They hadn’t seen it coming.
Developers of a proposed adult congregate living facility (ACLF) in downtown Boca Raton had every reason to think that the city council—acting as the community redevelopment agency—would approve their project Monday afternoon. The staff had recommended approval. So had the community appearance and planning and zoning boards. Recent precedent was on their side.
Last August, the council approved a much larger but otherwise similar ACLF downtown, on East Royal Palm Road. Like the one proposed for the block at Dixie Highway and Southeast Sixth Street, this ACLF will be 10 stories tall and aimed at a higher-end clientele. That section of Royal Palm Road is two-lane and quiet, like Southeast Sixth Street. The council/CRA approved the Royal Palm Road project unanimously.
The next day, the council approved an ACLF for nearly five acres on Congress Avenue not far from the Delray Beach line. Unlike the one on Royal Palm Road, the project required a land-use change. City planners recommended denial. So did the planning and zoning board. Yet the council approved it unanimously.
On Monday, the developers made arguments similar to those from last August. Boca Raton needs more places for seniors to “age in place.” The facility adhered to Mizner-like downtown architectural guidelines and would be first-class. Architect Juan Caycedo called it “a Ritz-Carlton approach.” The project would produce $600,000 a year in property tax revenue for the school district, but it would not add a single new student.
As they did with the Royal Palm Road project, city planners noted that the project likely would generate many more calls for emergency medical services (EMS). Fire Chief Tom Wood spoke of the cost to keep up with demand. There were questions about parking spaces. Aside from the bizarre comment by one resident that the ACLF would bring “increased death,” it sounded like a rerun of last August.
As council members spoke, however, it became clear that the project was in trouble. Because of the vacancy resulting from Susan Haynie’s suspension, the developers needed three votes. They would fail with a 2-2 tie.
Councilwoman Monica Mayotte, who joined the council in March, worried that the project would “overpower” Sixth Street. Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke, who voted for the earlier ACLFs, mentioned parking spaces and wondered if such projects met the council’s “vision” for downtown because the residents wouldn’t contribute vitality and would be isolated. Mayor Scott Singer, who is running in the Aug. 28 special election, also expressed reservations.
Ultimately, only Councilman Jeremy Rodgers voted for the project. Afterward, the development team gathered outside the council chambers. Principal Ignacio Diaz likely was the most gobsmacked among them. In February, the council unanimously approved his nine-story condo project at 475 East Royal Palm Road. The city previously had approved Diaz’s condo farther west on Royal Palm Road. Council members had praised him for following the rules.
Why did the project fail? “Politics” was the explanation I heard from most people.
Mayotte’s addition to the council joins her with O’Rourke, who has been similarly opposed to “overdevelopment” even though she had voted for most of the projects that came before her. Singer, people said, might have wanted to appeal to that bloc of voters and knew he had a freebie. Mayotte’s and O’Rourke’s opposition was enough on its own.
Whatever the reason for it, the council’s decision is puzzling at best and dangerous at worst. It reminded me of what appeared to be politically motivated delay last January on rules for Midtown redevelopment. That action led to a lawsuit that seeks nearly $140 million in damages.
At one point, the developers’ attorney asked for a postponement, which would have avoided a rejection. But the council then veered into the idea of an emergency medical services study that might have taken at least six months. The developers, who have worked with the city for 20 months, interpreted this as a stall. The vote went ahead. And we’ll see what happens.
I reached out on Wednesday to Rob Buehl, a member of the development team for the ACLF. Buehl told me that they are “considering everything,” including a lawsuit. He said O’Rourke’s comment amounted to “age discrimination.”
In an email, Buehl—who lives in Boca Raton—said O’Rourke and Mayotte “made their position on the elderly very clear. The ‘old geezer’ stereotype is an unjust and prejudicial generalization that assumes all older adults naturally become weak, sick and forgetful. This is what constitutes ageism.”
Regarding EMS calls, Buehl said, “This is a topic that should have never been raised in the CRA meeting. As a landowner, we are not required to fund or supply EMS services. Our property taxes pay for such services, and the city is required to provide them. In addition, every 911 call is paid for by the patient’s insurer.”
Buehl noted that the facility would not have opened for three years, giving the city time to “ramp up.” Since the city went on record stating that they cannot supply EMS,” he added, “I can only assume this is now precedent, and no other project will be approved until such services are brought to proper supply.”
To Mayotte’s comment that the facility would “overpower” the street, Buehl said, “That statement was completely false and made it obvious that no homework was done prior to the meeting. Directly across Sixth Street is a 249,795 square foot building. This project would have created balance not unbalance.” The ACLF would be roughly 172,000 square feet, including parking.
O’Rourke and Mayotte, Buehl said, “stated that this development would not add to the downtown vitality, yet the residents and visiting friends and family would have required all of the surrounding services, such as restaurants, doctors, retail, etc. It’s disheartening to learn of their ageist attitudes.”
Politics may explain why a developer with no track record is getting a second chance to buy three acres of public land—at a discount of roughly 90 percent—on West Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach. But if Uptown/Equity and the community redevelopment agency agree on the purchase next month, hurricanes and disease also will have played a major role.
In Delray Beach, development approvals are good for two years. Uptown/Equity got its approval in December 2015. Uptown Atlantic was a mixed-use project on the three blocks east of the Fairfield Inn.
In December 2016, however, the CRA terminated the purchase agreement because developer John Flynn, had not been able to show that he had financing. Under normal circumstances, his approval would have expired last December. If that had happened, Mayor Shelly Petrolia and others would not have been able to argue that Uptown/Equity could get done quicker than other bidders because the approvals were still in place.
Under state law, however, any declaration of emergency extends an approval by six months as long as the declaration covers the county in question. Many such declarations from the governor’s office apply statewide.
Since December 2015, Gov. Rick Scott has issued emergency declarations for, among other things, hurricanes Matthew and Irma, the Zika outbreak and the outbreak of toxic algae in Lake Okeechobee. As a result, Uptown/Equity’s approvals won’t expire until October of 2020. Those natural disasters and health scares haven’t helped Florida, but they might help Uptown/Equity.
Streater goes to court
The 21-year-old driver who killed four people in Delray Beach three months ago faces 11 felony charges, most of them for DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide. Paul Wilson Streater was arrested Tuesday and made his first court appearance Wednesday.
Investigators determined that Streater was driving 107 miles per hour on South Federal Highway near Ed Morse Toyota when his Chevy Silverado barreled into the Dodge Caravan in which Jorge Raschiotto was riding with his sister, Veronica Raschiotto, and her two children, 8-year-old Diego and 6-year-old Maria. Streater did not try to stop. He nearly collided with several other vehicles.
Witnesses said the impact sounded like “an explosion.” Streater’s truck went airborne after it caved in the minivan. The victims likely died instantly.
Streater’s attorney blamed the crash on a malfunctioning accelerator. Toxicology tests, though, showed that Streater’s blood contained difluorethane, or DFE. Sniffing the inhalant, which is found in the household product Dust-Off, can cut off oxygen to the brain and lead to disorientation and increased risk-taking. Four hours before the crash, Streater and a friend had bought two cans of Dust-Off at the Wal-Mart on Federal Highway in Boynton Beach.
Last year, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a woman who had sniffed DFE and been found guilty of driving while impaired. The justices ruled that state statutes covering the crime did not list DFE as a hazardous substance.
Florida law also does not list DFE. The statute referenced in the information for Streater’s case, however, also covers “any similar substance for the purpose of inducing a condition of intoxication or which distorts or disturbs the auditory, visual, or mental processes.”
And Wittenberns has a court date
Meanwhile, a hearing is set for Oct. 17 in the case of Roger Wittenberns. The man who founded Lady of America Fitness faces charges similar to Streater’s in the September 2016 death of J. Gerald Smith.
Wittenberns’ Lamborghini struck Smith’s vehicle at North Federal Highway and Northeast First Street. Wittenberns and his girlfriend had been drinking at City Oyster. Witnesses said they appeared to be racing each other before the crash. Investigators said Wittenberns had a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit and was driving 75 miles per hour – 40 miles over the limit.
Wittenberns has pleaded not guilty. In court documents, he blames Smith for running a stop sign and the city for creating a dangerous intersection. Prosecutors say Wittenberns rammed Smith after he stopped and was trying to cross Federal Highway.
Police chase on Palmetto Park Road
Monday’s police chase in Boca Raton started from a sadly familiar story.
Armed teenagers from Broward County steal a car. They drive north on Interstate 95, get off in Boca Raton, commit a crime and try to head back to the highway before the police get wise.
This time, it didn’t happened that way. After the suspects robbed a man on Federal Highway north of Mizner Park, police followed the SUV to Yamato Road, then back south. The SUV turned west on Palmetto Park Road and crashed at the Spaghetti Bowl on 12th Avenue. Six suspects and the two drivers in the other cars went to the hospital.
Teenagers from Broward and Miami-Dade often use the method at night. They get off at a Boca Raton interchange, drive to an affluent neighborhood and scout for unlocked cars. This attempt was more brazen. It’s astonishing that no one was killed.
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