Saturday, October 1, 2022

Boca’s Chick-fil-A Battles Continue and FAU Touts Dubious Ranking

Neither side was happy with what the Boca Raton Planning and Zoning Board did with the proposed project for 2600 North Federal Highway that would include a Chick-fil-A. Both sides will argue their cases tonight before the city council.

The owner of the roughly 3.5-acre site wants to tear down the Best Western Hotel and replace it with the Chick-fil-A, another fast-food restaurant, an Aspen Dental franchise and a bank office. That’s one side. The other is Harbour East, the residential neighborhood directly east of the property.

Though the project consists of three phases, Hotel Properties wants to build Phase 3 —the Chick-fil-A—with Phase 1—the Aspen Dental and perhaps other elements. The planning and zoning board denied that request. Hotel Properties is appealing what otherwise would be a final decision.

Hotel Properties also is appealing the board’s condition that it bury power lines. Such a condition is typical for projects in and near downtown. In this case, however, Northeast Sixth Drive—the site’s eastern border—is so narrow that the utility work would involve individual homes in Harbour East. Hotel Properties said the work would be prohibitively expensive.

As for the Harbour East residents, who have hired an attorney, they are appealing the approval itself, despite the conditions. They object primarily to the Chick-fil-A because, they say, it will create traffic problems and cause air pollution from all the cars idling in the popular chain’s drive-through line.

One email to Mayor Scott Singer and council members sums up the neighborhood’s attitude: “If anything should happen to my family due to a decision that could be ruled differently (sic) I would find myself holding everyone on this email responsible.”

The planning staff recommends that the council deny both appeals and uphold the board’s conditional approval.

The staff memo rejects the residents’ claim that the project would cause a “traffic nightmare.” That scenario, the memo says, “has not been supported by any relevant data and analysis.” The configuration of the property “can support the stacking of a very large number of vehicles.”

Harbour East resident Kimberly Burmeister disputed that assertion. Traffic studies, she said, were conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic and at slower times of the year. She noted drive-through backups at a Chick-fil-A in Fort Lauderdale, also on North Federal Highway.

But the memo also rejects the developer’s claims.

On phasing, the staff said Hotel Properties never raised the issue during most of the review process, bringing it up only “at the last minute.” Granting that appeal, the staff said, could mean that Phase 2 never gets built.

Implied is that the Chick-fil-A is the centerpiece of the project and Hotel Properties and the company wants it open as soon as possible. Planners also say that the project wouldn’t have enough parking spaces if Phase 3 came before Phase 2.

On power lines, the memo notes that Boca Raton routinely requires undergrounding of utilities for such projects. In addition, the memo says, Hotel Properties based its landscaping plan on the lines being underground.

Finally, the staff asks the council for another condition. Hotel Properties would have to ask the state for approval to erect a “No U-Turn” sign on Federal Highway.

Ele Zachariades represents Hotel Properties. She told me Monday morning that the developer is trying to reach a compromise on the power line issue before the meeting. This would be the third Chick-fil-A in the city but the first one next to a residential neighborhood.

Criticisms of college ranking system

fau
Photo by Alex Dolce

Florida Atlantic University on Monday touted its improvement in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings as criticism mounted of the list itself.

FAU rose from 140th to 132nd among public universities. The University of Florida ranked fifth and Florida State University tied for 19th. In a news release, FAU said it also ranked 41st for social mobility and ranked first among the state’s public universities for ethnic diversity.

Last month, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called the rankings “a joke,” joining critics who contend that it’s impossible to create a credible ranking system across so many categories. But colleges use the rankings as a marketing tool, raising the incentive to cheat.

Columbia University, for example, last year inflated the number of classes with fewer than 20 students and the degree holdings of full-time professors. This year, Columbia dropped from second to 18th.

Debate over lighted walkways in Wildflower Park

Wildflower Park; photo courtesy of the City of Boca Raton

Boca Raton City Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke has a problem with Wildflower/Silver Palm Park.

Her gripe concerns the walkway that will connect the new northern portion—the former Wildflower property—with Silver Palm Park—which has the city’s boat launch— on the south side of the bridge at East Palmetto Park Road. The city would like what O’Rourke called “decorative lights” for the walkway under the bridge. The county, which operates the bridge and owns the walkway, disagrees.

City Manager Leif Ahnell said, “Staff has exhausted” all options in talking with county officials. “We’ve gotten bounced around.” O’Rourke said she had spoken with County Mayor Robert Weinroth, a former city councilman whose commission district includes Boca Raton.

Among council members, O’Rourke has taken the most personal interest in the project. She based her 2017 council campaign on opposition to the proposed restaurant on the Wildflower property. She supported the 2016 referendum that blocked use of the property for a restaurant.

O’Rourke wants the city to create “a sense of place under the bridge.” The county is more concerned with safety as it relates to the bridge and bridgetenders. Weinroth told me Monday that county officials are “working to reach a compromise that will help our friends in the city.”

At Monday’s workshop meeting, Ahnell said, “Shockingly,” there’s been progress. The county is showing an interest in “lighting, landscaping and painting.” More to come.

Boca CRA approves new townhouse project

Acting Monday as the community redevelopment agency, council members unanimously approved a townhouse project south of St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church.

All five units will be three stories. That stretch of East Boca Raton Road includes other townhouses. O’Rourke praised the architecture and said the vacant lot near Mizner Park has become “an eyesore.”

Amendment to Boca Brightline deal

brightline

On tonight’s city council agenda is an item related to the Brightline station and parking garage in Boca Raton. According to the staff memo, the amendment would “resolve certain conflicts” between construction of the station/garage and nearby improvements associated with the project.

Those improvements—parking, sidewalks, beautification—are in the right-of-way for the Florida East Coast Railway corridor, which Brightline uses. The area in question is Northwest Fourth Street, which runs past the downtown library and will be the entrance to the station.

The lease of land for the station and garage is with Brightline. The agenda item is an amendment of the city’s lease with the railroad. Brightline plans to complete the station and garage by the end of the year and begin service early in 2023.

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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