Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Brightline Comes Back With More Details About What It Wants

Last week, Virgin Trains USA sent Boca Raton a revised proposal for a Brightline station. Company representatives will discuss the new proposal at tonight’s city council meeting.

In his letter, Virgin Trains President Patrick Goddard said the company wants the city to build a 400-space parking garage for the station that would be just east of the downtown library. That was the first specific number on the size of the garage.

At current industry rates, the garage would cost about $10 million. It would displace most of the parking spaces for library patrons and employees. An identical number would be in the garage and would be free. Though Virgin Trains would operate the garage, Goddard said it would be “open to the public.”

The Friends of the Library opposes the garage. In an Aug. 16 letter, the group called the current parking lot “crucial to safety and accessibility” for the library.

The station and garage also would replace the Junior League of Boca Raton’s community garden, which adjoins the library parking lot. Goddard said Virgin Trains would pay to move the garden and design a new one, with the location based on recommendations from the city and the Junior League.

Previously, Virgin Trains had asked the city to pay for a pedestrian bridge that would stretch over the tracks, Dixie Highway and Federal Highway. The company also wanted the city to pay for a shuttle that would run from the station to an unspecified number of locations.

The company now asks the city “to use best efforts to fund the construction” of that walkover. Virgin Trains and the city would identify “the optimal location” and the company would “assist in efforts to obtain the necessary funding.” The likely focus would be on federal and state grants through the Transportation Planning Agency. Goddard’s letter does not mention a shuttle service.

Virgin Trains’ proposal, of course, goes beyond the station itself. This portion involves the development that the station would stimulate.

The city essentially would donate to Virgin Trains the land for the station and the garage. In the first proposal, though, the company also wanted the city to give Virgin Trains a roughly one-acre property on the west side of the block south of the library/station site.

This time, the company wants an option for itself “or its affiliates” to acquire the land for “fair market value.” That value would be determined before taking into account the impact of the station, so Virgin or a developer could get it more cheaply.

In addition, Virgin Trains proposes a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) designation for the area near the station. TOD has become very popular as cities try to encourage development around mass transit. Such a designation could help Virgin get federal money for its rail system and federal tax breaks.

Finally, if the station is ready for service before the garage is finished, Virgin wants the city to provide temporary parking for riders and library patrons. Virgin also wants the city to allow construction of the station and garage to begin before issuing building permits.

Based on the letter, Virgin Trains still wants the station to open next year. The company wants leases and ordinances to be on the council’s Oct. 7 agenda. That’s a very fast timetable.

I’ll have more in my Thursday post.

New neighborhood?

A Brightline station wouldn’t just give Boca Raton another transportation option. It likely would create a new neighborhood south of the station.

That area is a mix of small stores and car-centric shops. If the station brings residential development, as Virgin Trains intends, that would change. And the change could be wider than a couple of blocks.

Example: Investor Rob Buehl just bought the roughly half-acre property at Royal Palm Road and Southwest First Avenue. The station would be four blocks north of Palmetto Park Road. Buehl’s property is a block south of Palmetto Park Road.

Buehl paid $1.53 million. In 1997, the land sold for $180,000. Buehl earlier bought the downtown Boca Raton property that will be an upscale senior living center.

In an email, Buehl said he wants a tenant who will make an “adaptive reuse” of what is now a tire and auto repair shop. “At its core,” Buehl said, “the concept is about repurposing the old building into something new and exciting for the downtown now that the Brightline is coming across the street.”

Two things are notable about Buehl’s comment. He is betting that the city council will strike a deal for the station. At this point, I’d say that’s a good bet. He also called the station “across the street,” even though it would be five blocks away.

The station would spur development near City Hall just as the city is deciding on the plan for a new downtown “campus” around City Hall, the police station, the library and other public facilities. There’s much more to the Brightline station than the station.

Shuttle service still iffy

As I noted, Virgin Trains has dropped its demand for a downtown shuttle service. If city council members want a station, however, the issue will remain.

At a recent workshop, the council held yet another discussion on the reality that doesn’t change: Boca Raton can’t attract a shuttle operator that relies only on advertising for revenue. There isn’t enough money in it.

So the only apparent option is for the city to subsidize a shuttle, as Delray Beach does. At that meeting, City Manager Leif Ahnell reminded council members that there is no money in next year’s budget for a shuttle.

The issue raises many questions. Would the same service be available every day or just for special events? Where would it stop? Would the route include just stops downtown, meaning that the money could come from the community redevelopment agency budget? Or would the range be wider, meaning that the money would have to come from the city budget?

Most important: Would the ridership justify the expense in a city where many people might use Uber or Lyft for short trips?

Council members didn’t reach a consensus other than to want “nothing long-term,” as Andy Thomson put it. Maybe there could be something just to get through this high season.

If a train station is coming, however, the council will have to find a consensus and how to pay for it.

Omni panic

Panic briefly broke out Friday at Omni Middle School in northwest Boca Raton.

The school got a report of an active shooter. School board member Frank Barbieri confirmed that morning that the report was “unfounded.” In these post-Parkland days, however, the response involved the Boca Raton Police Department and the school district’s police force.

As it turned out, the response was for nothing. But no school is going to presume that a report is false. Sadly, it’s how we live now.

Young people and mental health

Coincidentally, the youth subcommittee of Boca Raton’s Community Advisory Panel on Wednesday will hold a discussion about young people and mental health. The 6 p.m. event will be at the downtown library.

According to a city news release, the organizers are “inviting students from city schools to attend to talk about their experiences, discuss ways to raise awareness, educate each other on available resources and services, and think of ways to combat the stigma of mental health.” The findings will go to the city council and the school board.

       “With October being Health and Wellness Month, and mental health being such an important topic, especially in our younger communities,” the release said, the subcommittee “is making this a priority to help establish or improve prevention of mental illness among young people in the community.”

Beach and parks tax gets pushback

Boca Raton City Councilman Jeremy Rodgers wants his colleagues to approve a resolution opposing the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Parks District’s proposed tax increase. The district board will vote on the increase at its Wednesday meeting.

As I reported last week, district board member Craig Ehrnst blamed the potential increase not on the proposed Boca National golf course – as council members contend — but on the district’s obligations to the city. Through the resolution, Rodgers wants the public to know that the district, not the city, would be raising its tax rate. All city residents also pay taxes to the beach and park district.

Over the weekend, a robocall critical of the district’s “$28 million” golf course went to Boca Raton residents. Council members said Monday that the city did not send out the robocall.

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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