Sunday, November 28, 2021

Brightline Details and Old School Square Gets a New CEO

Why does Boca Raton’s deal for a Brightline station have to include public land for private development?

This month, the city council probably will vote on an agreement that would bring a station and parking garage east of the downtown library. A city spokeswoman on Monday couldn’t confirm whether the council would consider the proposal on Nov. 13 or Nov. 27.

In its most recent letter to the city, Virgin Trains USA—the brand Brightline will become—still asked for an exclusive option to buy most of the land that would remain near the library after construction of the station and garage. The company also wants an option on a vacant piece of city property one block south of the library.

Neither property relates directly to train service. Mayor Scott Singer and city council members, all of whom are enthused about Boca Raton having a station, haven’t raised the issue that much during public discussion. Singer asked what sort of private development might go on those properties, and company representatives were vague. Perhaps housing. Perhaps office. Perhaps retail.

Virgin Trains also wants the city’s help in rezoning the area around the station for zoning that would allow Transit Oriented Development (TOD) geared toward mass transit. As I have reported, property several blocks south of the site sold to an investor who believes that the station will spur development and transform the neighborhood.

But if the priority is to make Boca Raton part of the Virgin Trains system, why not just deal with the station and garage? Those alone likely would annoy some members of the Friends of the Library and residents of Library Commons, which abuts the library on the north. But those critics are much more worried about the prospect of a 10-story project on the library’s doorstep.

In an email, Singer said, “Deal points are still being discussed between city staff and Brightline, including this one.” Councilwoman Monica Mayotte said the development portion “has been taken off the table for now.” True, but that delay doesn’t make the issue go away and it makes the critics more suspicious.

Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke didn’t want to comment because she had not “vetted the offer, as it is still being analyzed.” Andy Thomson also said he preferred not to comment at this time.

Jeremy Rodgers said the city must make sure that there is “enough for (Virgin)” in the deal. He also wants the city to secure from Virgin Trains a pledge to allow a crossing of the rail corridor at Jeffrey Street in the north end of the city. “That will open up the northeast,” which now has no access to the west side of Boca Raton.

Regarding the library site, Rodgers said his concern is the effect of added development on parking for the library. The garage and station would cost spaces, but an equivalent number would be in the garage. Developing the rest of the site would cost many more spaces. Rodgers said, “There is no plan. That needs to be fixed.”

The spokeswoman said the city is “actively negotiating” with Virgin Trains. The timetable is condensed. Company representatives sent their first letter to Boca Raton in mid-July. They want approval by this year and to open the station in late 2020.

How about a compromise? The city allows Virgin Trains an exclusive option only on the parcel across the street, not on the library site.

That property basically fronts onto Northwest Second Avenue. Developing it would annoy almost no one. No future project would overwhelm the library. The city and Virgin Trains could design the station and garage to have the least impact on the library and Library Commons.

Virgin Trains has stated that the reason for adding stations in Boca Raton and elsewhere is to improve ridership. If that’s the case, development isn’t a priority, and the city has leverage.

Commuter rail

Any deal Boca Raton makes with Virgin Trains also should allow use of the station for local commuter rail.

That was the plan—pre-Brightline—when the city designated land east of the library for a train station. Even in Boca Raton, Brightline’s ticket prices would make the service cost-prohibitive for many commuters.

The so-called Coastal Link would expand Tri-Rail from its western route to all the downtowns along the coast. Stations would be closer to where people work and live.

Boca Raton Tri-Rail station. (Photo by Aaron Bristol)

Tri-Rail Executive Director Steven Abrams, a former Boca Raton mayor, wrote to the city in September. Abrams asked that any agreement with Virgin Trains include “a requirement for accommodation of Tri-Rail as part of future Coastal Link service.” Doing so would “preserve the viability of commuter rail for everyday riders.”

Aventura made that accommodation part of the deal for its station. To make transit available to as many residents as possible, so should Boca Raton.

OSS gets new CEO

Old School Square

Old School Square finally has a new CEO.

It’s Shannon Eadon. She succeeds Rob Steele, who resigned in May 2018 after three years on the job. The post remained open while the board assessed the organization’s finances and made changes.

Eadon comes to Delray Beach after a career spent in the Northeast. She had been director of development at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood, N.J. Eadon held the same position at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, south of Englewood. From 1980 to 1992, she worked for a New York City-based ad agency.

I left a message Monday for Eadon. I’ll have more when we get a chance to speak.

New schools

As I have reported, two new, expanded elementary schools will open in Boca Raton. The city is working with the Palm Beach County School District to improve access to and from the campuses.

Verde, west of Town Center Mall, is scheduled to open next fall. The city is adding a turn lane into the school along Verde Trail west to Powerline Road and is repaving that section. Since Verde will extend through eighth grade, the improvements matter even more since more parents will be dropping off students.

Addison Mizner, in Boca Square, also will become a K-8 campus. Drop-offs and pickups can cause bottlenecks on and around that section of Southwest 12th Avenue.

The entrance of Addison Mizner Elementary. Photo by Randy Schultz.

A spokeswoman said the city is “working closely” with the school district “on plans for improved conditions along 12th Avenue.” Accompanying upgrades, such as new water main, will happen at the same time, to minimize disruption. “Plans are still to be determined,” the spokeswoman said, “but will include wider sidewalks.”

Ocean Strand

I have written about Compson Associates’ wish to buy the Ocean Strand property from the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District and develop it. Though neither the district board nor the city council—which would have to approve any rezoning—has expressed interest, district board member Steve Engel wanted to reinforce the point.

Ocean Strand

In an email, Engel said, “I understand there’s a rumor going around that the beach and park district is still talking to Compson about Ocean Strand. To be clear, there are no discussions taking place between the district and Compson. If Compson is talking to anyone, whoever it is has not been authorized by the district to conduct these discussions.

“There are no plans by the district to talk with Compson and no plans to authorize anyone to talk with Compson on its behalf. In any event, we are prohibited by our enabling legislation to convey any of our properties to other parties.”

Delray still wants plastic bags

In Delray Beach, which already has banned single-use plastic straws, the city commission at today’s meeting will consider a resolution asking the Legislature not to prevent cities and counties from banning single-use plastic bags.

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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