Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Two Midtown Lawsuits Down, One Standing

Crocker Partners says the company has “discontinued” two of its three lawsuits against Boca Raton.

The litigation stemmed from the city council’s refusal in January 2018 to approve redevelopment rules for Midtown. Crocker owns several properties in Midtown, most notably Boca Center.

Four years ago, Crocker was leading a coalition of Midtown landowners who proposed a $1 billion makeover of the area that includes Town Center Mall and areas east to the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. They wanted the redevelopment to include housing. Rules prohibited residential, but in 2010 the city had designated Midtown for development based around mass transit. Crocker would have donated land for a second Tri-Rail station.

After the council asked for a Midtown “small area plan,” however, everything stopped. Crocker filed one lawsuit seeking $137 million in damages from the city’s failure to approve rules for Midtown. The company also filed two others. One sought to compel the city to approve those rules. The other alleged that the city violated open-meeting rules in approving the “small area plan” and sought to have that ordinance declared invalid.

Crocker Partners Managing Partner Angelo Bianco said the company has voluntarily dismissed the second and third lawsuits because the Midtown plan is dead. “The coalition is gone,” Bianco said Monday. Even if Crocker won, Bianco said, “ I can’t do anything.” The Midtown plan the company envisioned won’t happen because of the city’s action nearly two years ago.

The company, though, will continue the claim for damages under the state’s Bert Harris Act. Crocker argues that the “small area plan” amounted to a taking of property rights. Crocker bought its four properties in 2014. The company claims that the 2010 designation gave landowners “reasonable expectations” that the city would allow residential development. The city disagrees.

Angelo Bianco (Photo by Aaron Bristol)

In July, Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Howard Coates granted the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Coates also denied Crocker’s request for a rehearing. Bianco filed notice of appeal last week.

Coates ruled that, because the city had not approved rules for Midtown, Crocker deserved no damages. Bianco called that a “technical” opinion. The argument before the 4th District Court of Appeal will turn on that issue of “reasonable expectation.” If the appeals court sides with Crocker, the case will go back to Coates.

In a news release, Bianco pointed out that the city hired a consultant to help craft the “small area plan.” When the consultant proposed a mix of uses that included residential development and offered an approach that “did not match City Council’s regressive building moratorium policies, they fired him.”

Even if the city prevails in the Bert Harris case, Boca Raton will lose. Without new investment, Bianco said— correctly—“Boca will be less competitive and Midtown will fall short of its potential, with aging infrastructure, stagnant tax revenues, and lacking viable solutions to the area’s existing traffic congestion.”

In the January print edition of Boca Raton magazine, I will have a package of stories about how factional politics and bad timing killed the Midtown deal.

Restaurant Row

The only investment Crocker now plans for Midtown is the company’s planned “Restaurant Row.” It would be on the corner of Butts and Town Center roads, facing the Wells Fargo Bank building.

Crocker proposed the project almost a year ago. Bianco said it could soon go before the planning and zoning board.

Boca Raton Innovation Campus (Photo by Christiana Lilly)

Elsewhere, Crocker is investing $28 million in the Boca Raton Innovation Campus (BRIC). That’s the former IBM campus at Yamato Road and Interstate 95. Crocker bought BRIC in April 2018 with other investors.

Voting site moves                                      

Boca Raton is moving the city’s early voting site.

Why? Brightline/Virgin Trains USA.

As early as next month, the city council likely will approve an agreement to bring a Virgin Trains station near the downtown library. The library is one of the county’s busiest early voting stations for primary, midterm and presidential elections.

The station will displace some of the parking spaces in the library lot. Construction will further restrict access. Under the expected schedule, work would be happening during next year’s August and November elections.

So early voting will shift to the Spanish River Library. That will inconvenience some people, but trying to retain the current site would be unworkable. Since the city had designated the land east of the library for a mass transit station, the shift also might have been inevitable.

In addition, the county next year will switch voting machines. They will be in place for city elections next March. So Boca Raton will hold an open house, at which representatives of the elections supervisor’s office will demonstrate the new machines.

The open house will take place at the Spanish River Library on Nov. 20 between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Buddha plans sink

At least for now, Delray Beach has rejected Buddha Sky Bar’s major expansion plan.

The owner wants to replace the first-floor portion of the restaurant with retail. The second and third floors would have much more space to offer food and drink. Or would it be more like drink and food?

As I wrote last week, a major issue is whether Buddha Sky Bar would be more of a restaurant or a. . .bar. The general manager said the industry is trending toward places that offer food in less traditional dinner settings. They gather at hightop tables and have small plates. The hours for eating and drinking run later.

Mayor Shelly Petrolia said the plan “does not look like a restaurant.” City Commissioner Adam Frankel noted that Buddha Sky Bar has not paid fines for violating occupancy levels. Some residents have complained that the tilt more toward drinking than eating has created an Atlantic Avenue scene that is less under control.

Commissioner Bill Bathurst, however, said that having retail at street level “is a big help.” Ryan Boylston expressed “concerns” about the project, but he believed that the applicant had met the legal requirements. He wanted to add a condition that the city could check back in six months to see if the project met the city’s expectations.

Bathurst and Boylston voted yes. Petrolia and Frankel voted no. Because Commissioner Shirley Johnson was absent, Buddha Sky Bar lost on the 2-2 tie.

What now? Boylston said he would discuss the issue with City Attorney Lynn Gelin. I’ll have an update when there are developments.

Delray gets new director

Delray Beach has a new director of the city’s development services department.

Interim City Manager Neal de Jesus has promoted Anthea Gianniotes. She had been a senior planner for the city. Delray Beach hired her from the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council. Gianniotes now is responsible for all planning and development regulations.

Dan Cooper

Former Delray Beach City Manager Don Cooper died last week. He was 69.

Don Cooper

Cooper served for most of 2015 and 2016, coming to Delray Beach after a long career as manager of Port St. Lucie. Cooper commuted from his home in St. Lucie County. That travel and a family health issue, combined with the workload in Delray Beach, wore down Cooper and he resigned. Mayor Petrolia, who voted in November 2014 to hire Cooper, noted his passing during last week’s city commission meeting.

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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