Friday, November 26, 2021

Big Gift for BRRH, Crocker Sues City and Buys Innovation Center, Updates on Delray CRA, Brightline, Ocean Breeze and More

We have much to report, but first:

The Elaine J. Wold and the Bay Branch Foundation have donated $25 million to Boca Raton Regional Hospital. The gift will name the seven-story Gloria Drummond patient tower that is part of the hospital’s $260 million capital improvement program.

Ms. Wold is a longtime Boca Regional donor. According to the news release announcing the gift, she was a “lifelong friend” of Mrs. Drummond, one of the hospital’s founders.

Midtown lawsuit

Boca Raton has been working on a “small area master plan” for the Midtown neighborhood. The city now must develop a legal plan.

Under the state’s Bert Harris Act, Crocker Partners is seeking $137 million in damages, alleging that the city’s failure to approve development regulations for Midtown amounts to an illegal taking of property rights. The figure is Crocker’s combined estimate for three Midtown properties—including Boca Center—on which the company says it has unable to “attain the reasonable, investment-backed expectation” of land use.

In 2010, the city made Midtown one of five Planned Mobility districts, but the city has yet to decide how Midtown will be developed. The main change would be residential development, which current rules don’t allow because the ban was in place when the city annexed the property from the county in 2003.

Crocker is one of four primary landowners in Midtown. Simon owns Town Center Mall. Dallas-based Trademark owns Glades Plaza. Cypress Realty owns the Strikes bowling center and the former Nipper’s bar. Crocker Partners Managing Partner Angelo Bianco, however, has led negotiations with the city. In 2014, Crocker bought four Midtown properties for $350 million.

Crocker and the city have been talking since 2015. The council has held two workshops. As recently as last summer, one council member said agreement was close. Four main issues needed resolution: the number of residential units, building height, whether a proposed Tri-Rail station should be built before any development and the schedule for infrastructure improvements.

In January, however, the council—Mayor Susan Haynie dissenting—approved a proposal from Andrea O’Rourke to require a “small area master plan” for Midtown. Bianco protested, noting that the city required no such plan for any other Planned Mobility area.

In March, Development Services Director Brandon Schaad said the study would cover housing mix, transit, cycling and pedestrian, cost and infrastructure. Schaad said the study would be complete no earlier than July. Even that, he added, was an “aggressive” schedule.

Bianco saw the “small area master plan” as a stalling tactic that created a de facto moratorium and could delay any decision by a year. If the other landowners file similar claims, the city’s potential liability would be even higher.

“I was forced to sue,” Bianco said Wednesday. Because the city didn’t enact the regulations, “My investors have suffered enormous losses. This was after doing everything the city asked of us and holding 20 community meetings.” When the council approved the “small area master plan,” Bianco said, no council member or city planner could define it.

Bianco also said delay will cost the city a comprehensive redevelopment of Midtown and $20 million of infrastructure improvements that the property owners were willing to finance. Crocker must give the city 120 days before filing any motion or seeking discovery. So if the city approached Crocker with an offer to negotiate, would Bianco consider it? “I don’t think so. My level of trust is non-existent.”

Crocker buys the Innovation Center

While Crocker Partners fights with Boca Raton over those properties, the company has bought another key portion of the city.

On Tuesday, the company announced its purchase of the Boca Raton Innovation Center, which is the core of the former IBM campus near Yamato Road and Interstate 95. Crocker and its partners—Rialto Capital and Siguler Guff, both of New York City—paid $170 million for the 125 acres. A news release said the deal means that Crocker now owns nearly 3 million square feet—or 25 percent—of Boca Raton’s office space.

The property is interesting not just because of its history as the place where an IBM team developed the personal computer. The campus has backup power and the buildings are hardened against hurricanes. With 10,000 employees in Boca Raton at the high point, IBM had determined that work always would go on.

IBM sold all 557 acres of the former campus in 1997 to the Blue Lake Group for $46 million. After it changed hands in 2000 and became T-Rex Corporate Center, the city and county bought 310 acres for $45 million. Some of that land is the Spanish River Athletic Park and Don Estridge High Tech Middle School, named for the man who led the PC team. Other portions of the original 500-plus acres went to other developers.

The private equity firm Blackstone bought Boca Raton Innovation Center in 2005 for $192.7 million. The site was sold again in January 2017. The price was not disclosed.

Crocker Partners Managing Partner Angelo Bianco said Wednesday that Crocker is in for the long term. For now, though, Bianco said the company will “enhance the amenities” at what he called “the best office park in South Florida.” That will mean adding “the sort of everyday retail options you can’t do through Amazon.” According to the company, the park is 73 percent leased.

Crocker didn’t buy those Midtown properties just to watch over them. So one can safely assume that the company has similar ambitions for the Innovation Center in Boca Raton’s growing northwest neighborhood.

Quiet zones still not ready

brightlineUnfortunately, quiet zones in Boca Raton and Delray Beach along the Florida East Railway are more weeks away than previously advertised.

In a letter Tuesday to Palm Beach Transportation Agency Executive Director Nick Uhren, a Brightline vice president said the subcontractor installing the necessary safety improvements “has suffered setbacks and has limited staffing.” Brightline is the new passenger service whose horns blow regularly.

Those “setbacks” have delayed work in Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach, Hypoluxo and Lantana that Brightline had promised would be done by April 1. Brightline’s Adrien Share made clear the company’s priorities. “All resources” have been shifted to Miami, so Brightline can create buzz by opening service to that city.

But don’t worry. Brightline is “engaged with the subcontractor every day” to prioritize the work that Brightline isn’t prioritizing. Thanks.

Once the improvements are done and “No Train Horn” signs go up, cities can file with the Federal Railway Administration for the quiet zone. Then it takes another 21 days before trains stop blowing their horns.

Under the promised schedule, Boca Raton and Delray Beach could have had quiet zones by about May 1. Share now says the work might not be done until the end of May—two months late. That would put the start of quiet zones closer to July 1.

Uhren said his agency will work with Brightline to see if the work can move faster. Mayor Haynie suggested a Sunday work schedule. Brightline will keep us “updated.”

Can’t wait.

Delray commission looks at new CRA role

It was weird Tuesday night when Delray Beach city commissioners discussed how they would like to operate as the board of the community redevelopment agency.

As City Attorney Max Lohman explained it, commissioners can “suggest” but can’t do anything until they approve an ordinance actually installing themselves as the new board. Lohman said that probably would happen at the May 1 regular meeting.

CRA Executive Director Jeff Costello took up most of the time Tuesday laying out the agency’s work, which is extensive.

“This CRA has a broader mandate than most,” Lohman said. That work will continue until the actual takeover, though the CRA can’t close on property deals before the new board is in place.

Most likely, the commission will get down to details —how often should the CRA board meet?—during the annual goal-setting session next Friday and Saturday.

City joins the gun reg challenge

Happily, the Boca Raton City Council voted 4-1 Tuesday night to join Weston’s legal challenge of the 2011 state law that mandates fines, removal from office, and civil liability for local officials whom some aggrieved party believes violate the state preemption on county and city regulation of firearms.

Jeremy Rodgers was the dissenter. He offered no explanation beyond calling it “political aggrandizing.” He seemed worried about having Gov. Rick Scott as a defendant. City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser again stated her support for the lawsuit. She believes that the “extraordinary” penalties are more of Tallahassee’s recent attack on home rule and are unconstitutional.

Choosing a golf course architect

At Monday’s meeting, the board of the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District will choose an architect to design the Boca National Golf Course.

The board previously narrowed the 15 applicants to five. Starting at 5:15 p.m., each finalist will make a 30-minute closing argument. District staff will ask questions received from residents. The public can attend the session but cannot ask questions then.

The firms offer an interesting menu. Jan Bel Jan runs her eponymous firm out of Jupiter and is the only woman among the finalists. Staples Golf, based outside Phoenix, touts its emphasis on sustainability. Vincent Design is in Augusta, Ga., home of The Masters. Its principal spent 15 years working for Jack Nicklaus’ design company.

Richard Mandell is from Pinehurst, N.C., a golf capital, and has designed courses in China. The team of Nick Price and Tom Fazio blends a golfer who was among the world’s best in the early and mid-‘90s and one of the country’s most prolific designers.

After the board chooses, the district will have to agree on a contract. Then the district and the city will craft another agreement—like that for purchase of the Ocean Breeze course that will become Boca National— under which the city will issue bonds for the architect and the district will reimburse the city for the payments.

Koski on the way out?

After nearly six years of having Art Koski as interim director, the beach and park district is moving toward returning the job to a staff position.

The subject arose recently when Koski billed the district $120,000 for his work as the agency’s lawyer negotiating the Ocean Breeze purchase. Koski had defended the $24 million price, which some residents criticized as too high, and he based his fee on a percentage of the price.

Koski apologized for the controversy, and the board approved the payment. But there seems to be collective agreement among board members that Koski’s arrangement has lasted long enough.

So the staff is working on a job description for the director’s position. The district may seek help from consultants. After that, the board will advertise the position.

“Transparency in the search will be a priority,” said board member Craig Ehrnst. “The district serves a unique role in shaping our community.” Commissioner Steven Engel believes that Assistant Director Briann Harms “has the qualifications to do the job, but in the interests of transparency I believe we should conduct our own search, independent of the city.”

Board chairman Bob Rollins told me Wednesday that he would like to choose a director by the end of the year.

And Sugar Sand for Mizner school move?

Rollins also said the district board at its April 23 meeting may decide whether members have any further interest in considering Sugar Sand Park as a possible location for Addison Mizner Elementary. Among parents, opinion seems split on moving or staying at the Northwest 12th Avenue site.

Pressure to make a decision has eased since the city donated land for a new elementary school next to Estridge Middle. Addison Mizner students will go there while their school is under construction. Originally, they might have had to share Verde Elementary’s campus for 18 months.

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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