Boca Raton’s Shifting Story On Camino Square

Camino Square

Without explicitly saying so, Boca Raton’s unelected officials are giving the elected city council members a reason to reject Camino Square.

The project, which proposed 350 residential units and retail for the abandoned Winn-Dixie shopping center on the southwest edge of downtown, goes before the council community development agency on Monday. Three months ago, after four hours of public discussion and private sidebars, the council—acting as the CRA board—deferred a decision to Monday. The impression was that Camino Square and city representatives would work out the issue that had arisen during the CRA meeting—whether the county would allocate Camino Square’s impact fees for roadwork on nearby Camino Real to ease traffic.

Three months ago, the staff had recommended approval. Yet now, after those supposed negotiations, the staff all but urges the CRA to deny approval, based on three points that the CRA didn’t raise at the close of January’s hearing. It gets a little technical, but bear with me.

Point 1: Ordinance 4035, which governs downtown development, divides downtown into seven subareas. Each has limits on how much residential, retail and office development is allowed within it.

Under the rules, though, developers can move capacity from one subarea to another as long as a project doesn’t cause the city to exceed the amount of overall square footage allowed downtown.

The Camino Square developers—FCI Residential— propose such a conversion. In January, some council members questioned the conversion.

Ordinance 4035 didn’t call for residential in Subarea G—which includes the Camino Square site—or Subarea A, which is the government district around City Hall. The staff memo doesn’t call the Camino Square conversion illegal, but it says the conversion “may not be wholly advisable” in carrying out the goals of Ordinance 4035.

Point 2: The staff memo questions whether Camino Square’s design would adhere to the goal within Ordinance 4035 of creating a unique downtown.

The memo calls the project “conventional”—two, eight-story apartment towers separated from a still unspecified retail component by a parking lot. There is “little functional or design integration” between the residential and the retail. The design is not “visionary.”

Point 3: Ordinance 4035 states that projects should “relate to the whole” of downtown. The goals are compatibility and a sense of place. Camino Square, the memo says, “does not relate.”

As noted, the memo from City Manager Leif Ahnell does not recommend denial. Such a conclusion almost certainly would have invited yet another lawsuit against Boca Raton over denial of a development project. Two advisory boards have voted to recommend approval. City planners recommended approval just three months ago.

So the new memo essentially amounts to jury instructions, with council members as the jury.

Regarding the conversion, the memo says that “it is prudent to consider” whether the conversion is appropriate for that area and for downtown overall. Regarding the design, the memo says the question “should be evaluated.” The memo uses the same language regarding compatibility.

What’s curious is that the staff report for the January hearing raised almost none of these objections—especially about the conversion. That previous actually noted that the city’s consultant praised the design.

Residents of Camino Gardens, just west of the site, spoke against the project in January. Camino Real and Second Avenue can be a traffic chokepoint at rush hour, especially when gates are down at the nearby Florida East Coast Railway crossing.

Since January, though, FCI Residential and Kimco— which owns the nine-acre site—have addressed those traffic questions from January. Attorney Bonnie Miskel, who represents the developers, said county staffers have agreed to recommend using the nearly $2 million in impact fees on improvements at Camino Real and Dixie Highway and Camino Real and Third Avenue.

In addition, Miskel said, the FEC will allow the work to proceed on its right of way. Miskel said those upgrades would “fix the mistake” the city made in 2015 by refusing money for Camino Real and Dixie. That decision also came up during the January hearing.

Miskel, however, agrees that the new staff memo is “highly unusual.” She’s been a land-use lawyer for almost three decades. “I’ve never seen this occur.”

But that blight

We should note here that Boca Raton created the community development agency in 1980 primarily to eliminate downtown blight. In that regard, the CRA has been a big success. Blight is almost gone.

The one exception is the site where Camino Square wants to build. After the Winn-Dixie closed in 2010, the other retailers followed. The result is classic blight.

It’s not the choicest location, cut off from downtown and near a sober home. Yet the staff memo that all but recommends denial of Camino Square cites retail as a better alternative because the area needs it.

Less than 100 yards away, however, are two small shopping centers that feature a grocery store, two drug stores and other retailers. Residents haven’t spoken against Camino Square because they want retail instead. And Phase 2 of Camino Square would be retail.

Neighbors want something on the property. It’s an eyesore. The main job of the community redevelopment agency is to eradicate blight. If the CRA board—the city council—votes down Camino Square, “it would be the antithesis” of the CRA’s mission, said Bonnie Miskel, the developers’ lawyer.

New “innovation strategist”

Boca Raton has a new employee whose background, according to a new release, includes work for a company that “utilizes advanced artificial intelligence technology to create personalized pet nutrition products.”

The city hired Pedro Moras as an “innovation strategist.” Among his tasks in the job description are to develop “partnerships and programs to advance the city as a technology hub, to promote innovation and the use of technology within the community” and to create “content for social and traditional media regarding the city’s innovative activities and programs.” Moras will report to Assistant City Manager Mike Woika.

According to a city spokeswoman, a panel of department heads interviewed a half dozen finalists from among “dozens” of applicants. The panel chose Moras because of his “entrepreneurial experience” and “understanding of the city’s goals.”

Though the release says Moras will seek to enhance the business start-up culture using assets such as Tech Runway at Florida Atlantic University, those “smart” goals may seem more conceptual than specific. I asked for clarity from Mayor Scott Singer, who proposed such this position at last year’s goal-setting session. His response:

“Generally, the role would be to bring innovative and best practices to deliver services better and more efficiently. We also envision part of the role as working with the private sector to help our efforts in building our base of innovative companies, with the hope of growing our business and medical technology ecosystem.”

Sobering news

There have been developments in the case that Delray Beach worried could undercut the city’s regulations on sober houses.

Under state law, drug treatment centers must refer patients only to sober houses that have obtained certification from the Florida Association of Recovery Residences (FARR). An operator that failed to obtain certification sued the industry trade group, challenging the state law. Delray Beach used that law in its regulations. The previous city attorney warned that a successful lawsuit essentially could invalidate those rules, which helped the city reduce the number of poorly run homes.

Delray Beach retained attorney Terrill Pyburn, an expert in sober house law, to monitor the lawsuit. She told me this week that a judge has granted FARR’s motion to dismiss the litigation. The plaintiff would have to file an amendment complaint and has not done so.

But, Pyburn, said the operator has filed a new application with FARR. If certification follows, the lawsuit would seem to go away. “You never can know for sure,” Pyburn said, “but I would presume that, too.”

And an update

Speaking of sober homes, a bill in the Legislature seeks to update previous actions in Tallahassee.

HB 369 would toughen the law against patient brokering. It also would require certification of what Pyburn calls “peer support professionals” who often are in emergency rooms to consult with overdose victims about where to obtain treatment.

Pyburn called it a “glitch bill.” That’s Tallahassee terminology for follow-up legislation that updates the original action on major issues. It’s a committee bill, but Rep. Mike Caruso, whose district includes part of Delray Beach, signed on as a sponsor. Pyburn said similar legislation failed last year on the session’s final day.

BH3 at the plate

(Rendering by BH3)

The purchase agreement for three blocks of West Atlantic Avenue is ready for consideration Tuesday by the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency.

The basics of the project are the same. BH3 would build 165 residential units, a 33,000-square-foot grocery store plus retail and office space. The centerpiece would be the 40,000-square-foot Frog Alley public space.

BH3 would buy the nine acres for a token $10. But the company would build two parking garages and a parking lot that would many spaces to West Atlantic.

I will have more on this in my Tuesday post.

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