By David Lyons
The groundbreaking for the Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences Fort Lauderdale isn’t scheduled until next year. But every week, the people who are designing the project are on a conference call, working toward the day that one of the nation’s most iconic hotel brands will come alive on Fort Lauderdale beach.
At the helm of the construction project is Miami-based real estate investor Nadim Ashi, whose Fort Partners is putting the finishing touches on the iconic Surf Club in Surfside, under the Four Seasons brand.
The 1930s club, which once catered to Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly, is on a Four Seasons short list of properties worldwide that are scheduled to open in early 2017. The club, which is being converted into a 77-room hotel with 150 luxury residences under the direction of architect Richard Meier, has attracted a powerful group of condo buyers who include Northeast money managers and financiers.
Between the Surf Club and Fort Lauderdale projects, and another Four Seasons in Palm Beach, Ashi has a full plate. Born in Liberia to Lebanese parents, Ashi was in the information technology business (he studied engineering at George Washington University) before entering real estate. He sold an information-technology firm that he founded and then moved to Miami to start in the real estate development field.
“Basically it all started with the Surf Club,” Ashi says of his efforts to secure the Four Seasons brand for his South Florida properties. “We landed on this iconic location. We had the great vision to hire a best-in-class architect. Then, when I was looking for a service operator to manage the hotel component I started analyzing which of the firms could provide best-in-class service. When I did my sampling and looked at my experiences in Paris and Italy, I always felt the Four Seasons had a special way of servicing guests. I always felt I wanted to go back.”
He bought the Florida rights to the Four Seasons brand from Canadian owners of the Palm Beach property in 2013. As the Surf Club project unfolded, his team looked for other locations, with their attention falling on Fort Lauderdale.
“We met a great family who had the site and we decided to go after it,” he says of the Motwani family, longtime operators and developers of hotels in Fort Lauderdale. “We believe Fort Lauderdale is really ready for a project like this. It is complementary to Palm Beach and Miami.”
His development and design team for the Fort Lauderdale property includes Miami-based architect Kobi Karp, whose firm has designed more than $18 billion in projects from Miami Beach and the Caribbean to the Middle East, South Africa and Southeast Asia. British designer Tara Bernerd, another international practitioner, is the mastermind behind the interior design. Fernando Wong of Miami Beach is charged with the landscape design, while London- and New York-based designer Martin Brudnizki is doing the restaurant design.
Karp says he, Ashi and the others were sold on Fort Lauderdale’s infrastructure, amenities and environment, which only recently are being discovered by many in the Greater Miami area.
“Here you have the river, which is historic,” he says. “It comes through the town with fresh water. And there’s a beautiful shopping center in the Galleria Mall.” In addition, the growth of Port Everglades and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport has made Fort Lauderdale an international destination.
It all plays into the area as being attractive to foreign buyers. “Some people don’t want Miami,” he adds. “They want Fort Lauderdale.”
The planned buildout of a Four Seasons in Fort Lauderdale marks the first time in roughly eight years that a hotel-condo property of this caliber has been proposed in the city. (Down the road to the south is a Ritz-Carlton, which started out as a St. Regis in 2009.)
Ashi and Karp say they are determined to make the Fort Lauderdale design comport with the neighborhood, taking advantage of the beach and Atlantic Ocean. The hotel is designed like a bow of a ship and looks like a luxury cruise liner. Today’s cruise ships are 10 to 14 stories high, and this building is the same size.
“We came up with a concept that is more nautical, more like a ship,” Karp says. “Whether you are on a submarine or a cruise ship, you always come to the deck. Yes, you might have a beautiful restaurant, but ultimately you come to the public space where you can congregate and see other people. We met with the city staff. And they said, activate the ground level. We have the whole block. We took it upon ourselves to activate the whole ground level with landscaping, steps, a plaza and indoor-outdoor dining.”
There is also a pedestrian and vehicle drop-off at the ground level. “All of a sudden, the building has accessibility and visibility to the street and connects on all sides,” Karp says. “We believe the community wants and spends time with breakfast, lunches and dinners more so now than ever before, and will continue to do so.”
Wong came up with what he calls a “beautiful, gorgeous landscape design” that he dubbed a “civilized jungle.”
“It begins with the ocean,” Wong says. “How do we want to feel when we come into the Four Seasons Fort Lauderdale? I feel that the beach might be a little bit hot. I wanted to experience a feeling of coolness. We are under a canopy of trees.” So he is incorporating two monumental Kapok and Sea Grape trees, which will be relocated from around Florida, as well as 70 palm trees.
“Once you arrive you will notice the change in topography,” says Wong, whose current projects include the Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach, the Surf Club in Miami Beach and the Royal Hideaway Playacar Resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, among others. “It becomes more lush. It becomes more fragrant. I think we were able to accomplish that. Once you are at the pool levels you will see unobstructed views of the beach, with the canopy beneath you.”
Bernerd, whose latest hotel projects include The Hari in Hong Kong, a 130-room hotel, and the Thompson Hollywood in Los Angeles, says she’s looking to “lift some of the thoughts from the Bahamas” for the Fort Lauderdale project. ”My approach is to step back a few decades and look at some of the elegant arts of it.” And if her work and collaboration with Ashi, Karp and Wong indicate anything, it’s that elegance is in store for Fort Lauderdale’s shores.
Originally appeared in the Winter 2016 Issue.