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Ft. Lauderdale's 400-room Airport Hilton Must be Demolished
for New Runway Say Officials

If Necessary County Will Force Sale by Use of Eminent Domain Law Through Court System

By Brittany Wallman, Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Dec. 20, 2011--ONE THING IS CERTAIN -- before the new $791 million runway at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is built and opened for business, the Airport Hilton will have to go.

The gold-colored high-rise juts into a zone that aviation officials say must be kept clear of potential hazards to aircraft. The last thing the Federal Aviation Administration wants near a commercial jet runway is a hotel packed with people. Airport officials say the Hilton is in the mandatory "clear zone." (You might as well call it a potential "crash zone.")

"Very, very, very, very clearly, it has to be removed," airport Director Kent George said.

Government land purchases can be thorny and take longer than expected, though, and the Hilton problem is yet another one the county has to be resolve before the runway, in the works for decades, can open.

Talked about for years, the county's purchase and demolition of the Airport Hilton, and those of another property next door also deemed a potential risk to arriving and departing planes -- must begin soon. Design and engineering work for the new runway is under way, and construction is scheduled to begin next month. The 8,000-foot-long airstrip is scheduled to open in September 2014, but that will be impossible if the hotel and the boat warehouse to the west haven't been razed.

"When the commission decided to do the longer runway," said Broward Mayor John Rodstrom, "it meant they'd have to take the Hilton down."

At the 400-room, eight-story hotel, there are no hints that it's in the crosshairs of a government wrecking-ball. But as guests swim in the courtyard pool or rest in hammocks, the loud buzz of jets to the north provides a unmistakable reminder there is an international airport beyond the landscaping.

"Unless I see a bulldozer, I'm not going to stress," Maricel Nicholson said from behind the gift shop counter. "I don't worry about it."

But many of the Hilton's bellhops, servers and other employees have been hearing for years about the planned new runway, and are concerned about where they'll find new jobs, she said.

General Manager Michael Matheson said he had no comment and referred the Sun Sentinel to Hilton corporate officials, who said they don't own the building and couldn't comment either. Efforts to contact the landowner, Ft Lauderdale Owner LLC, were unsuccessful.

The new runway will serve as a second "main" runway at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, parallel to the first. It will run along the airport's south side and, like a jump aircraft carrier, rise six stories over U.S. 1 and Florida East Coast train tracks.

The Hilton stands west of the runway path, next to Interstate 95 and north of Griffin Road.

The county is in talks now with the hotel owners to buy it and demolish it, airport officials said. Broward also hopes to buy two mobile home parks, Ocean Waterway and Marshalls Everglades, where noise levels inside the manufactured homes are expected to exceed 65 decibels, the FAA's high-noise threshold. But demolition of the residences isn't required by FAA flight safety rules, George said.

Another piece of land, next door to the Hilton to the east, is partially in the runway clear zone, said land-use lawyer Debbie Orshefsky, who represents the owner. She said a hotel could be built there, but the owner has also expressed interest in selling to the county.

"It has development potential," Orshefsky said, "and what happens to the portion that's in the runway protection zone, I don't know."

What Broward will pay for the Airport Hilton and the other properties is unknown, though it's sure to be in the tens of millions. The Airport Hilton site, in Dania Beach, is assessed for property tax purposes at $20.4 million, county records show.

The boat warehouse the county also has to purchase, located to the immediate west, is owned by LaPointe Ltd. and is assessed by the county at $1.3 million. The site Orshefsky represents, known as the Village Marina property and owned by HWMG Investments LLC, is assessed for tax purposes at $5 million.

Airport spokesman Greg Meyer said if an agreeable deal can't be reached, the county will have to go to court to use its right of eminent domain -- a process by which government declares a piece of land is needed for a public purpose, and forces the owner to sell. The final price is determined in court. But the process can be time-consuming and costly.

Broward Mayor John Rodstrom said the purchase of the Hilton, which will be made with airport revenues, not property tax dollars paid by county residents, should be completed "sooner rather than later," before the property market revives and the county has to "pay top dollar."

"We've had a pretty severe real estate recession," he said, "and we're probably near the bottom." or 954-356-4541.


(c)2011 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

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