Broward County

Visionary most responsible for downtown Fort Lauderdale has died

Bill Farkas standing in the lobby of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. Farkas, who died Feb. 3, was instrumental in the building and opening of the center in 1991.
Bill Farkas standing in the lobby of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. Farkas, who died Feb. 3, was instrumental in the building and opening of the center in 1991.

The Pennsylvania-born visionary who played a critical role in shaping Fort Lauderdale’s downtown and was pivotal in turning the Broward Center for the Performing Arts from dream into reality — and then in retirement, turned his attention to Miami Beach, becoming a leading advocate for historic preservation — has died.

William Farkas, who was always known as Bill, died Feb. 3 in North Miami after a long illness. He was 87.

The son of Hungarian immigrants, Farkas was born Sept. 13, 1931, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in political science from Lehigh University, then earned his master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University.

Farkas began building his career in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, taking his first job with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He headed Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority and the non-profit Action Housing.

Recruited in 1975 to become director of Fort Lauderdale’s Downtown Development Authority, Farkas — who had never been south of Fort Benning, Georgia, where he did his Army service — discovered a downtown with a single tall building and 14 acres of vacant land at the city center. A plan to build a vast urban mall with an underground parking garage had been scrapped, and Farkas had a different vision of what the city could become.

The former DDA board chairman and CEO of the Fort Lauderdale-based North American Company, Charles Palmer, was instrumental in hiring Farkas. “Bill had a way of working well with people. He had a great personality and could get along with everybody. He’d listen to the board instead of lecturing to it, which was a refreshing change,” Palmer says.

“We made the decision to try and get every major public facility, nonprofit or private office building to locate downtown,” Farkas recalled in a 2016 Fort Lauderdale magazine article. “And we would leave retail to Las Olas.”

His plan involved making downtown a center of government, education and culture, so that office buildings and urban dwellings would follow. Many grew impatient with the measured pace of transformation: “‘Where are the buildings?’ people would ask me,” Farkas recalled in a 1990 Sun-Sentinel story. “I could only say, They’re coming, they’re coming.’”

And they did.

During Farkas’ tenure, architect Don Singer’s innovative modernist City Park Municipal Garage was built, as were the Main Library, the NSU Museum of Art, Broward County government offices, the downtown home of Broward College and Florida Atlantic University — and that cultural anchor atop a man-made hill on the New River at Sailboat Bend, the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.

On Monday, Singer recalled the management style and achievements of a leader who became his friend.

“[The Downtown Development Authority] was an amalgam of many differing points of view as well as very active egos. What struck me right away was Bill’s ability to navigate that mix and, in his own gentle way, direct the group to a path that he knew, inherently, to be the correct one,” Singer wrote in an email. “Bill’s hand in the reshaping of Fort Lauderdale’s downtown … left the infrastructure that remains as the core of the metro area.”

George Bolge, who served as director of the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale for 18 years, says of Farkas, “Bill was the glue that held everything together. He was an advocate for the arts, a savvy businessman and a great negotiator. He was the quintessence of a decent guy. Bill really had the city’s interests at heart and dealt with all sides equally. The whole development of downtown Fort Lauderdale can be laid at Bill’s feet.”

In 1989, Farkas took on a new and formidable challenge: getting the Broward Center from construction to completion in time for the mega-musical “Phantom of the Opera” to launch its national tour there in February 1991.

As executive director, he did just that, pushing through construction delays, architectural disputes, fund-raising challenges and opposition from leaders of the center’s anchor cultural groups, who felt that opening with a long run of a commercial Broadway production in the heart of the season was a bad idea all around. Yet the $59.6 million complex opened on time, welcoming “Phantom” on a dark and stormy night, achieving the dream of a performing arts center before Miami’s Arsht Center and West Palm Beach’s Kravis Center followed.

Susie Krajsa, who is president of Broadway Across America, says of that time, “I had the pleasure of working with Bill as he worked tirelessly to open the Broward Center 1991. He had so many amazing qualities including his great personality. He always made you feel comfortable and appreciated.”

Farkas, who had never run a performing arts facility, learned on the job and eventually became the center’s president. In the course of his tenure there, he achieved an easy backstage camaraderie with such major stars as Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Keith Carradine, Rita Moreno, Yo Yo Ma, Emanual Ax and Sally Struthers — who, while she was in “Grease,” demonstrated her strength by picking Farkas up and lifting him over her head.

Linda Birdsey, now marketing director at the Kravis Center, worked with him in those early years. She recalls him as “a positive and supportive leader. He had a great smile that came from the heart and calm disposition and one not to be ruffled easily.” Farkas stayed until 1997, when Mark Nerenhausen took over, and then made a first attempt at retiring, though that didn’t last.

After working briefly as a development officer for Florida Atlantic University, Farkas, a longtime Miami Beach resident, became executive director of ArtCenter South Florida, then executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League, bringing his lifelong passion for historic preservation to the fore.

As MDPL’s director, he led efforts to restore and enhance Miami Beach’s historic districts and neighborhoods. He and his wife, the architecture critic, author and editor Beth Dunlop, lived in a historically important 1937 house in Miami Beach.

Former Miami Beach Mayor Mattie Bower said of Farkas, “Bill worked extremely hard to build up the Miami Design Preservation League, and he supported preservation and the historic district with all his might. He was nice and kind and respectful. The kind of person he was is hard to find nowadays.”

Matthew Mallow, an attorney and longtime family friend, believes Farkas’ contributions to South Florida will benefit generations of Floridians and visitors.

“I will remember his curiosity, the sparkle in his eye, his profound understanding of public policy and politics, and his joy in sharing with those he loved. His upbeat, positive attitude over the years when others would have given up in frustration is testimony to his indomitable spirit,” Mallow wrote in an email to Dunlop, Farkas’ wife of more than 42 years.

He was a lifelong sports enthusiast and loved to play golf, especially on the rolling courses near the family cottage on Lake Huron in Southwestern Ontario.

In addition to Dunlop, Farkas is survived by son Greg Farkas of Bristol, Tennessee; daughter Wendy Boyer of Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania; and son Adam Dunlop-Farkas of Los Angeles. He had seven grandchildren (Michael and Michelle Farkas and Jason, Jessica, Joshua and Jennifer Boyer, the late Matthew Farkas) and three great-grandchildren (Arabella, Kaitlyn and Taylor Farkas). A memorial service will be held at a time and date to be determined.

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