Friday, May 17, 2024

Boca Dodges a Bullet On Camino Square

Fortunately, Boca Raton approved the Camino Square project. Otherwise, the developer would have sued the city and almost certainly would have won.

Yet the vote was only 3-2 on Monday when Camino Square came before the city council, acting as the community redevelopment agency. Mayor Scott Singer and Council members Jeremy Rodgers and Andy Thomson voted for the project. Council members Monica Mayotte and Andrea O’Rourke voted no.

Camino Square will bring 346 apartments and a still unspecified retail component to the last blighted area of downtown Boca Raton—the former Winn-Dixie plaza north of Camino Real and west of the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. It will bring almost $2 million worth of improvements to the stretch of Camino Real between Dixie Highway and Third Avenue. It will bring $100,000 in public art. It will bring public access to a pair of parks, one for dogs only.

Those are the direct benefits. Indirectly, Camino Square could lift the area around it. The owner of the faded convenience store on the south side of Camino Real might find a buyer who sees new possibilities. The owner of a sober house to the west on Camino Real said she would sell out and close the home—which neighbors consider a nuisance and whose residents hang out at the convenience store—if rising property values made the price right.

Camino Square

Yet the vote still was just 3-2. Residents of Camino Gardens, west of the site, packed the council chambers to speak against the project. Some speakers raised the legitimate issue of traffic, which the improvements on Camino Real are meant to address. Other speakers implausibly asked the CRA to delay further a project that first went before the city three years ago and which the CRA already delayed in January for three months.

Attorney Ele Zachariades, who represents Camino Square, previewed the lawsuit by noting the “painstaking” discussions with the city. She noted that the developer was under no obligation to work with the county and allocate that money—from impact fees—to adding lanes on Camino Real and otherwise trying to ease a bottleneck at rush hour. Those unrequired benefits, Zachariades said, would disappear if the CRA denied the project.

“Camino Square representatives estimate that it will take between six and nine months to obtain city approvals. After that, construction should take about two years.”

In terms of the law, Zachariades made her most compelling argument at the start. Camino Square met all the requirements of the ordinance that governs downtown development. The two advisory boards had recommended approval. The city’s architectural consultant concluded that Camino Square met downtown design guidelines. Any unrelated objections didn’t apply.

Yet Mayotte said she would vote no because the project was too dense, even though the developers proposed two, eight-story residential buildings when they could have asked for 10 stories. Mayotte wanted more retail, even though elected officials can’t dictate the type of use if the overall project meets local rules.

As for O’Rourke, she cited her allegiance to “the downtown plan” and said she would not be “true to her heart” if she didn’t share that feeling. As rhetoric, it might have pleased some in the chambers. As a legal defense, it would have bombed.

Another legitimate issue is that the work on Camino Real could eliminate bike lanes east of Second Avenue. So the developers and the city will work with Fresh Market, whose store fronts that section of the road, on using the city’s right of way in the parking lot to add bike lanes in a way that doesn’t hurt parking at Fresh Market.

Camino Square representatives estimate that it will take between six and nine months to obtain city approvals. After that, construction should take about two years. With one, narrow vote, Boca Raton may have cleaned up a blighted area, brought the city and school district more money and eased a traffic problem. If it all works out, that would be a good day’s work.

How they voted

Boca Raton Mayor Scott Singer

The key vote on Camino Square was Singer’s. The sense going in was that the margin would be 3-2 either way. Singer tipped his intention early by basically blaming the downtown ordinance, which Camino Square met.

Singer then noted, correctly, that the city had extracted many concessions from the developers. “There are lots of carrots.” A potential lawsuit, Singer said, “would not be entirely frivolous.”

As chairman, O’Rourke runs the CRA meetings. After Rodgers and Thomson declared their intention to support Camino Square, O’Rourke called on Singer. Whether by intention or not, having Singer declare that his would be the deciding third vote allowed O’Rourke and Mayotte—who campaigned against development—to vote no without worrying about legal consequences.

One could see O’Rourke’s comments as a campaign speech for a run against Singer in March. The two often vie for the last word on issues. Monday was no exception.

BH3 and CRA meet this morning

(Rendering by BH3)

The purchase agreement between the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency and BH3 was being updated at the end of last week and may go through more revisions before going to the CRA board this morning.

In January, the CRA chose BH3 to develop the roughly nine acres east of the Fairfield Inn. The mixed-use project is supposed to revitalize The Set and the southwest/northwest neighborhoods. The CRA allowed 60 days to negotiate the agreement.

As City Commissioner Ryan Boylston notes, “The main issue is the topic of (BH3) flipping” the project before completion. CRA negotiators met individually with the seven CRA board members to discuss terms of the agreement. During his meeting, Boylston said, he proposed that the CRA allow BH3 to bring in more investors with no penalty as long as BH3 retained a controlling interest. If outside ownership exceeded 50 percent, the company would pay a $4 million fine. “I hope that’s in the deal.”

“We don’t want them to profit without giving us a project. I think there’s a lot of hard negotiating ahead,” said Commissioner Bill Bathurst.

Another issue is the number of concrete pads to meet the construction timetable. Boylston said the CRA proposed three —more aggressive—while BH3 proposed one. He suggested two.

Commissioner Bill Bathurst said, “We don’t want them to profit without giving us a project. I think there’s a lot of hard negotiating ahead.” Another topic will be the CRA’s ability to buy back the site.

Neil Schiller, BH3’s attorney, said, “I expect to have no issues” by the time of the 10 a.m. CRA meeting. He points out that the CRA has set “an aggressive timetable.” BH3 would have to submit all applications—most notably for its site plan —by November and obtain all city approvals a year later.

“We intend to beat” the timetable, Schiller said. The CRA likely set that schedule because of complaints by board members who voted against BH3 that Uptown Delray could finish sooner because of existing approvals from the failed effort under different ownership.

“A few things are OK and a few things are not,” Boylston said Friday, “but I think we’re gonna be good. Schiller agreed. “The stars are aligned.”

And rising seas in Delray

At today’s workshop meeting, the Delray Beach City Commission will discuss “Intracoastal Waterway Level and Infrastructure Vulnerability: Presentation of Ordinance Alternatives for Implementation of Seawall Elevations and Improvements of Private Seawalls.”

Translation: How should Delray Beach pay what a consultant believes will be nearly $400 million to deal with rising seas?

Before the commission fired him, former City Manager Mark Lauzier had noted that Delray Beach’s annual stormwater fee of $75.60 “has not been studied in many years.” Since the issue is tidal flooding, the stormwater fee would be a logical place to find revenue.

At this point, though, there is no rush to raise the fee. “I’m not sure there’s a need,” said Commissioner Ryan Boylston, though he agreed that the fee is “the logical source.” Boylston said, “Delray is fat,” referring to the city’s reserve fund. He and Mayor Shelly Petrolia, Boylston said, want to look there first and “start taking bites.”

Commissioner Bill Bathurst agrees that the city should look first to other sources, such as federal grants. Lauzier had said Petrolia met with Delray Beach’s lobbyist about “funding requests at higher levels of government.”

“We already know where we stand,” Bathurst said, referring to the study. “We have numbers. And we’re talking a 30-year project.” He believes that Delray Beach may be ahead of other local governments seeking the same sort of assistance. Today’s meeting is designed to further flesh out a plan.

And Commissioner Johnson

Commissioner Shirley Johnson

Delray Beach City Commissioner Shirley Johnson will be at today’s meetings, but she told me Friday that she may not be present if the city holds its goal-setting meeting on April 26.

Johnson said she needs knee replacement surgery as a result of a car striking her last February as she walked to City Hall. The operation, Johnson said, should take place in the next couple of weeks.

Boca goal-setting

Speaking of goal-setting, Boca Raton will hold its annual meetings this week. They will take place between 8:30 and 5 p.m. Thursday and Friday in the city complex auditorium at 6500 North Congress Avenue. The public is invited, but city council members will take no questions.

Hospital expansion groundbreaking

Rendering of the Schmidt Family Parking Facility

According to a news release, Boca Raton Regional Hospital will hold a “historic groundbreaking” Wednesday of a “transformational project.”

The project is a parking garage, the first phase of what Boca Regional calls its “Campus Renovation Program.” But the release doesn’t call it a garage. It’s the Schmidt Family Parking Facility.” Longtime donor Richard Schmidt is co-chairman of the campaign to raise money for the garage, a new patient tower and a makeover of the current tower. He and his wife, Barbara Schmidt, are the lead donors for the garage.

The groundbreaking will take place at 10 a.m.

Lane closures

Lane closures continue this week on Palmetto Park Road and Camino Real in Boca Raton as part of the project to widen Interstate 95 and add toll lanes. The work will continue to affect exit and entrance ramps at the Palmetto Park Road interchange. Meanwhile, one lane of Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach near I-95 will remain closed because of work on that interchange.

Name change

At tonight’s meeting, the Boca Raton City Council will change the name of the Green Living Advisory Board to the Sustainability Advisory Board and raise the panel’s profile. Council members Monica Mayotte and Andrea O’Rourke had pushed for the change to put more focus on Boca Raton’s effort to be eco-friendly. Boca Raton generally has lagged behind Delray Beach in this area.

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Randy Schultz
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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