Saturday, September 23, 2023

Boca School Crowding, Ritz on the Beach, Pending Lawsuits; Delray: BH3 and Transit

As expected, no blazing headlines came from the final report of Boca Raton’s education task force. Enough came, however, that the city council wants to keep the task force going. That seems like a good idea.

Politics caused the council to create the task force 18 months ago. Complaints about school crowding fed the narrative that the council had caused the problem by approving so many large developments. The BocaWatch website fed conspiracy theories. Some council members, notably Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke, raised the schools issue during discussion of any development project.

All along, however, school district planners had explained to anti-growthers that the actual cause was changing demographics. Boca Raton is drawing more young families who buy homes from empty nesters. The task force agrees. Its report states, “Single-family homes are the main driver of student population.”

A comparison between October 2017 and February 2019 reveals only slight improvement at Boca Raton High School, which got much of the attention. The most improvement has come at Boca Raton Elementary. But of the city’s nine boundary schools—Don Estridge Middle is 100 percent choice—six remain over capacity. Verde and Calusa elementary schools do have portable classrooms that reduce the overall impact.

Soon, however, the numbers will change. The rebuilt Verde (expected in 2020) and Addison Mizner (2021) elementary schools will add middle school grades. The district will build a new elementary school next to Don Estridge for 964 students. Expansions will bring 132 more spaces to Calusa. Expansions at Spanish River and Olympic Heights high schools will add 632 spaces and 175 spaces, respectively. Those expansions will allow the district to shift students from Boca High.

On Monday, O’Rourke asked whether “core facilities”—cafeterias, media centers—could keep up with expansion of existing schools. School board member Frank Barbieri, who represents Boca Raton, said the crunch is easier to resolve at high schools because students may have “more eating options.” But after a point, Barbieri acknowledged, “We have to work around it,” with earlier lunches.

All rebuilds, Barbieri said, will have core facilities that match their expected capacity. He also said the district soon should approve spending for a larger cafeteria at Calusa.

As task force and council members noted, however, the new issue beyond crowding is security. Three weeks ago, Boca Raton High had to call a Code Red. The issue wasn’t a shooter, but the scare terrified parents.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Councilman Andy Thomson noted the praise he had heard from parents about the police department’s prompt, wide release of information. Still, the task force report points out that school expansion can affect school security. Other problems include the vaping epidemic and bullying.

So likely at its next meeting, the council will extend the task force beyond its original year of existence. The city already has an involved school board member in Barbieri—the current chairman. He supports retaining the task force. It will help Boca Raton get the right information to keep up with developments within the public schools that are so important to the city’s economy.

More on the Ritz

I reported Tuesday that Compson Associates has been pitching a plan for a Ritz-Carlton hotel on the vacant, 15-acre Ocean Strand property in Boca Raton between the Intracoastal Waterway and the ocean.

As part of that post, I spoke with members of the beach and park district—which owns Ocean Strand—and the city council—which would have to rezone the site and approve any project—to get their reactions. Compson has met with almost all of the five council members and five commissioners.

On Wednesday, I spoke with Erin Wright, the only one of the five district commissioners I hadn’t reached. During her meeting, Wright said, she told Compson representatives that she was “willing to talk.” Like others, though, she advised Compson to “speak with the public.”

Wright also expressed frustration. “The plan is so vague,” she said. According to Wright, Compson’s “sketch” showed “a lot of public green space around the hotel, but I wonder how accessible that would be.”

In speaking with nine of the elected officials, I found no commitments for selling Ocean Strand. Most agreed with Wright on the need for public outreach. Councilmembers Andrea O’Rourke and Andy Thomson said they had no comment yet.

Whatever the details and potential benefits, Compson’s idea may stall over which side would move first. District Commissioner Bob Rollins said nothing could happen without the city council expressing support for the rezoning. Council members say they couldn’t commit unless the district expressed a wish to sell. The city is trying to schedule a meeting between the council and the commissioners for late April.

BH3 and transit updates

(Rendering by BH3)

The Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency will meet on April 9 to discuss the contract with BH3 for land next to the Fairfield Inn.

CRA Executive Director Jeff Costello said during Tuesday’s meeting that negotiations had been going well. The 60-day deadline to agree on a contract for the roughly nine acres and what BH3 would build expires on March 30, which is a Saturday. In setting the decision for 10 days later, CRA board members made clear that they weren’t granting an extension. So the document is expected to be complete by the deadline.

On March 28, the CRA will hear presentations from the top two companies that the staff ranked to provide downtown fixed-route and point-to-point transportation services. City Commissioner Ryan Boylston had asked for the presentations rather than have the CRA pick from each list, because one company finished among the top choices in each category.

At stake with the BH3 contract is the long-delayed redevelopment of The Set and the northwest-southwest neighborhoods. Convenient downtown transportation also has been a goal for years.

“A whole new world,” Boylston quipped Wednesday, “is two meetings away.”

Boca Council to address lawsuits

The Boca Raton City Council will meet soon in private to discuss three lawsuits.

One involves the city’s ban on conversion therapy, the supposed practice of trying to turn LGBT people straight. Last month, a federal judge ruled against the demand by two therapists for a temporary injunction halting the ban. The county, which passed a similar law, also is a plaintiff.

Another is by Brian Tuttle, who wanted to build 101 homes on the former Hidden Valley golf course in the city’s north end. Tuttle claims that, in denying the project last year, the city wrongly said it would require a change to Boca Raton’s comprehensive plan. Tuttle now proposes 27 homes and a YMCA facility—and he wants $18 million from the city in alleged lost profits from the first project.

The final lawsuit is the Midtown litigation. Crocker Partners, a major Midtown landowner, has been deposing Development Services Director Brandon Schaad and the consultant Schaad hired to create the “small area plan” for Midtown that the council ordered in January 2018. A judge also has allowed Crocker to depose Deputy City Manager George Brown and Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke.

Crocker alleges that the “small area plan” arose from a desire by the council to please residents who opposed residential development in Midtown. The “small area plan” calls for no housing units.

Last week, Crocker filed a request that the city produce all documents and communications from the roughly five weeks last fall when work on the “small area plan” was ending. In a related lawsuit, Crocker seeks $137 million from the city in damages.

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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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