Power play on the power lines

Trader Joe’s probably will open in Boca Raton as scheduled on Sept. 26. But the city council made clear Monday night that if the city’s priority delays that opening, the city council is fine with that.

Readers of this blog may recall that on July 21 the city council—acting in its role as the board of the Community Redevelopment Agency—was to hear a request from the developer of East City Center—where Trader Joe’s will be the prime tenant—that two power poles in the parking lot be allowed to stay, even though the city’s development order had stated that the power lines had to be underground. Before that meeting, though, council members had made clear that they opposed the request, and the developer’s representative withdrew it.

So, what has happened? We found out at Monday’s CRA meeting, and in a curious way.

The otherwise uneventful, 25-minute meeting was winding up, as usual, with council members’ comments. Mike Mullaugh had nothing. Neither did Mayor Susan Haynie. Then Constance Scott asked about the power lines at East City Center. She hadn’t heard anything from the staff and wanted “an update.” The “update” took longer than the meeting had run to that point. “I was packing up,” Robert Weinroth joked, “and all of a sudden this comes out of nowhere.”

But what a fascinating and revealing “update” it was.

Deputy City Manager George Brown began by telling the council that staff had been talking with the developer about the city issuing a temporary certificate of occupancy—referred to as a “TCO” for most of the meeting—that would allow Trader Joe’s to open on time but would require that the developer—Halvorsen Holdings—bury the lines, which Scott called “horrific-looking,” within a certain time or risk not getting a permanent certificate of occupancy. Boca Raton’s policy is that redevelopment within the CRA have underground utilities.

Halvorsen’s first proposal, Brown said, was for a six-month deadline to bury the lines. You could see that the council never would accept that much of a cushion. Haynie talked about giving the developer “some level of flexibility,” but said the city had to set a “strict guideline,” which in her mind meant no more than 90 days.

Haynie also asked why the work had been delayed. Only Florida Power & Light can do the work, Brown said, and the company has not scheduled it. Staff members are “waiting to hear from FPL.”

I contacted FPL Wednesday, and a spokesman told me that the utility should have a price for the developer by next week, based on what the developer submitted for the extent of the work. FPL, the spokesman added, believes that “barring weather” or any other unforeseen problem, the company can complete the work “by the end of the year.”

As the comments at Monday’s meeting veered toward criticism of Trader Joe’s, Brown said, “This is not their fault. This is the developer’s fault.” True, but we also learned Monday night that Trader Joe’s might call the shots.

The Boca store is set to open six weeks from Friday, three weeks after the Delray Beach store opens. The shell of the Boca store basically is complete. Aside from that tiny matter of the power lines, the developer’s work is mostly done.

Trader Joe’s work and expense, however, are just revving up. The company must install fixtures and do all the finishing work, then staff and stock the store. Businesses detest uncertainty. Brown summed it up: “Trader Joe’s is concerned about putting stuff in the store with a TCO. We are concerned about (giving) a (certificate of occupancy) and work not getting done.”

Right. What is the incentive for the developer to bury the lines if the city has signed off on the project with the lines above ground? Haynie noted that the certificate of occupancy is “the hammer we hold.” Mullaugh concluded that the developer “has no interest in cooperating” and possibly “cannot be trusted,” so the city’s proposal on the power lines must be “ironclad.”

Brown cautioned that he would not characterize Halvorsen as being unwilling to cooperate, but he did note that the developer had asked about getting a certificate of occupancy just for Trader Joe’s and a temporary CO for the “balance” of the site. The staff’s response was that the temporary CO had to be for the entire site.

Councilman Scott Singer, who was running the meeting, then asked well-known Boca Raton land-use lawyer Charlie Siemon to come up. He represents Halvorsen, and Siemon criticized the council for portraying “the 20th-largest shopping center developer in the country like a “thief who will steal out of town” if he doesn’t get what he wants. “Poor Jeff Halvorsen,” Siemon said, “is the victim.” That would be the same Jeff Halvorsen whose home in Royal Palm Yacht and Country Club is assessed at $2.5 million.

City Manager Leif Ahnell, who doubles as director of the CRA, wanted to make clear that the requirement to bury the lines should not have surprised the developer. “This body (the CRA) approved” the plan,” Ahnell said. “With that footnote,” Siemon responded. The city “communicated” the requirement to the developer, Ahnell said. “Mistakes were made,” Siemon acknowledged, adding finally that Halvorsen wants a solution that “does not interfere with the opening.”

Trader Joe’s cult status in the retail food industry is the sizzle on this issue, but there’s also some steak. Local governments set development rules for a reason. Local governments can change those rules, but that should happen only if there’s a good reason. Boca’s rule on burying downtown power lines is based on safety and beautification. The power poles in the East City Center parking lot could come down in a bad storm and are ugly. Letting them stay could set a bad precedent.

Singer noted that the council’s seeming consensus on issuing a temporary CO for 90 days was “not a formal vote.” The public discussion, though, left no doubt that as much as the council welcomes Trader Joe’s, the city matters more than the store.

Date check    

One more thing on that Trader Joe’s opening:

Did no one at the company check to see that Sept. 26 at sundown is the end of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year? If the company is looking for all-day buzz when the doors open, expect things to be flatter than if someone had taken a look at the calendar.

All quiet on the eastern front 

Boca Raton and Delray Beach residents who live near the Florida East Coast Railway tracks probably can relax. It appears that when All Aboard Florida starts service in 2016, the 32 new trains a day will pass through relatively quickly and relatively quietly.

On Tuesday, All Aboard Florida and the transportation planning agencies for Palm Beach and Broward counties announced that money is available for “quiet zones” along the FEC, whose tracks run through coastal downtowns in Palm Beach and Broward. After the quiet zones—safety upgrades at grade crossings—are in place, trains should not have to blow their whistles.

The quiet zones have been a potential problem since All Aboard Florida revealed plans in 2012 for express service from Miami to Orlando with stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. The 16 trains each way won’t tie up traffic in Boca and Delray the way long, lumbering freight trains can, but the two cities want to draw residents downtown, not just visitors. So does West Palm Beach. Regular, new train blasts could discourage people from buying downtown, even if those blasts wouldn’t come later than perhaps 10 p.m. or earlier than 7 a.m. The service will be daily.

In shirtsleeve English, quiet zones are safety upgrades extensive enough that drivers can’t try to beat a train and get caught on the tracks. The requirements and the cost depend on the crossings. Some will need more—added gates, a new media—than others. A spokeswoman for Palm Beach County’s Metropolitan Organization (MPO) says there is a Quiet Zone Calculator—who knew?—and those federal officials have been in the MPO’s office checking out the 114 crossings in the county.

Boca Raton and other communities had not wanted to pay for the quiet zones. Apparently, they won’t have to. The two planning agencies had set aside some federal money—$6.6 million in the case of Palm Beach County—for design work on other projects in the FEC rail corridor. The Florida Department of Transportation, however, will pay for that work, so the federal money can go toward the quiet zones. Plans are for the work to proceed in tandem with improvements All Aboard Florida must make to prepare the tracks for more, and faster trains. They will run at no more than 79 miles per hour south of West Palm but will accelerate to more than 100 for the run to Cocoa and then northwest to the Orlando airport.

This helpful development will not end the debate about All Aboard Florida. Though gates in Boca may be down for only about a minute in Boca, residents of northern Palm Beach County and Martin and St. Lucie counties still will object to more frequent bridge closings, since raising and lowering bridges takes much longer than raising and lowering gates. Critics will object to the $1.5 billion federal loan the company is requesting even as the company talks about this being a private project. There remains the question of whether All Aboard Florida is designed more to prepare the FEC tracks for added freight traffic. Is there really a market for this service? There also remains the possibility of local commuter rail service on the FEC, which could enhance the region’s transportation network.

That debate will be noisy. As for All Aboard Florida’s trains, not so much.

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

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About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.