Ambitious Arts Complex in Boca Introduced

A showstopper happened during Tuesday’s Boca Raton City Council workshop meeting.

After two decades of wishing, the city’s cultural consortium has a plan for a performing arts complex. Supporters and city council members call the plan “bold.”

No kidding.

The group wants the city to donate 21 acres east of the Spanish River Library. In the center would be four buildings with five performance venues. The main theater would have 1,000 to 1,200 seats. On the north end would be a 240-room hotel or some other hospitality business, and on the south end would be 50,000 square feet of commercial development, such as restaurants, to support the venues. The project would cost between $75 million and $100 million, exclusive of the private development.

As the presentation stretched on and the scope became clear, some council members looked gobsmacked. The agenda item had been labeled simply “Cultural Arts Complex Presentation.” There had been no advance meetings of any substance with city staff. Most council members had not known of the request for land.

The consortium includes 15 groups, among them the Boca Museum of Art, Boca Raton Theater and Symphonia. Boca Ballet, though, appears to be the lead dog in this campaign. Two principal speakers on Tuesday were Andrea Virgin and Dan Guin. Virgin owns an eponymous planning/engineering in the city and serves on the Boca Ballet board. Guin is the troupe’s executive director. Virgin’s company also is part of the group’s leadership.

Virgin told me Wednesday that the consortium “really got cranking” on the proposal in January. But she and others didn’t want to go before the council until after the Aug. 28 special election. They didn’t approach Mayor Scott Singer because he was on the ballot. That would explain why Singer seemed among the most surprised. They did speak with Councilwomen Monica Mayotte and Andrea O’Rourke, which would explain why they looked less surprised and asked far fewer questions than their colleagues.

“I did not expect the number of people” who came to the meeting “and the depth” of the presentation, Singer said Wednesday. “They have a number of steps” before the council could decide.

Wildflower Park (Randy Schultz)

Start with the land. The consortium wants a long-term ground lease, which essentially is a sale. That’s what the city had been working on with Hillstone Restaurant Group for the Wildflower site until a voter-approved ordinance in 2016 blocked the deal.

With the Wildflower, though, city officials knew whom they were dealing with. With the 21 acres by the library, there are few details. Because the project would include private development, Singer said, legal issues could arise if the consortium wanted to sublease space for the private development.

Also unlike the Wildflower deal, the city likely would get no lease payments. Organizers want the lease to have just the token annual payment of $1. Virgin said outright donation “makes this so much more feasible.”

Singer also noted that the council has heard nothing related to “the bread and butter of what the city does.” He meant traffic, drainage and all the other issues that the city reviews with any proposed commercial project. The venues would require separate review.

For all those legitimate questions, the presentation makes clear that consortium leaders have done considerable research already. They traveled to places with similar cultural clusters. They had support Tuesday from the Washington, D.C.-based Americans for the Arts.

Virgin said the consortium examined all possible sites in Boca Raton before settling on the land next to the library. “We needed the path of least resistance.” The property is vacant, so there would be no demolition costs. Council members wondered if Florida Atlantic University, which is in the consortium and would use the venues, might have land. An FAU dean politely said no.

According to the presentation, the consortium projects that the main theater would be 50 percent booked just with current programming, the theater lab 70 percent booked and the black box theater 50 percent. Those numbers will mean more in this debate than traffic counts.

All council members expressed support for the arts—who wouldn’t like the idea of this project?—but they worry about the city having to take over if it fizzled or failed. Singer raised the prospect of the city “having to finance construction.” Boca Raton took over the Mizner Park Amphitheater, but that was an established operation and required no capital expense.

Virgin, Guin and others told the council that the consortium intends to create an endowment that would run into the tens of millions of dollars. A private foundation, with a board of directors, would operate the complex. One can assume that the board would include the big donors.

Though Virgin said the consortium does not aspire to build a similar facility, the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach offers a reasonable comparison. The city donated the land, and the fundraising campaign allowed the Kravis to open debt-free more in the early 1990s. An expansion/makeover, fully funded, is underway.

Supporters filled much of Tuesday’s presentation with gushing praise for the arts in general and this project in particular. One woman said it could be “the Lincoln Center of Boca Raton,” perhaps not the best comparison, given that fabled complex’s current financial issues.

All the council members, however, know that the arts can help a city’s economy. They understand the excitement among consortium members.

But as the council members said, they don’t know enough about the plan.

“I love the concept,” Andy Thomson said. “We need to use the land in a prudent way. We need answers to our questions.”

Virgin said the consortium must “flesh out why this site is the best. We can’t proceed if don’t have that commitment from the city.” Virgin said the consortium has pledges from potential donors who won’t start to sign checks until they know the project will proceed.

Council members and staff, however, won’t commit until they hear more from the consortium. Singer said Tuesday, “We can’t give a yes or no” at this point. Counwilman Jeremy Rodgers called the land donation “a very open question.”

Rodgers spoke further on Thursday. He worries that the city would be too short on land if the 21 acres went for the arts complex. He noted that while the consortium packed the chamber Tuesday, “Those aren’t the views of the whole city.” Rodgers suggested that the city survey residents or even hold a referendum.

Virgin hopes to have more information for the city “in a month or two.” In retrospect, it might have been better to pitch council members and staff in advance. Consortium leaders are trying to build momentum, having briefed Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce trustees Wednesday morning, but it’s still the opening act.

Midtown

After another fairly pointless presentation on Midtown, Boca Raton Mayor Scott Singer asked for public comment. When it appeared that no one would speak—one person eventually did—Singer remarked, “Not long ago, this was a big deal.”

True, but that’s when Midtown held the promise of a makeover that would create a new, dynamic neighborhood. Then BocaWatch and Publisher Al Zucaro began carping, and the city council nine months ago ended negotiations with Crocker Partners, the major landowner.

Now Crocker is suing, and the other landowners are doing their own thing. So the public comment Boca Raton is seeking on Midtown won’t mean much.

One good thing did happen during Tuesday’s discussion. City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser dismissed the idea of creating a community redevelopment agency for Midtown. Frieser said state rules for creating CRAs are far more restrictive than they were in 1980, when Boca Raton created the downtown CRA.

Moreover, CRAs exist to eradicate blight. Midtown is not blighted. It’s dated. That’s why Simon Property Group is doing a makeover of Town Center Mall. The chance of that wider Midtown makeover probably is dead.

Dangerous chemicals?

Decorum is supposed to prevail during meetings of the Boca Raton City Council and Delray Beach City Commission, but there are times when elected officials need to push back.

On Tuesday, several Boca Raton residents accused city staff of basically terrorizing mothers with baby strollers by spraying dangerous chemicals in parks. These residents appear regularly and want the city to use nothing but organic methods of killing weeds and insects.

After they spoke, Mayor Scott Singer asked City Manager Leif Ahnell to respond. Ahnell said, correctly, that the city recently made a presentation on this subject that refuted many of the residents’ claims about the cost and efficacy of organic treatment. Recreation Services Director Michael Kalvort refuted the claims of aerial spraying. Ahnell noted that he wished the residents had stayed to hear the response.

By design, public comment is a free-ranging open forum. Like any debate, however, it must turn on facts. Andrea O’Rourke said of the speakers, “We appreciate your passion. We hear you.” Singer had the better comment, even it sounded redundant: “It’s important to get accurate facts.”

Tom Walsh

Thomas Walsh, who founded Delray Beach-based Ocean Properties, died Oct. 6 in Bangor, Maine.

Walsh grew up in Bangor and bought his first hotel in Brewer, across the Penobscot River from Bangor. Walsh’s family has taken over operation of Ocean Properties, which now has 110 properties, four of them in Delray Beach.

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