FORT LAUDERDALE — The famed 100-foot-tall rain tree that has sparked a decade of impassioned debate will be moved in May to a spot closer to the New River. The uprooting will make way for a $500 million high-rise project in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
City commissioners approved the developer’s request to relocate the tree late Wednesday night despite years of protest from those who love the tree and fear it will die if moved.
Likely the largest of its kind in the continental U.S., the century-old tree stands 10 stories high and weighs nearly 1 million pounds. Its lush green canopy sprawls 130 feet.
In 1987, Fort Lauderdale granted the tree special protection, requiring commission approval before it can be moved or cut down.
A towering and stately presence in the Tarpon River neighborhood, the tree has become a symbol of the ongoing conflict that pits a burgeoning downtown against local residents intent on saving a tree they say can never be replaced.
But the fierce crowd that usually comes out to defend their beloved rain tree was nowhere to be found Wednesday night when the commission cast its vote.
That’s because they were unaware the topic was even up for a vote, said the lone woman who showed up to speak out against the plan to move the tree.
“This is a big deal,” Janet Scraper, former president of the Tarpon River Civic Association, angrily told commissioners, urging them to postpone their vote.
Scraper argued that many people, distracted by the holidays, did not know the commission was voting that night.
Commissioners noted that the meeting agenda was posted on the city’s website well in advance of the meeting.
The tree sits just south of the New River and west of Andrews Avenue on land currently surrounded by a mesh fence at 408 Southwest Fourth Avenue.
Moving it won’t be easy, but it can be done in a way that will keep the tree from dying, the developer’s tree experts say.
As part of the deal, developer Asi Cymbal has agreed to pay the city $1 million should the tree die within five years of being moved.
Cymbal was already given approval by a previous commission in 2013 to move the tree to an out-of-the-way spot near a marina at Southwest Third Avenue and Southwest Fifth Street.
Mayor Dean Trantalis, a commissioner at the time, voted against the original location, saying it might harm the tree.
But he voted yes Wednesday night.
“With it closer to the New River, I felt it would have a secure source of water and be more open to the sun on a daily basis,” Trantalis said Thursday. “I would prefer it not be moved at all. But the previous commission already gave permission for it to be moved. And I believe we did the right thing.”
Cymbal has promised to do all he can to save the massive tree — the same kind showcased in the 1960 Disney film “Swiss Family Robinson.”
He says he’s paying experts $500,000 to take on the difficult task of moving the 850,000 pound tree about 100 feet north, closer to the river.
Cymbal plans to build twin 30-story towers with 771 luxury apartments surrounded by boutique shops and elegant restaurants on the site where the tree now stands.
That wasn’t the case in 2013, when Cymbal proposed a larger project with three towers and nearly 1,000 apartments dubbed Marina Lofts.
The project won commission approval but was never built.
In late 2020, Cymbal returned with a new plan that would have let the majestic rain tree stay in place. That project, Raintree Riverwalk Residences, called for two towers — one 35 stories and the other 32 — with 784 apartments that would have been built around the tree.
But since then, he tweaked the plan. The new project, which is keeping the Raintree Riverwalk name, calls for two 30-story towers and 771 apartments. The rain tree stands where he plans to build the parking garage.
The project still needs approval from the city’s Planning and Zoning Board and the commission, but Cymbal now has permission to move the tree to the new spot.
If approved, Cymbal estimates the first tower will be completed in 2023 and the second in 2024.
As for the prized rain tree, Commissioner Ben Sorensen says the city’s own arborist has vouched for the health of the tree and will continue to keep close watch.
“The developer has to report back to the city every month on the health of the tree even after it’s moved,” Sorensen said.
That was little solace for Chris Brennan, one of the tree’s countless admirers.
Brennan was fired from his Water Taxi job for shooting a YouTube video in 2013 criticizing the developer’s plans to move the rain tree.
“It was just me ranting and raving that he had no regard for a 100-year-old tree,” Brennan said Thursday. “It was one of the trees Fort Lauderdale swore to protect. And of course they rolled over on that.”
Brennan says he was disappointed but not surprised by the commission’s vote on Wednesday.
“I watched the meeting last night,” he said. “I knew how that was going to go.”
Still, he says he’s hoping for the best.
“That’s a champion tree,” he said. “If they can move it and it still survives, that’s great.”