Friday, April 12, 2024

Hotel Near the Boca Beach? BocaWatch Returns and Delray Looks for Wheels and Deals

A developer wants to put a Ritz-Carlton hotel on Ocean Strand, Boca Raton’s largest piece of vacant oceanfront property.

Representatives of Boca Raton-based Compson Associates have been meeting with city council members and commissioners of the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District. The district owns the 15 acres at 2300 North Ocean Boulevard. The city would have to rezone the property from recreational and approve any project.

Councilwoman Monica Mayotte

Councilwoman Monica Mayotte said Compson President Robert Comparato and Vice President Robert D’Angelo showed her a sketch depicting a pair of 11-story towers west of A1A. One would be the hotel and the other would be condos, similar to the Mandarin Oriental and residences under construction as part of Via Mizner in the south end of downtown Boca.

In addition, Mayotte said she was told, the project would include a marina on the Intracoastal Waterway and possibly a restaurant. A tunnel under A1A would provide access to the beach. The public could use the marina. Nothing would be built on the oceanfront. All parking would be underground. Hotel guests could play golf at Boca National, which the district is building to replace the city’s western municipal course.

According to Mayotte and others who have met with Compson, money from the sale of Ocean Strand could finance construction of Boca National, the upgrade of Gumbo Limbo Nature Center just south of Ocean Strand and possibly Phase 2 of de Hoernle Park. The combined cost of those projects could be $40 million.

There is no current appraisal of the property. The city bought it for $11.9 million in 1994 after a developer proposed a residential project with 200 units on the west side and as many as 16 on the beach. The district then reimbursed the city and took ownership.

In 2011, Penn-Florida proposed a members-only beach club tied to Via Mizner. That idea met strong opposition. Neighbors even objected in 2017 when the city’s waterfront consultant proposed a plan for Ocean Strand that would include campgrounds, a restaurant and recreation rentals.

In an email, Mayotte expressed several concerns, starting with traffic impacts on A1A. She noted that the elevation of Ocean Strand “seems to be very low as you drive down the steep hill onto the property. How will they create parking underground?”

Mayotte said Compson was “not interested” in speaking with residents near Ocean Strand, particularly those in Boca Towers next door. “For this type of BIG project, community involvement is imperative.” Mayotte acknowledged that the project could relieve the city from having to help pay for Boca National. But she added, “Is selling off public lands the right approach to accomplishing this? I don’t think so.”

District commissioner Steve Engel was blunter: “Speaking for myself, I am opposed to the sale of Ocean Strand, period, whether to Compson or anyone else.”

Commissioner Craig Ehrnst said, “If this is something the city and residents desire, we will have a community discussion. From my perspective, Ocean Strand is a priceless property that needs to be open for public use. There will be plenty of public discussion before anything is decided.”

Commissioner Bob Rollins met with Compson and said, “I’m still thinking.” Commissioner Susan Vogelgesang said, “There are ideas being explored to help with a number of projects to benefit the community, but there is nothing concrete to share at this point.”

Mayor Scott Singer would say only that he had a “brief discussion” about the proposal. “I strongly encouraged anyone making such a proposal to reach out to all community stakeholders, including neighboring residents, the Beach Condo Association, and (beach and park district) commissioners.”

Engel called it “highly unlikely” that the district would put up Ocean Strand for sale. Even if that happened, the district couldn’t simply sell the property to Compson. The agency would have to open it up to any bidder, as Boca Raton did with the western golf course. The commissioners would decide how to spend money from a sale.

You can assume that this proposal would be one of the toughest development sell jobs ever in Boca Raton. I asked for comment from Compson, but did not hear back by deadline for this post.

BocaWatch is back

Al Zucaro

BocaWatch is back—with a competitor.

Publisher Al Zucaro shut down the website last fall, following his 30-point loss to Scott Singer in the mayor’s race. Last week, an email announced BocaWatch’s return. The site offered some new material, but a lot of posts remained from the run-up to the election.

A week earlier, an email—likely using the BocaWatch list—announced the arrival of a website called BocaFirst. Some of the founders were regular contributors to BocaWatch, and they credited Zucaro with “blazing the trial, setting a standard and providing inspiration” for “residents and many underserved businesses.”

BocaFirst said, “While many of the areas of focus remain the same, BocaFirst will be different than BocaWatch.” There were no details.

Though calling itself “an independent voice,” BocaFirst seems short on transparency. Some articles carry bylines. Others don’t. That could make it hard for readers to know if someone is anonymously pushing an agenda. A note says blog posts “are done by a team of BocaFirst volunteers who collaborate together to boil down research and meetings into a ‘net-net’ (sic) of what happened and what it means to our readers. The team may consist of regular contributors or citizens offering their help.”

I emailed Zucaro some questions about BocaWatch’s return and edited the responses for length.

Zucaro said he revived the website “for the same reasons BocaWatch was originally started: to inform and educate the resident on the actions, or lack thereof, of their elected officials and their local government.

“Moreover, I thoroughly enjoy publishing BocaWatch and felt disconnected and a bit bored during the hiatus.”

Zucaro said there would be differences.

“In the past, I tempered a lot of what was said with opinions of the others involved. Now, with no intention of running for elected office (Zucaro also lost the mayor’s race in 2014) and with other voices having chosen a different path, I am more free to focus on what interests me the most and what alternative solutions might be available for residents to consider. Instead of a language of general appeal, I can be more candid and get straight to the point.”

Zucaro’s current thoughts on Midtown will interest those involved with the city’s failure to write development rules and the subsequent landowner lawsuits.

BocaWatch regularly ran articles blasting the proposal for residential development in Midtown and supporting Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke’s call for a “small area plan” that the council approved in January 2018.

Now, however, Zucaro opposes that action. The “small area plan,” he said, “is a figment of someone’s imagination” that “does not have a basis in the city’s comprehensive plan nor in state law.”

Zucaro disputed my comment that BocaWatch had led the opposition to Midtown redevelopment, especially when it came to housing.

“Midtown has been the subject of numerous articles and videos published in BocaWatch, articles where I stated the city council should negotiate rather then litigate the amount of residential allowed.”

Because the city designated it for Planned Mobility Development, Zucaro says, “Midtown has residential as a basic component.” BocaWatch, he said, was not then and is not now “mostly supportive” of the small area plan.

And a bit more on the competition

Finally, I asked Zucaro about his new competitor and discussions about selling or handing off BocaWatch.

The website, Zucaro said, “had assets: intellectual property on what had already been published, its database, etc. Whoever was to keep BocaWatch running would have had to be able to take over the costs and preserve the assets. I did have discussions with some of the people who wrote for BocaWatch, but those discussions never panned out and it looks like preserving BocaWatch as the community’s voice is going to be in my hands.”

Zucaro said he “never attempted to sell BocaWatch.” He offered to have those who started BocaFirst take over. Obviously, that didn’t work out. “They are welcome to come back at any time, and if they choose to continue on their own, I wish them the best.”

Delray CRA Talks transit

At this morning’s meeting, the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency will try to have a downtown transportation system in place by May 1.

Before the CRA board will be recommendations to choose one company to provide a fixed-route service and another to provide a point-to-point service, also known as on demand. The former mostly would serve downtown employees and residents whose schedule is much the same from day to day. The second mostly would serve people heading downtown for entertainment.

The CRA staff recommends the board choose the lowest of three bidders, Downtowner Holdings, for the fixed-route service. The cost would be $437,000. The company would run three, 14-seat vans.

For the on-demand service, the staff recommends BeeFree, LLC. The cost would range from $246,000 to $401,000, depending on whether the company uses three, four or five vehicles. BeeFree also would offer a mobile app on which customers could book rides.

City Commissioner Ryan Boylston said he would like to hear presentations from at least two bidders rather than go with the staff’s picks. Downtowner Holdings bid on both contracts, and Boylston said it might make sense to use one vendor.

Swinton revisited

At this afternoon’s meeting, the Delray Beach City Commission will approve the revised plan for improvements along 14 blocks of Swinton Avenue north and south of Atlantic Avenue.

The original plan called for bicycle lanes, which would have caused the removal of many trees. Residents objected. Elected officials objected to what they considered an unpleasant surprise from the Florida Department of Transportation.

So it was interesting to read a social media post last month from Michael Hudak, who’s running for a seat on the Deerfield Beach City Commission. He was complaining about the FDOT plan for Federal Highway in that city and that the state crafted it with little community input.

As in the original Swinton plan, trees will come up to make way for bike lanes as part of the state’s “Complete Streets” program. The Florida Department of Transportation may replace the Lake Worth Drainage District as the agency local officials love to hate.

State muscles in

Predictably, the Legislature wants to mess with community redevelopment agencies, and Delray Beach is worried—as the city was last year.

House Bill 9 and Senate Bill 1054 would restrict how CRAs can spend money. Some of the changes wouldn’t affect Delray Beach too much. Others, though, would restrict money the CRA spends on non-profit organizations such as Old School Square and Arts Garage.

Delray Beach sees such groups as important to downtown vibrancy. Republican legislators from other parts of the state see them as money pits. So the CRA staff recommends that at today’s meeting the board approve a resolution against the bills.

Similar legislation arose last year in the House, which is famously hostile to local government. It didn’t pass.

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Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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