Boca Talks Mizner Arts Center and Delray Gets Tough On Panhandling

mizner park
Performing Arts Center Main View / Rendering courtesy of IBI Group, Inc

Monday’s city council workshop meeting could be an inflection point in the debate over a performing arts center at Mizner Park in Boca Raton.

Last fall, the Boca Raton Arts District Exploratory Commission (BRADEC) laid out its dream of a $120 million project. It would remake the Mizner Park Amphitheater, including the addition of a long-sought canopy, and construct a complementary complex on vacant city-owned land that adjoins the amphitheater to the east.

For that to happen, BRADEC would need the council to approve a lease for that 1.8-acre site, which has a market value of roughly $1 million. The terms of that lease will be the focus of Monday’s discussion. Deputy City Manager George Brown will make a presentation, recapping negotiations between the city and BRADEC over the last four months.

According to a city spokeswoman, Brown will discuss “terms that each organization would like to see in a lease and where there might be some differences. Staff is then hoping for direction from council on how to proceed.”

Some terms are predictable and straightforward. Such as:

  • Length of the lease: BRADEC had asked for 99 years. Staff has suggested 30 years with renewal periods.
  • Operation of the amphitheater: BRADEC wants to assume control of the facility. Council members earlier asked what would happen to city-sponsored free events that were very popular pre-pandemic, especially in the summer. Expect discussion of scheduling.
  • Financing: There is general agreement that the two sides would not execute the lease until BRADEC had raised enough money to ensure that the organization could build the project. BRADEC President Andrea Virgin estimates the construction cost at $100 million. The lease would need to include a specific figure that BRADEC would have to raise.

That last point gets to the heart of the issue: Is the potential of this project worth the risk? Though council members agreed that a successful arts center would be wonderful for the city, the amphitheater offers reason for caution.

The non-profit Mizner Park Center for the Arts built the amphitheater and planned to run it. But the group ran into problems, including a lawsuit from the entertainment promoter Live Nation. Eleven years ago, the city took over the amphitheater and has run it ever since. Could the same thing happen with the arts center?

Virgin said BRADEC understands the risk. The group plans to raise not just the money for construction but also for an endowment toward operating expenses, for an overall goal of $120 million. A “threshold number” to trigger execution of the lease, Virgin said, will be “a negotiating point.”

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on live performances, Virgin said BRADEC’s timing actually might be good for fundraising. She noted the number of affluent people moving to South Florida from northern cities because of pandemic restrictions and the shift to working from home.

“A lot of corporations,” Virgin said, “are coming here and looking to make a name for themselves.”

Council members Andrea O’Rourke and Monica Mayotte expressed the most support during last October’s discussion. They and others point out that the center would fulfill the original vision to make Mizner Park a cultural hub.

West of the amphitheater is the Boca Raton Museum of Art. Coincidentally, the city is negotiating with the museum on its request to take down the colonnade on the west side of the amphitheater and allow other changes that would improve access to the museum.  

Irvin Lippman, the museum’s executive director, is on BRADEC’s advisory board. “We’ve had many great conversations,” Virgin said. The museum and Boca Raton, a city spokeswoman said, are “working on the details of an agreement, finalizing architectural design, and determining property land use terms.” Another meeting may happen this week.

The arts center, remade amphitheater and museum would create a nearly five-acre cultural cluster on the north side of Mizner Park after other ventures, such as the International Museum of Cartoon Art and the private Jazziz, failed on the south side.  

Virgin told me that she hopes a lease could come before the planning and zoning board and then the council “this spring.” BRADEC, Virgin said, cannot begin its fundraising campaign in earnest without approval of the lease.

As noted, however, even that would not guarantee that the project happens. In addition to the fundraising, BRADEC would need approval of its site plan. From that point, Virgin said, work on the amphitheater would take a year. Construction of the arts center would take another year.  

The council that will debate the issue Monday could look different after the March 9 election. Mayotte is up for re-election. Yvette Drucker, who has her seat on an interim basis, also is on the ballot seeking a full term. On the current schedule, the next council likely would make the final decision.

I’ll have an update after the meeting.  

The panhandling issue  

delray

Nothing gets an afternoon going like a five-hour discussion of “open defecation and urination.” That was the theme Wednesday as the Delray Beach City Commission discussed the proposed panhandling ordinance.

It was a proceeding designed like a grand jury presentation. Attorney Michael Kahn, who has worked on similar ordinances in other Florida cities, is the city’s outside counsel. Like a prosecutor, he called witnesses and advocated for the ordinance. The testimony outlined what Commissioner Adam Frankel described as “more of a problem than we think.”

Commissioners heard representatives from the fire and parks and recreation department talk about feces left in public space by “known panhandlers.” An emergency room physician explained the “adverse health effects” from people who defecate in public and then make “close contact” when panhandling.

They heard how the panhandling problem is especially bad at places with “captive audiences,” such as ATMs, red lights, bus stops and outdoor restaurant tables. They heard anecdotes of what the ordinance calls “aggressive panhandling” and would ban citywide. They heard stories of panhandlers taking wine and food from tables of downtown diners. They even heard about one man who carried a parrot and demanded money for taking a picture with the bird.

The attorney stressed that the ordinance would not regulate homelessness and vagrancy, even though panhandlers would seem likely to be homeless or jobless. It would ban all panhandling after 5 p.m. and within specific distances from certain locations, including those “captive areas.” And it would ban “aggressive panhandling” citywide.  

There seemed little doubt that many businesses have complained about panhandling and have heard similar complaints from customers. Only Commissioner Shirley Johnson seemed to challenge the narrative, asking many questions that reflected skepticism of the ordinance.  

Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Laura Simon ended the testimony, speaking for the ordinance on behalf of all DDA members. Last week, Simon said, a panhandler who had received no money got angry and cracked a car windshield with a rock.

The commission then voted 4-1—with Johnson the exception—to approve the ordinance on first reading. It is scheduled to come back for a second and final reading at the commission’s regular Feb. 18 meeting.  

Boca charter changes

In addition to those two city council races, Boca Raton will vote on two charter changes related to elections.

One would change from 30 days to one year the length of time candidates would have to live in the city before running. People who have homestead exemptions outside the city could not run. Candidates would have to provide proof of residency.  

The other proposal would remove the option of candidates qualifying by paying a fee. Instead, they would have to provide 200 verified signatures of registered voters within the city.  

Police union endorses Scott   

Constance Scott has announced the endorsement of the police union in her candidacy against Drucker for Seat C on the Boca Raton City Council. She previously received the endorsement of the union that represents the city’s firefighters.    

Delray signs of the times  

Speaking of elections, I’ve been getting calls that this is the worst year in Delray Beach for stealing campaign signs. City commissioner Ryan Boylston, who’s running for reelection in Seat 3 against Mitch Katz, said, “You can quote me. Most of the stolen signs have been mine or Tracy Caruso’s.” Caruso is challenging Mayor Shelly Petrolia.  

Vacation rentals come up again

Again this year, bills in the Legislature would preempt local control of vacation rentals. House Bill 219 and Senate Bill 522 is the latest attempt to please the politically connected industry whose critics contend that proliferation of rentals harm single-family neighborhoods and condo communities. Neither bill has received a hearing.