Brightline Going Quiet, News From the (New) Delray CRA and Other Notes From the Front

brightline

The quiet zones are coming! The quiet zones are coming!

On Monday, a Brightline vice president notified Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency Executive Director Nick Uhren that all safety improvements except those in Boynton Beach have been completed on the Florida East Coast Railway corridor. The news was announced Tuesday night at the Boca Raton City Council meeting and the Delray Beach City Commission workshop meeting.

Both cities thus can file applications with the Federal Railway Administration to establish quiet zones. Twenty-one days must pass after the agency receives the application. Once that happens, the new Brightline passenger trains and FEC freight trains no longer will have to sound their horns as they approach crossings.

Boca Raton City Manager Leif Ahnell said the city’s application had been ready to go pending the news from Brightline and went out Wednesday. Delray Beach City Manager Mark Lauzier said the commission must formally approve the application at next week’s meeting.

The quiet zone has been a more complicated issue in Delray Beach than in Boca Raton. Restaurants and bars surround the FEC crossing at Atlantic Avenue. Brightline trains can reach 79 miles per hour and soon will approach without the warning of a horn. The silence will please most residents, but city officials worry about safety. That’s why the city put up a barrier north of the crossing, to prevent dangerous shortcuts.

In Monday’s email, Brightline’s Adrian Share said the company encourages cities to “engage in outreach.” When full service starts, Brightline will run 16 trains per day in each direction.

The quiet zone will extend from West Palm Beach to the Broward County line. Boynton Beach will be the last city to apply because the city asked for extra safety improvements. Two people were struck and killed in the city after trying to cross the tracks when gates were down.

Delray’s first (new) CRA meeting

The Delray Beach City Commission’s first meeting Monday as the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) made news and raised questions.

It appeared that the commission/CRA would seek new proposals for the three CRA-owned blocks on West Atlantic Avenue on which Equity Delray once planned to build Uptown Atlantic. The CRA, then an independent board, chose Equity Delray in 2013 to develop the $35 million mixed-use project.

Three years later, however, the CRA terminated the $1.2 million purchase agreement after the agency’s attorney determined that Equity Delray had not shown that it could obtain financing. After a failed attempt to bring a Publix to part of the site, the CRA seemed ready to start over.

Instead, the commission/CRA voted to negotiate with—drum roll, please—Equity Delray.

Huh?

In an April 9 letter, Equity principal John Flynn wrote to express his “continuing interest in the property. We confirm that we are ready and willing to close the sale and construct the project pursuant to our original contract with the CRA subject to certain revised conditions. . .”

Why would the commission/CRA want to try a do-over with a company that already wasted three years on what everyone agrees is the crucial site to redevelopment of West Atlantic Avenue? Why wouldn’t the commission/CRA want to gauge what Executive Director Jeff Costello said is strong interest in the property that the CRA has made slightly larger than it was in 2013?

Mayor Shelly Petrolia argued that because Equity Delray already has received site plan approvals that remain active, the company could get something done faster. Just seeking new bids and choosing a developer could take between nine and 12 months.

Commissioner Ryan Boylston countered that the city “dodged a bullet” with Equity because the project was unimpressive. In choosing Equity Delray, the CRA board overruled the staff, which recommended Jones New Urban Delray and its project, Atlantic Village.

At the time, Flynn blamed the termination on his “naïveté” about Delray Beach. On Wednesday, Flynn told me, “I’m not naïve this time.” He said the commission’s decision to disband the CRA board prompted his letter.

Technically, Petrolia claimed, the commission/CRA wouldn’t be negotiating only with Equity Delray. Other developers could express interest in the next 30 days. As a developer’s representative told the commission/CRA, however, no credible company could produce an adequate proposal that quickly. The commission/CRA effectively has chosen to dance, at least for a while, with Equity.

Alliances forming

The new politics of Delray Beach began to emerge during the debate over Equity Delray.

Mayor Petrolia and commissioners Shirley Ervin Johnson and Adam Frankel favored going back to Equity. Bill Bathurst and Ryan Boylston wanted to start over. They eventually voted to make the vote unanimous, but not before some old grudges revealed themselves.

Johnson especially criticized the former CRA board. Its chairman was Reggie Cox. He and longtime activist Chuck Ridley had criticized Equity Delray. Cox voted against Equity in 2013.

One of Johnson’s political allies is former Commissioner Angeleta Gray. When she ran for reelection in 2014, Cox, Ridley and other African-American residents backed Jordana Jarjura, who defeated Gray.

In the weeks before the CRA terminated the purchase agreement, Jarjura emailed John Flynn with questions about the company’s financing and contractor. Flynn was evasive. “Done correctly,” Jarjura told Flynn, “this project is a gateway and catalyst for West Atlantic and the local economy. Done poorly, this project has long-lasting negative consequences and impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods, the local businesses and our city. . .” A few weeks later, Uptown Atlantic was dead.

And now it isn’t. Many issues do remain. Equity Delray seeks conditions in a new purchase agreement, and CRA Attorney David Tolces said the city “can’t comply” with all of them. Flynn said negotiations haven’t started.

Most residents in the commission chambers opposed Equity Delray and backed the West Atlantic Redevelopment Coalition, on which Cox and Ridley have been active. Johnson wondered often why the city had to consult with WARC on plans for the CRA property.

Without giving details, Petrolia said Equity Delray “didn’t have a fair shake” the first time. Without any details, the company is getting a second chance.

Said Boylston, “Something’s up.”

Atlantic Crossing groundbreaking

More than five years ago, Delray Beach approved Atlantic Crossing. Groundbreaking happens today.

The $300 million mixed-use project will occupy the two blocks west of Veterans Park that for years were home to Atlantic Plaza. The project’s history actually dates back almost a decade, to an early version.

After disputes over the site plan that led to a lawsuit, the previous city commission and Edwards Companies settled their differences. Edwards said the project will take four years to complete. Work will start first on the underground parking garage. The first of 261 apartments are to open in 2020 and the rest in 2022. There also are 82 condos. Atlantic Crossing also will include 73,000 square feet of retail space and 83,000 square feet of needed office space, with the first of it available late next year.

Boca Council to stay with four members

As expected, the Boca Raton City Council will operate with four members until the Aug. 28 special election. Voters will choose a new mayor after Gov. Rick Scott suspended Susan Haynie following her arrest on seven criminal charges.

They also will fill the seat of Councilman Scott Singer. He is running for mayor. The qualifying period for both races will run from May 21 to May 30.

And the qualifying rules update

In other Boca Raton election business, the council delayed until next month a discussion on whether to propose changes on who can run for office.

Council members seem inclined to seek a requirement that candidates obtain signatures from registered voters, to show a minimum level of support. Just how many signatures remains up for debate. The other change would lengthen the residency requirement from 30 days to six months or one year.

Voters would have to approve any changes. The issue would go on the November general election ballot.

Goal-setting conclusions

Boca Raton’s annual goal-setting session ended inconclusively—that’s putting it mildly—last week. Council members and administrators will attempt cleanup from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Monday at the city complex on Congress Avenue.

Annual BRPD memorial service

The Boca Raton Police Department invites the public to its annual memorial service at 11 a.m. Friday honoring officers killed in the line of duty. A barbecue lunch will follow at Mississippi Sweets on North Federal Highway.

Chabad update

Opponents of Chabad East Boca have lost in court for the third straight time.

Residents Gerald Gagliardi and Kathleen MacDougall live in near where the chabad wanted to build on Palmetto Park Road east of the Intracoastal Waterway. They invented the theory that city council approval in 2015 violated the First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion. Gagliardi and MacDougall argued that Boca Raton had favored Jews over Christians.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra twice dismissed the lawsuit. Gagliardi and MacDougall then went to the 11th U.S. Circuit of Appeals. This week, they lost again.

The court panel ruled 3-0 for the city’s argument that the lawsuit is moot. A separate ruling in state court found that the city wrongly allowed extra height for the chabad’s exhibition hall. The chabad has not submitted a new plan because of a dispute over the property.

With no project, the court ruled, there can be no damage to Gagliardi and MacDougall. The opinion didn’t address their issue, but the plaintiffs claimed that they somehow would suffer from the effects of a project that was less intense than many other legal uses of the site.

Anti-Semitism seemed to be at the heart of this lawsuit. With luck, this is the last of it.