Many environmentalists and city planners said Weston should never have been built, Weston has emerged as a carefully designed hometown community for families from around the world.
While the residents of the city—more than 68,388, according to statistics compiled in 2013—celebrate the city’s 20th anniversary this month, visionary developers, mayors, businesspeople and citizens lionize its virtues.
And there are many to applaud. According to current Mayor Daniel J. Stermer, Weston is a unique place to live because the city truly focuses on families. It provides members of the community with facilities and programming geared specifically toward them. “Whether it’s our world-class parks system, our nationally recognized bicycle system, the cultural and arts programming through community partners, our home of A-grade schools that the city interacts with safety and security by utilizing the latest technology and equipment, or our houses of worship that meet the needs of our diverse composition of residents, we have it all,” says Stermer. He adds, “We do everything for the benefit of our residents, yet strive to make their investment in our city appreciate so in years to come, it will be worth more than when they first purchased.”
Stermer, along with other city fathers and long-time residents, especially likes the original concept for Weston, for which the developer’s emphasis was placed on the residential aspects over commercial possibilities. “We knew early on that we had to put amenities for residents upfront,” says Patrick Sessions, who served as president of the Weston division of The Arvida Corp., the city΄s original developer. “We focused on parks, athletic clubs, sidewalks, boulevards, tree-lined streets, a band shell, city club and homes that had to meet our specifications. We put residential needs above commercial opportunities.”
Sessions and his team wanted to create a community for families with perfectly designed neighborhoods, upscale homes, flawless lawns, and cutesy mailboxes, street lights and plantings. Nothing should be out of place. Not a Celebration, Florida, with a cinematic storybook feel, but a well planned, functioning city that looked great and worked well. “We did 100 houses a year,” Sessions remembers of the early days. “And they were not really high-end at that time; $200,000 was an average price.” (Arvida eventually went on to build 1,000 homes a year in Weston.)
Now comprising 15,000 acres, Weston has become one of the best-selling planned communities in the U.S. Today, more than 44.9 percent of its population is of Hispanic or Latino origin, with 51.5 percent of its overall homeowners speaking a language other than English. “Weston was not so international when we first developed it,” reveals Sessions. “This international element happened after Hurricane Andrew, when people needed to stay for a while while their damaged homes were being repaired. Many ended up buying and moving to Weston permanently. Latins, Central Americans, Nicaraguan friends and families, etc., got this segment of the population going.”
Indeed, Weston now has a fascinating and diverse community of people from around the globe who work together for the benefit of all. They are proud of their postcard-perfect city and spend the time it takes to keep it beautiful, peaceful and prosperous. “As a child, I never quite appreciated growing up in Weston,” says Elizabeth Pratts, a senior account executive with rbb Communications in Coral Gables. “The movie theater and mall were 15 minutes away, but for a pre-teen still unable to drive, it might as well have been as far away as Disney World. Today, as an adult, I relish visiting home after a long work week in the city. There is a calmness to Weston. Plus, it’s my favorite place to stargaze.”
But it wasn’t always that way. The earliest beginnings were anything but peaceful, international and family-oriented.
In a 1991 Sun Sentinel article by John deGroot and Chuck Clark, the question of Weston being built at all was examined at length. Since Weston, the largest housing project ever created in South Florida, was being developed on 10,000 acres of former Everglades brush and swamp, controversy swirled around Arvida and its intentions for many years. The reporters wrote that environmentalists had spent nearly 20 years waging an eco-war against Arvida, claiming that Weston was destroying the finest wetlands outside of the Everglades conservation areas, “endangering South Florida’s water supply and slaughtering a fragile ecosystem.”
Arvida hired its own lawyers and lobbyists to fight back and convince the naysayers that they were trying to build a hot new city on land that looked like it could have come straight out of the film Deliverance. They endeavored to convince environmentalists that nothing but good could come from its development. The developer would raise more than a half-billion dollars in special taxes and fees from Weston homeowners after transforming the wetlands into a super city. And proper, eco-friendly development would keep nature and the environment intact.
Sessions was astute in countering the environmental negativity around Arvida’s idea of developing Weston, employing a green consultant named Roy Rogers who became his conscience. Together, they focused on landscaping and parks and developing with the residents’ best interests in mind. They landscaped interchanges, created parks and wide sidewalks, and made building sports facilities a priority.
While enduring flack from architects, land planners and environmentalists, Sessions and Rogers went beyond what would make people happy to live in Weston and raise their families. “I grew up in Coral Gables and still live there,” says Sessions of his vision for Weston. “My childhood memories are of sidewalks and parks. We created Weston based on my memories of Coral Gables. There is a lot of that city in Weston.”
Arvida’s “master plan” for the suburban city that Money magazine later touted as one of the top places to live in the U.S. was first envisioned by Arthur Vining Davis, the original owner of Arvida. The Weston land was originally known as Indian Trace. In 1978, with the first of what would be many development plans, the Indian Trace Development of Regional Impact (DRI) was approved, which permitted 25,000 dwelling units to be built, although it was eventually reduced to17,000.
In 1981, the Indian Trace Community Development District was created to finance and manage the construction and to maintain water, sewer and water management bodies and arterial roadways. It was governed by a five-member developer appointed Board of Supervisors. The name Indian Trace was changed to Arvida, and in 1984, the first homes were completed in Windmill Ranch and Country Isles, and Weston became home to its first residents.
In November 1991, with more than 5,000 residents in Weston, and the Indian Trace Community Development District 10 years old, residents were given power to make their own decisions by being elected to three of the five seats on the Board of Supervisors. Two years later, other residents were elected to the two remaining seats. So residents had full control of their district. After research, project studies, conversations, unpleasant conflicts and everything else that goes into convincing people that something new can actually be better, Weston developed into a self-sustainable community, then a new city, as the tax dollars generated by the residents would remain in Weston under the control of and for the use of the residents. Plus, planning and zoning matters would also be decided by the residents.
On Sept. 3, 1996, the residents of Indian Trace Community Development district went to the polls. Of those voting, 90 percent voted to incorporate, and the city of Weston was born. The interim city commission had Harry Rosen as interim mayor, and John Flint, Mark Myers and Eric Hersh as interim commissioners. Hersh became mayor in 2001, and was re-elected three times. He felt Weston was a financially powerful city, and a special place to live with a unique form of government. But there were disagreements over everything.
“At the beginning we didn’t agree on anything,” says Hersh. “But in the end we quit fighting and agreed. We cooperated and became leaders in the state. We spearheaded November elections, real estate tax exemptions and worked on aspects of life to protect our community. We never acted like a distressed community. And Weston became the premier place in Florida to raise a family.”
Yet, like anywhere else, Weston has endured its challenges, among them Hurricane Wilma, financial downturns in the economy, and dry years in general where money needed to be raised. Then, add the merging of diverse cultures that were laying down roots in Weston, and ensuing disagreements forced compromises. Latinos, Asians, Europeans, residents from Pacific Island nations, and other international spots joined Americans in this beautifully planned city. But eventually, most differences were resolved with rational talk that actually helped strengthen real estate values and preserve financial assets.
In the end, Weston was the least affected city by the financial downturn. “We always had a good working relationship with the county and the developer, so we continued to work well together,” says Hersh. “Arvida was happy, and Weston residents were happy. Today, Weston remains unique.”
Another positive aspect of Weston life was that, with the development of so many parks, clubs and sports fields, the city attracted top jocks in all disciplines. In fact, former Miami Dolphins star Dan Marino was Arvida’s initial hook. The superstar quarterback worked for Arvida as a spokesperson for five years while raising his family in Weston. (The 1999 film Any Given Sunday, starring Dennis Quaid, Cameron Diaz and Al Pacino, was filmed using Marino’s mansion at the time.) “Dan did a great job for us,” says Sessions. “In the end, we couldn’t afford his fee, and when we told him, he said he still wanted to stay on.” Other athletes, like former football star John Offerdahl and former Major League Baseball star Jeff Conine, also bought property in Weston because they loved the city and what it had to offer. “I love Weston because it is a great place to raise a family,” says Conine.
Sessions, who left Arvida to form his own company in the late 1990s, says he is prouder of Weston than any other city he has developed. He was smart enough to make some sweet deals with prestigious companies that opened businesses and offices in Weston. A major coup was attracting the Cleveland Clinic in 2001, a nationally respected medical institution and hospital. Fifteen years later, Wael K. Barsoum, MD, president of Cleveland Clinic Florida, has no regrets. “We established an expanded presence in Weston with a long-term view of providing world-class care to the region into the 21st century and beyond, just as Weston was beginning to realize its long-term vision for creating a world-case residential and business community,” he says. “The future looks right as the City of Weston and Cleveland Clinic Florida continue to grow together.”
Orthodontist John J. Marchetto, who practices in the Weston Town Center with Dr. Marissa Cooper, has watched Weston grow into a vibrant community while retaining its small-town roots. “From the landscaping to the architecture, everything has been well planned and maintained to keep a small-town feel,” says Dr. Marchetto, who has lived in Weston for 20 years. “It is a wonderful place to live, raise a family and practice.”
Lawyer and resident Andrew B. Yaffa, a partner in Miami’s Grossman, Roth, Yaffa and Cohen law firm, loves living in Weston because of the closeness of the community, the safety, the impeccable beauty beyond the gates, and the quality of life afforded to those who live there. “Nowhere else in Florida can you raise a family with such community support,” says Yaffa. “We have some of the best public schools in the nation and our parks rival any city—anywhere! I commute to Miami for work and despite the time it takes me to drive, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else than Weston.”
As a model for other cities in Florida and around the U.S., Weston is still attracting attention. More developers want to share in the glory of Arvida’s suburban nugget. Terra of Miami is developing Botaniko Weston because its president, David Martin, sees many of the same possibilities that the early developers of Arvida first imagined. He wants to enhance people’s lives by combining great design with the beauty of nature and well landscaped spaces and pocket parks for bike riding, jogging, dog walking, showcasing art and sculpture, even for practicing yoga.
Since Weston has already proven itself in many areas, new developments like Botaniko Weston can prosper and complement the original with the right kind of environmentally prudent developing, future planning and open communication within the local government, planners and city fathers. “Weston is a pristinely planned community,” says Martin. “It is a vibrant, evolving city that boasts some of the best schools and parks in South Florida. It is not only one of the most coveted suburban neighborhoods in the region, it’s also a model for other cities to emulate.”
If you and your family are looking to settle here, call Susan J Penn PA 954-557-5993
source: In Weston Magazine