Thursday, April 18, 2024

Boca Center blow-out, redistricting and other items of note

Boca Center takes over Midtown Boca

Angelo Bianco envisions a remade Boca Center (above) as part of “the next great thing” in the city—a downtown-type destination for residents west of Interstate 95 and anyone else looking for “something special.”

Bianco runs Crocker Partners’ Florida operations. Between August and December of last year, the company spent roughly $350 million on four properties east of Town Center Mall—the One Town Center office building that was home to W.R. Grace, the black office tower known as The Plaza near Strikes bowling lanes, the One Boca Place office complex on Glades Road, and Boca Center—which Tom Crocker opened a quarter-century ago. Crocker also built The Plaza and One Town Center.

Not coincidentally, with those purchases Crocker has “created a mini-town,” as Bianco put it. The boundaries are Glades Road on the north, Town Center Road on the south, Butts Road on the west and I-95 on the east. Military Trail is the spine. Obviously, a company doesn’t invest $350 million to have the town stay as it is.

In an interview last week, Bianco said the company wants to create a downtown for the growing western portion of the city whose residents don’t often visit the downtown of Mizner Park and Royal Palm Place. Boca Center would be the hub of what the company hopes will become “an area destination.” Bianco listed some of the many changes he sees for the complex:

— Housing on the parking lot that faces Military Trail. Parking would go behind the shops and restaurants. There is no estimate yet for the number of residential units.

— Changing the tenant mix to make Boca Center a “foodies’ paradise.” Think lots of food-themed specialty stores—Joseph’s Classic Market is already at the south end; Total Wine & More is on the north end—and more restaurants. Can the area sustain them? Bianco said restaurant broker Tom Prakas conducted a study for the company showing that restaurants within the “mini-town” along with University Commons just east of I-95 do more business annually than all the restaurants in Delray Beach.

— A “complete redo” of the entrance on the west side, transforming the walkway into the center and “blowing out” the bandstand in front of the Marriott hotel.

— Crocker’s purchase did not include the hotel, but Bianco said the company is working with the Marriott ownership on a joint venture to bring a “world-class gym” and the “predominant spa in the area.”

Bianco estimates that construction could take six years. Potential cost? “The price tag would say: Expensive.” For those who have been to Bal Harbour in Miami-Dade County, imagine something like that but “with much less emphasis on clothing” when it comes to stores. Crocker wants the project to complement the mall, not compete with it.

The remake extends to what Bianco calls a “rebranding” of the area. There is no name—“Midtown” was an early, discarded suggestion—but there will be.

Last June, Bianco said, the company began evaluating the potential for something to draw “a 24/7 crowd.” In additional to the mall, another existing commercial asset is Glades Plaza, south of Glades Road from One Boca Place. Farmer’s Table at the Wyndham Hotel has become very popular, very quickly. North of the Glades Road overpass on Military Trail is Lynn Insurance Group—another employment center.

Boca Center, of course, has three office towers itself. Two were part of the original project, and Teachers Insurance added one after it bought the property and changed the name from Crocker Center. The office space remains high-priced and successful, but Bianco also plans upgrades there—especially to lobbies that are pleasant but dated. On my visit, Bianco pointed out a metal container for 3-by-5 cards on the shelf of a security desk. You almost expected computers with floppy disks.

The company would love to draw tourists, but Bianco said the focus is on those locals west of I-95. As with the mall, Crocker wants to complement the downtown of Mizner Park, not compete.

Real estate broker Keith O’Donnell uses the industry term “amenitize” to describe Crocker’s plans—increasing the value of a property and the attractiveness of an area. “They are the best at doing what they’re doing,” O’Donnell said, “so I’m very excited about it. They are successful because they’ve been bold.”

And this plan is very bold and very exciting. It is a reminder of the economic dynamism of the Boca Raton-Delray Beach market that a developer could reacquire and transform already successful projects into much more.

Crocker seeks to capitalize on the continued popularity of mixed-used projects that create what Bianco calls “lifestyle enclaves.” They replicate urban living—walk or commute to work and play—outside of major urban centers. “You see it in Delray,” Bianco said. Boca Raton’s second Tri-Rail station is planned for north of Boca Center.

The project also would incorporate lessons learned from Mizner Park, which Crocker opened just after Boca Center. Example: Mizner’s parking garages face Federal Highway, thus cutting off the project.

Crocker brought in four architects to compete for work on the project. The company has had discussions with city staff, but there is no formal application yet. Bianco hopes to have designs for the city during the first three months of next year. On Thursday, I will discuss the approval process for Boca’s proposed “mini-downtown.”

Redistricting

It is almost certain that Boca Raton and Delray Beach no longer will be in the same congressional district.

On Friday, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis chose one of seven proposed maps of the state’s 27 congressional districts. The map would change coastal District 22, which Lois Frankel represents, and inland District 21, which Ted Deutch represents.

Frankel’s district now extends from Fort Lauderdale to Palm Beach. It would end at Highland Beach, which with Boca would comprise the only Palm Beach County portion. Eighty-five percent of the district would be in Broward County.

Deutch would lose his district’s section of northwest Broward to Frankel. He would gain the coastal region that is now in Frankel’s district. Deutch’s would be the only district contained within Palm Beach County. Frankel’s West Palm Beach condo would be in Deutch’s district.

The Florida Supreme Court can accept or reject Lewis’ choice, but it would be surprising if the justices disagreed with Lewis. The map comes from the plaintiffs that challenged the Legislature’s 2012 map as drawn in violation of the Fair Districts Amendments. It aligns almost completely with the direction from the justices in their July ruling that struck down the old map. There is no sign that the Legislature will appeal, even though Lewis rejected maps from the House and Senate.

I will have more on this after the court rules. That will happen this week. The court’s deadline for adopting a new map is Saturday.

Proposed Islamic school

Because of a mistake in how the city advertised the item, the Boca Raton Planning and Zoning Board took no action last Thursday on the proposed middle/high school with the Islamic Center of Boca Raton. But there is no mistaking what neighbors think about the project.

Though there was no vote, the board heard public comment and put it on the record. Several neighbors of what would be the expanded school on Fifth Avenue north of Florida Atlantic University warned that existing traffic problems would worsen. They noted that J.C. Mitchell Elementary School to the south and Grandview Prep to the north already generate bus and car traffic. Expansion at FAU, they said, is exacerbating the problem as more students live off campus.

The issue will be rescheduled for the board’s recommendation. It still must go to the city council.

Delray’s pension reform

A year ago, Delray Beach and the city’s police officers agreed to a three-year contract that included needed pension reform. The city then sought pension changes from the city’s firefighters.

Sept. 30, the last day of the contract, came and went without a new deal. As the firefighters work without a contract, the city commission meets tonight in special session to discuss the negotiations.

Delray got that new police contract without declaring an impasse. Boca declared an impasse in 2014 before reaching agreement with the public safety unions. Delray wants to avoid an impasse. But the city also wants pension reform. That position won’t change, and it matters more.

University Village

Next month, the Boca Raton City Council probably will decide whether to approve University Village.

Last week, the planning and zoning board recommended approval of the project on the last large tract of open land east of Interstate 95—about 80 acres at Spanish River Boulevard and the El Rio Trail. That recommendation, however, came with conditions related to University Village’s potential impact on adjoining single-family neighborhoods.

“Traffic,” Mayor Susan Haynie told me Monday, “is a concern.” University Village is a Planned Mobility Development, designed to use transit and other measures to reduce the number of trips by car. So-called PMD remains a concept, however, and University Village could add as many as 1,500 residents. Still, a city planner told the board that the developer actually could have asked to generate even more traffic, given rules for the property.

As Chairman William Fairman noted, it’s a pivotal point for Boca’s near northwest. Florida Atlantic University’s research park, south of University Village, wants to expand. Blue Lake Corporate Center is on the other side of I-95. Airport Road might go from two lanes to four lanes.

Collectively, one resident said, “It’s like dropping a bomb on our neighborhood.” The post-recession building rush isn’t happening just downtown.

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.

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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