Boca Raton this week enters the final stage of discussions about a Brightline station near the Downtown Library. Not all details are complete, however, and city council members must rely on Virgin Trains USA—which operates the service—for some key numbers.
The staff memo recommends that at Wednesday’s regular meeting the council introduce the ordinance for an agreement between Boca Raton and Virgin Trains. If that happens, the council could vote on the agreement at its Nov. 26 meeting after plans for the station go before the planning and zoning board.
But according to the memo, the city still wants VTUSA to “clarify details” and “those efforts continue.” City administrators still want “numerous revisions.” There is disagreement over the size of the parking garage that would accompany the station. VTUSA says there would be 455 spaces, with 55 reserved for library patrons. The city says there are 468, with 64 for the library.
Here’s where things stand:
• The city would lease to Virgin Trains nearly two acres between the library and the Florida East Coast Railway tracks for the station and a parking garage. Because the lease could last as long as 89 years, it would amount to a sale. Rent would be $1 a year.
• The city would pay $12.1 million toward the garage, for spaces that passengers would use. Virgin Trains would pay $1.9 million, for library lot spaces that the garage would displace. Those costs are not final. The city would use money from reserves to pay its share.
• Trains would run from about 5:30 a.m. to nearly 11 p.m., similar to the operating hours in Fort Lauderdale. Virgin Trains said travel time from Boca Raton to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach would be 20 minutes. To Miami, it would be 50 minutes. To Orlando, where the station will open in 2022, it would be about two hours.
• Virgin Trains would spend up to $300,000 to move the Junior League of Boca Raton’s garden. It’s on land where the station would go. The proposed new site is at Meadows Park, west of Boca Raton Middle School.
• Virgin Trains would get right of first refusal if the city decided to sell the rest of the library site and a parcel across the street to the south. The city would agree not to sell the land before Dec. 31, 2024.
• Virgin Trains would have to start building the station— which the company would pay for—and the garage by Dec. 31, 2021. The project would have to be finished by Dec. 21, 2023.
• The city could end the agreement if fewer than three stations were stopping at the station over any six-month period in three successive years.
Boca Raton residents, even those who support the idea, might wonder why the city should subsidize a private company. Why shouldn’t Virgin Trains build the garage? What’s the return for the city?
Now we get to those numbers.
The company’s consultant claims that the station would put $15.5 million each year into the Boca Raton economy. Increased “visitor spending” would bring $10.3 million. Another $3.1 million would come from “time travel savings.” And $1.47 million would come from “employee compensation”—37 permanent jobs—at the station.
By 2023, according to the consultant, nearly 130,000 visitors annually would be coming to Boca Raton via the station. “After stabilization,” there would roughly 700,000 one-way trips to and from the station.
The memo doesn’t define “stabilization,” but one assumes that it means a point after the station has been open—perhaps after other stations have opened. Ridership has been short of projections, which is why Virgin Trains wants to add stations in the announced locations of Boca Raton, Aventura and Port Miami, but also possibly in Deerfield Beach, Pompano Beach, Dania Beach, Hollywood and Hallandale Beach.
An “update” is scheduled for today’s city council workshop meeting. The information in the extensive backup material suggests several questions for the council members.
• How solid are those projections for what Boca Raton would gain from its $12 million investment? How does the consultant conclude that 129,000 people would come to Boca Raton only because of the station? Are some of them people who would come anyway?
• How does the consultant calculate all those supposed economic benefits? One of them is “enhanced employee mobility.” That means city residents could commute to an additional 89,000 jobs. But such a figure presumes that all those residents could afford to commute at Brightline prices.
• Councilman Jeremy Rodgers wanted the agreement to include Virgin Trains’ commitment to open a crossing at Jeffrey Street on the FEC tracks. There is no commitment. Virgin Trains’ parent company, Florida East Coast Industries, is no longer part of the company that owns the tracks—Florida East Coast Railway. Virgin Trains could offer only “assistance and facilitation.”
Now let’s get to what might be the biggest issue.
The private development issue
Virgin Trains originally wanted the city to give the company the rest of the library site and that other parcel. Then the company asked for an exclusive option. Now it’s right of first refusal.
The strongest opposition to the station comes from residents of Library Commons, north of the site, and Friends of the Library. The collective gripe is the prospect of private development between the library and the station.
I continue to wonder why the city doesn’t remove the library land from the agreement. Putting the garage next to Library Commons—rather than parallel to the station— seemingly intends to preserve as much land as possible for development, from residential to a hotel.
A letter from an attorney for Library Commons proposes that the city instead build the garage “as small as functionally possible” and limit the height to 35 feet, 10 feet lower than planned. The letter offers other ideas to make the garage as compatible as possible with the neighborhood.
If the station prompted interest in rezoning land to the south for transit-related development, the city could deal with that separately. The letter all but tees up a lawsuit, which could delay construction of a station that company officials have said they want to open by the end of 2020.
Mayor Scott Singer contacted Virgin Trains and opened negotiations about a station. He and council members have suggested that the station would enhance Boca Raton’s uniqueness.
If the company is considering all those other stations, however, how unique would one be in Boca Raton? And if all those stations get built, how speedy would this expensive high-speed service be?
I’ll have more this week after the meetings.
Also this week, there finally might be resolution on a new public golf course in Boca Raton.
After the meeting on a Brightline station, city council members will move to the municipal complex on North Congress Avenue for a meeting with the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District. The main topic will be the proposed Boca National course. It would be on Northwest Second Avenue north of Yamato Road in the Boca Teeca development. In 2017, the district bought the 200-acre site of the former Ocean Breeze course.
Early on, the district had claimed that it could buy the land and build and operate the course. Instead, the district asked the city to pay $20 million for construction but agree to the district’s design. The council refused, and for months the agencies have gone back and forth.
Most recently, the city sent the district a term sheet for the city taking over construction. Last week, the district board met and crafted a response.
• The district wants the city to pay for the course. But the district still wants what essentially would be veto power over the design. The letter cites the “significant public output” that went into the design by Price Fazio, a leading golf architecture firm.
• The district now doesn’t want to operate the course or share any annual surpluses or shortfalls with the city. If the city runs it, the district wants equal treatment for district residents who live outside Boca Raton—between the city line and the Florida Turnpike—when it comes to rates and access to programs.
• The district will continue to reimburse the city for bond payments to buy the property. When those payments end, the district wants title to the property on the west side. It already owns the smaller, eastern portion.
Councilman Andy Thomson has been the most critical of the Price Fazio design. The district’s letter, he said, “didn’t advance the ball. It did just the opposite.”
That veto over design “is a non-starter, at least for me,” Thomson said. “I appreciate all the work they’ve done, but if the city is going to pay for and build this golf course, the city is going to design it.”
Jeremy Rodgers agreed. “If they want to build their design with their money, they should do that. We’re happy to hear any cost-effective ideas, but I’m not sure (the letter) creates a lot of momentum.”
Councilwoman Monica Mayotte said, “I’m glad there is consensus there between the two boards” about the city taking over the project. She added, “I don’t think we will see too much of a different design if the city undertakes an effort to seek new designs.” She cited constraints such as roads and the surrounding condos.
Mayotte noted that the designers “have analyzed” the first estimate of $28 million and have gone “line item by line item, to make changes to reduce the costs. This is what (the district) should have done many months ago.” She was “surprised” by the position on operating profits/losses.
District board member Craig Ehrnst said, “In principle, a collaborative effort can result in a great finished product. However, after informal discussions maybe our senior commissioners are correct. The council prefers a takeover and no further input. I think it will be up to (Mayor Singer) to lead the direction that ends in a fair and balanced outcome.”
It’s an especially busy week of work on projects that will widen and add toll lanes to Interstate 95.
For now, work is focusing mostly in the Palmetto Park Road overpass. The interchange will close tonight and Thursday night at 11 p.m. for six hours. Ramp closures at night also continue.
For all the activity, the portion between Southwest 10th Street in Deerfield Beach and Glades Road in Boca Raton isn’t scheduled for completion until the spring of 2022. The section from Glades Road to Linton Boulevard in Delray Beach is due to be complete in the summer of 2023.
Those wanting relief from the work to revamp the Atlantic Avenue interchange will get it sooner. That project is supposed to be finished next summer.
Park at Broken Sound heating up
I reported last week on the proposal for a hotel in Boca Raton’s Park at Broken Sound. Now there’s more evidence of continued investor interest in the city’s major employment district.
In a news release, the real estate services firm Avison Young said it brokered a $7.5 million deal for a nearly nine-acre site in the park. The buyers plan an industrial development project. Vacancy rates are rising because inventories are down.