Boca on the Waterfront, Delray Considers Going After Big Pharma

Spanish River Park. Photo courtesy of the City of Boca Raton.

Waterfront plan

Boca Raton residents can find much in the developing waterfront plan that is reason for excitement.

Last Wednesday, Kona Gray of EDSA, the city’s consultant, presented renderings of improvements to existing parks and two concepts for the Wildflower property. The presentation at the downtown library was the company’s second. The renderings built off comments at an earlier public meeting.

People attended the EDSA community meeting Wednesday, July 12 at the Downtown Boca Raton Public Library. Photo by Randy Schultz.
People attended the EDSA community meeting Wednesday, July 12 at the Downtown Boca Raton Public Library. Photo by Randy Schultz.

The purpose of the plan is twofold: Increase access to city-owned waterfront and increase the offerings once people get there. Gray noted that the 14 properties cover about 300 acres. They include 11 parks, Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, the Wildflower and Ocean Strand. EDSA envisions upgrades that make these properties much more interactive and kid-friendly and add venues for all sorts of public activity—from yoga classes to concerts.

Two examples of the firm’s approach are Spanish River and Palmetto Dune parks.

Spanish River, of course, is venerable and well-known. It was part of the effort four decades ago to protect the oceanfront from development. The key word for Spanish River is enhance: more options at the beach, a non-motorized boat launch, a fishing boardwalk, nature and fitness trails and an exercise area, plus a sand volleyball court. The idea is to draw even more people to the park.

Renderings for changes to Spanish River Park. Photo by Randy Schultz.
Renderings for changes to Spanish River Park. Photo by Randy Schultz.

With Palmetto Dune, though, the approach is to raise the park’s profile. Palmetto Dune is hidden in plain sight on the north side of Palmetto Park Road near the fire station just west of downtown. The design proposes adding similar features, including an event lawn, as suggested for Spanish River, but the goal is to tell residents that the park is there and accessible. Today, Palmetto Dune essentially is a pocket park for the neighborhood.

Rendering of proposed changes to Palmetto Dune. Photo by Randy Schultz.
Rendering of proposed changes to Palmetto Dune. Photo by Randy Schultz.

For the Wildflower, EDSA proposes an event lawn that would be a flat oval in the first concept and a blobby circle in the second. Concept One includes a larger parking area, though reconfigured from the current layout. Both concepts include lots of grass spiral mounds and seek to preserve what Gray called the property’s “great trees.”

Ocean Strand is the most ambitious design, no doubt because EDSA is working from a 15-are blank canvas. The design calls for: a lookout pavilion on the Intracoastal Waterway, food and water sports rental kiosks, a motorized boat dock, a playground and children’s trail, a high rope-walking course, beach volleyball, a community garden and treehouse pavilions. Because of its location on the barrier island, Ocean Stand would have no paved parking.

Proposed changes to Ocean Strand presented at the EDSA community meeting. Photo by Randy Schultz.
Proposed changes to Ocean Strand presented at the EDSA community meeting. Photo by Randy Schultz.

EDSA will incorporate comments from Wednesday’s meeting into the designs, which the company will present to the city council in September. At that point, the council will decide which ideas to prioritize, and EDSA will calculate the cost of the wish list. A few thoughts:

• The council should emphasize projects that would appeal to the widest number of residents. All these properties are east of Interstate 95, which is where most attendees at the two presentations live. Since all residents will be paying for those program, however, those living west of I-95 must believe that there’s a lot in it also for them.

• There will be many questions about cost, but here’s one in particular to ponder: The Greater Boca Raton Beach & Park District owns Ocean Strand, so the district likely would share the cost of improvements. The district already wants the city to underwrite bonds for the purchase of Ocean Breeze Golf Course. The district staff has claimed that the agency could take on Ocean Breeze and maintain all other facilities and programs without having to raise taxes. Would that still hold with Ocean Strand?

• The waterfront plan could take five to 10 years, depending on how aggressive the council gets. That would require a steady source of revenue. One option could be the city’s share of the county property tax increase for infrastructure. Boca Raton is expected to receive between $5 million and $6 million a year, starting this year. The waterfront plan would be a legal use of the money.

• Because many of the attendees opposed use of the Wildflower for a restaurant, they may pressure the council to emphasize that property over others. A successful connection to Silver Palm Park could be an asset, but the city should be cautious about creating public gathering spaces that look appealing on paper but don’t draw many people. That warning would apply to all the properties, but especially to the Wildflower. Residents who live near Silver Palm have complained that, aside from boaters, homeless people get the most use of Silver Palm.

So council members must press EDSA hard on where the city can get the most return for its investment. EDSA surely will bid on whatever work the council approves, so EDSA has every reason to push for the most expensive option. The priority for Boca Raton is the best option.

West Palmetto Park Road update

The suddenly controversial Boca Raton road project on which I reported last week probably will be delayed, if not cancelled.

The county had planned next month to close the median opening on West Palmetto Park Road into the Kmart Plaza. The stated purpose was to create longer left-turn lanes for drivers going north at the 12th Avenue “Spaghetti Bowl” intersection and thus prevent backups of drivers going eastbound through the intersection.

Business owners in the plaza, however, objected when they got notice of the project. On Friday, County Commissioner Steven Abrams—whose district includes Boca Raton—emailed Mayor Susan Haynie and city council members that the county has “put a hold” on the project “until I receive further direction from the city.”

Haynie told me Monday that her reaction at this point is: “I’m confused.” Haynie said she had asked the county for help with traffic backing up on Palmetto Park Road west of Interstate 95, not east. Specifically, Haynie had wanted the county to extend to I-95 the right-turn lane for drivers going north onto Military Trail. “I asked for that,” Haynie said, “and now my mailbox is blowing up” with complaints about the median closing. She acknowledged the backup problem at the Spaghetti Bowl, but her goal Monday was to “get clarity” on what the county and city had discussed.

Abrams’ email string begins last November. Dan Grippo, the city’s municipal services director, tells the county engineering department that the city would like the county to extend the turn lanes to the Spaghetti Bowl. Grippo says the city understands that the project would mean closing the median. “The city accepts that condition.” Grippo said traffic counts at the median opening “are substantially lower.” The “overall benefit,” Grippo said, “of improving the intersection traffic flow far outweigh the loss” of the median opening. The main entrance to the plaza is farther west on Palmetto Park Road. Without the media, the other way into the plaza would be to make a U-turn at Palmetto Park Road and 12th Avenue.

In January, the city’s traffic engineer, Maria Tidier, asked if the median closing would happen this fiscal year. The county responds that “it may be possible if we do not have too many obstacles with residents and city!”

I will have an update on Thursday.

Delray suing the drug makers?

At Tuesday night’s meeting, the Delray Beach City Commission will hear a presentation from a law firm that wants the city to sue drugmakers for damages related to the overprescription of painkillers. It seems like a no-lose proposition for the city.

Attorneys from Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, which is based in Washington but has an office in Boca Raton, will ask Delray Beach to join a client list that includes states, counties, cities and the Cherokee Nation. The firm will note that legal painkillers have become more common than tobacco, with nearly 260 million prescriptions written in 2012. Meanwhile, fatal drug overdoses killed about 52,000 Americans just in 2015. For perspective, about 58,000 Americans died during the 11 years of the Vietnam War.

In such a lawsuit, Delray Beach would allege that the drug industry—like the tobacco industry—hid the dangers of its product. Indeed, Purdue Pharm—the maker of OxyContin—paid $600 million in fines a decade ago. Delray Beach would further allege that the industry urged physicians to prescribe these drugs for much more than the short-term use for which they were intended. Long-term use, studies have shown, reduce the effectiveness of the drugs but increase the potential for addiction.

If successful, Delray Beach could use any money from a jury award or a settlement to reimburse itself for the public costs of dealing with the opioid epidemic. Under former Gov. Lawton Chiles, the state of Florida sued tobacco companies for the cost of treating Medicaid patients who had smoking-related illnesses. Unfortunately, Republicans in the Legislature have spent the annual payments as found money, not to cut the number of smokers.

The firm would take the case on contingency. Delray Beach would pay only out of any money received. The suit would be anything but frivolous. It would be just one action in the campaign against the opioid scourge, but it would be a sensible action.

And sober homes

In a related item, Delray Beach almost certainly will pass on the second and final reading tonight of the city’s next phase of sober home regulation.

The commission previously required group home operators to apply for a license renewal every year. This change would prevent group homes from opening within 660 feet of an existing facility. Clustering sober homes is bad for neighborhoods and for those in recovery.