Six is undergoing a massive transformation, Bahia Mar is getting a $1 billion makeover, a multifaceted expansion is in the works for the waterfront Broward County Convention Center, and developers are incorporating yachting amenities into their blueprints. Names like Tate and Tavistock will join names like Denison, Strauss, Roscioli, and Derecktor to shape Fort Lauderdale’s boating future.
At the Pier
One obvious sign of renewal is the project at Pier Sixty-Six rising near Port Everglades. Strolling through its sales centre off SE 17th Street, interested buyers can view a model sixth-floor living room overlooking the marina or admire a model of what its developer, the Orlando-based Tavistock Group, has in store for the 32-acre icon. The company purchased the historic property in 2016 from the Blackstone Group, then another 10 acres to the south in 2018.
A 2024 opening date is slated for 325 hotel rooms, 12 dining and lounge destinations, three swimming pools and 92 luxury condos and residences. And for boaters, the marina boasts 164 slips. Here, a village of restaurants and bars will be walkable for pedestrians to admire the fleet of boats. To the north, the marina can accommodate yachts up to 98 metres; to the south, boats up to 122 metres can find a slip, thanks to a water depth of 9.1 metres from the ocean right up to the dock and no bridge height restrictions.
"This is the busiest cross section on the water," marina director Megan Lagasse says. "We’re essentially a hotel on the water for boats."
It’s projects like these that not only put eyes on Fort Lauderdale but also can boost its economic power. From 2021 to 2024, Tavistock estimates the project will have created 5,100 jobs and a one-time economic impact of $924 million. Once they’re open for business, they plan to add another 2,000 jobs and generate an annual economic impact of $208 million.
What’s not in the plans, though, is erasing the legacy and history of Pier Sixty-Six. The shell of the hotel will remain, and engineers are working to get the iconic rotating restaurant with its 66-pointed crown moving once again. Once the doors are open, they’re vying for historic designation.
The reinvented Pier Sixty-Six has attracted a lot of interest. Sales director Amy Ballon has received countless calls from people motivated by nostalgia – they got married or honeymooned there. Her son’s bar mitzvah photos were taken here. Lagasse remembers drinking piña coladas by the outdoor pool with her grandparents.
"The history of Pier Sixty-Six is so deep and rich within the local community," Ballon says. "Our big buyers have been coming locally and [are familiar] with the property and the historic nostalgia… There are a lot of memories that are connected here."
Kitty McGowan, president of the US Superyacht t of the US Superyacht Association, learned to waterski at Marina Bay, hung out at the sandbar by the Fort Lauderdale Yacht Club, and eventually joined the yachting world professionally. For eight years she worked aboard the likes of Octopussy, Thunderball, Moonraker, and Ray Catena’s first Mercedes, which all at one time called Fort Lauderdale home. "This town is my blood, and the water and boating are a huge part of it," she says.
From these heydays, Lagasse says that Fort Lauderdale fell behind when it came to entertainment and accommodations for superyacht owners – she heard it from some of them directly.
Projects like Pier Sixty-Six aim to put the focus back on owners. The revamped resort and marina will be more than a place to park. "We are going to be able to provide a top-of-the-line, all-inclusive experience with entertainment, food and beverage facilities that don’t exist [anywhere] and I would even say in the world."
$1 billion for Bahia Mar
Another major piece in Fort Lauderdale’s historic yachting landscape is Bahia Mar, home of the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. The recent approval of that project – a $1 billion overhaul – has Fort Lauderdale buzzing.
After lots and lots of commission meetings and negotiations, developers Jimmy Tate, Kenny Tate and Sergio Rok got the OK from the city in April to move forward with their plan as well as scoring a new 100-year lease on the city-owned property. The group plans to build four condo towers with 350 units, a 19-story hotel, marina village with restaurants and bars, a park and a waterfront restaurant.
"Nine years of community outreach, three architects with three entirely different architectural experiences coupled with our steadfast effort to continue working with the city, the boat show parties and the community at large – it was fulfilling and truly something magical," Jimmy Tate says of the commission’s approval.
While Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Conrad and other high-end hoteliers are moving in on the beach, Tate talks about introducing the first five-star, luxury branded destination resort hotel to Fort Lauderdale on the historic site.
Bahia Mar’s history goes back even further than Pier Sixty-Six. Its first iteration was as a US Army fort in 1839, then a US Coast Guard base in 1926, and then a marina was built in 1949 before the property fell into disrepair and was taken over by the city of Fort Lauderdale. Thanks to a naming contest hosted by the city, it was dubbed Bahia Mar. By the early 1980s, it became a permanent home for the Fort Lauderdale boat show, which started in 1959.
Tate Capital’s latest plan is a sleeker variation of an earlier proposal that included 13 buildings, twice the commercial space and 651 rental apartments – a plan Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis called "overdeveloped." Tate says that the company’s vision is to cater to long-term residents rather than transients and keep the boat show top of mind, with waterfront parks and a pedestrian-friendly walking area, plus a marina village with food and beverage venues.
Of course, with any large project there can be apprehension. But Tate says that with nearly 100 years of family history in South Florida – five generations of the Tates live here, and it’s four generations for the Roks – they feel a huge responsibility to do right by Bahia Mar.
"Redeveloping this jewel of an asset into a world-class, five-star luxury branded destination resort hotel will be the zenith of all developments for both of our families," Tate says. "We are finally experiencing the renaissance that our neighbours to the south and north have already experienced."
The shortage of slips
But with growing boat lengths and the growing number of boats (more than 45,000 personal vessels were registered in Broward County in 2022, and that’s not counting the large transient fleet of superyachts), there can never be enough marina space. Investors have snapped up and revamped existing marine properties for the last five years, particularly. Institutions like Bradford Marine got new owners in 2019 while rapidly growing brands like OneWater Marine and Safe Harbor have put their names on Roscioli and Lauderdale Marine Center.
One of the key newcomers to town is Austin Schell. The Port 32 Marinas CEO, whose business is based in Charleston, South Carolina, had his eyes set on Fort Lauderdale in his plan to expand his network of marinas. In June, on the official grand opening day for Port 32 Fort Lauderdale, the wet basin across I-95 from Lauderdale Marine Center had been full for months and a dry stack was already 20 per cent claimed.
"That’s just a sign that the demand for boating has outstripped the physical supply of boat slips in many areas of the county, and certainly in Fort Lauderdale," Schell says. "It’s one of the global hubs for the marine industry."
With wet slips that can accommodate superyachts up to 54.9 metres, the new marina also boasts a 150-ton Travelift and 128,00 square feet of commercial space with tenants specialising in yacht service and repairs. Port 32 also includes amenities for the crew, including a gym, a lounge, laundry and conference rooms for staff to utilise between trips.
"When you’re on a yacht for long stretches of time, having access to a brand-new gym to work out on is something that crew members value,” Schell says. “[The marina] was built with the superyacht crew in mind."
But with slips harder to come by than a liquor license, the search for docks has spilled over into the real estate world. Interior designer and entrepreneur Katia Bates, who is steeped in the yachting world, has heard customers asking for the "trophy points" of local real estate: waterfront properties that can accommodate large vessels, or even homes that include a separate structure for charter and medical staff.
"Marinas have become a bit scarce in Fort Lauderdale… people still have yachts they need to accommodate," she says. "All of these properties are super highly desirable for a person that has a large yacht because they normally can accommodate superyachts, or maybe two of them," says Bates, who, with husband Tom, owns a waterfront home in Fort Lauderdale.
It certainly was the case for Hal and Joan Griffith. They own a home on Sunrise Key and they split their time between the US West and East Coasts. In addition to a deepwater dock, the home has a guest house with a workout room, storage and other facilities for their yacht crew to utilise. They first made their way here when they bought the first of two boats from Hargrave Custom Yachts and made frequent trips to the East Coast to oversee the design and outfitting. While they were in Fort Lauderdale, they would stay at Pier Sixty-Six and enjoy the dining options.
Then, they decided to buy a home where they could dock the 44.2-metre Christensen superyacht that they bought after their Hargraves. The location was ideal: only one bridge comes between them and the open ocean. Aptly named I Love This Boat, the tri-deck still features the original owner’s gold-plate railings and crystal glass accents but was updated and fitted with a whole suite of water toys, for friends and family or charter guests.
"Fantastic" is how Hall Griffith describes Fort Lauderdale’s yachting accommodations. "I would say Fort Lauderdale is a special spot for anybody that owns a boat because of all the flexibility in the services, all you need for maintenance and upkeep is here, and when you have a problem, it’s easy to get service."
Fort Lauderdale has its own Millionaire’s Row – but Bates says it should probably be renamed Billionaire’s Row with the way neighbourhoods like Las Olas Isles are shaping up. Aware of this breed of buyers’ needs, the real estate industry in Fort Lauderdale has adapted. Bates says that almost all open houses hosted by her real estate broker have been in partnership with a yacht brokerage company. "It has opened the business and the market to a lot of different opportunities," she says.
Clients have called on Bates’s interior design skills to carry the aesthetic of their home onto their waterfront abode, particularly when they are planning on spending extended periods on board. That fifth cabin might need to be converted to a gym or an office, for example.Read More/Housespotting during FLIBS: The coolest homes to look out for at the show
"The yacht becomes your social life, in a sense," says Bates, who worked on the interior of Tanzanite, a yacht that belongs to Fort Lauderdale residents Andrew and Tanya Heller.
Andrew Heller, the owner of equity firm Heller Capital, was introduced to the boating life by a business partner. He attended the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show every year for two decades and bought a 11.3-metre Intrepid cuddy cabin to enjoy with his children during their visits to South Florida. He traded that for a Boston Whaler Outrage, and when he was ready for an upgrade, he took quite the leap, acquiring a 44.2-metre, four-deck, five-cabin Westship that he dubbed Tanzanite for Tanya’s favourite gem — and the same blue-and-violet stone set in her engagement ring.
"We love the weather, being on the water – our house has extraordinary views. We have one of the most well-known houses in Fort Lauderdale. All the tour boats talk about our house and boat," he says.
Aboard Tanzanite, the couple hosts dinner cruises as well as plans regular trips to the Bahamas and Key West, towing along their centre console. As they are heavily involved in the charity world, they host fundraisers for the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, NSU Art Museum, the Jack and Jill Center and their animal rescue charity, Purrr.
"Boating has been nothing but an upward trend for 20 years,” says Heller who is a fan of Fort Lauderdale. “There’s just endless entertainment to cruise the Intracoastal and the New River and the canals and see real estate development and just the relaxing scenic beauty of the area."
As opening day for Pier Sixty-Six draws closer, Lagasse says, "a lot of money is being invested into Fort Lauderdale to bring us back to that [golden] era." The next few years will be a turning point. "I think we’re on the peak of a really interesting transitional time where it could go anywhere," McGowan says.
With exciting projects on the horizon and more than one readily accessible fuel dock (and power stations), yachting remains and likely always will be embedded into the DNA of the Venice of America.