Wednesday, May 25, 2022

City of Delray Refuses Meeting With Old School Square; Plan to “Save” Doc’s Restaurant Killed

How crazy have things become with Delray Beach’s Old School Square?

This crazy.

Last Friday, city employees went to the site because of reports that Old School Square for the Arts—which has run the complex since its creation in 1989—was removing equipment. Police were called. The city wanted to search the moving truck. Old School Square refused. The police placed a vehicle in front of the truck so no one could drive it away.

The standoff was not resolved until Monday. Marko Cerenko, Old School Square for the Arts’ attorney, came to the site. “I was called to de-escalate things,” Cerenko said Wednesday. The truck was opened. There was nothing inside. Because he knew the truck was empty, Cerenko said, he did not press the city on the issue of a search warrant.

It has been nearly two months since Mayor Shelly Petrolia and city commissioners Juli Casale and Shirley Johnson voted to terminate Old School Square’s lease of the cultural hub that includes the Crest Theater, the Cornell Museum, the renovated high school fieldhouse and the Pavilion, home to many annual public gatherings. The city and Old School Square continue to agree on almost nothing about the separation. Petrolia, Casale and Johnson continue to refuse all calls for a group meeting with Old School Square to discuss the many issues.

Friday’s standoff arose over the biggest issue: who owns what? Cerenko reiterated Wednesday that Old School Square owns “any items that aren’t nailed down and some that are.” The group has been removing “things that are our property.”

Cerenko compares it to a tenant moving out at the end of a lease. “The landlord,” he said, “has no right to inspect what you have in your apartment and can’t stop you from taking anything that belongs to you.”

City Attorney Lynn Gelin, whom Cerenko said monitored the standoff, disagrees. She claims that Old School Square has defaulted on the lease and thus can’t remove any property. “The city may own some of it.”

Cerenko calls that “a lawyer-driven, manufactured excuse after the fact.” He pointed out that the city has not issued Old School Square for the Arts a notice of default. When Petrolia, Casale and Johnson terminated the lease, they did so without stating a cause.

On Monday, the city began what Gelin calls “an inventory” of all items within Old School Square. Given the mutual hostility, that inventory could lead to a major dispute over the contents. When I asked how the city could justify taking what Old School Square bought with its own money, Gelin said, “It’s complicated.” She suggested that one issue could be purchases made with grant money.

old school square

Another flashpoint will be the privately-financed improvements to the Crest Theater. They were not complete when the commission ended the lease. Old School Square says the city then stopped the construction. Gelin says Old School Square ended it. Gelin said the unfinished work could mean that Old School Square doesn’t return the property “in the same condition.” One inference is that the city could bill Old School Square to finish the work.

How does this dispute over property end? Gelin said, “Your guess is as good as mine.”

In addition, City Manager Terrence Moore announced at Tuesday’s commission meeting that the city is taking over some events—such as the weekly green market—that Old School Square has cancelled. According to Moore, people who had weddings and other functions also called the city. In response, Moore said, parks and recreation employees will “work with those holding events.”

Gelin said “city staff will run” some of the events. The city also might hire a management company. Gelin said the city would charge only enough “to offset our costs.”

Petrolia, Casale and Johnson have criticized Old School Square for those cancellations. A representative for the group said Wednesday since the announcement that the lease would end, a staff already much smaller because of the pandemic has gotten even smaller. “People realize,” Cerenko said, “that their future isn’t with Old School Square, and I can’t blame them.”

Commissioners Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel voted against ending the lease. At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Boylston made one more attempt to schedule what he called a “public conversation” about Old School Square. The city would lay out its criticisms of the group’s management—some of which Old School Square supporters acknowledge are valid—and Old School Square would respond.

This could happen, Boylston said, even as the city searches for a management company. When city staff asked what criteria should be in the request for proposals, Boylston said, he began mentally listing all of what Old School Square does. “I began laughing at the idea that we could just hire another management company to replicate them.”

Predictably, Bolston got no support from Petrolia, Casale and Johnson—just the opposite. Johnson again complained about the criticism they have received. Old School Square was not on the agenda when they terminated the lease and Petrolia allowed no public comment.

Frances Bourque is Old School Square’s founder. On Monday, Bourque posted a YouTube video.

Bourqe said the “hasty and shocking decision” after 32 years to end the lease has “shattered our confidence” in the city. Bourque reminded viewers that the city owns the buildings and grounds only because Old School Square for the Arts “gifted” them after acquiring the properties from the Palm Beach County School District.

Bourque cited Delray Beach’s history of talking through issues as a community. That option, though, seems unlikely. Cerenko said the city has “stonewalled” on a meeting to negotiate those many issues. Gelin said Old School Square “never wanted” to talk.

“This does not have to be the final chapter of Old School Square,” Bourque said. “We do not want to litigate.” At this point, however, it’s hard to see the next chapter taking place anywhere but a courtroom.

Yes on “saving” Doc’s—but no on zoning change

Rendering of the new Doc’s

On Tuesday, Petrolia, Casale and Johnson killed a plan to preserve Doc’s downtown restaurant.

The owner of the Doc’s site on Swinton Avenue and the adjoining property facing West Atlantic Avenue wanted to make an upgraded Doc’s part of a three-story office project. Before the commission were historic designation for Doc’s and land-use changes for the office building.

Current rules allow buildings of four stories. The developer proposed a three-story building in exchange for slightly higher density than current rules allow. Representatives for the developer and city staff had spent nearly a year working on the proposal. Doc’s, which has been closed since early this year, would reopen under a restaurant management company.

Commissioners approved the designation 5-0. But Petrolia, Casale and Johnson didn’t like the office project. The site is within the Old School Square historic district. Petrolia argued that the Moderne-style project would be “an island” in the middle of the historic district.

It seemed odd to be talking about historic preservation when the property in question is home to a Dunkin Donuts and a parking lot. Given the top-tier location, Petrolia acknowledged that the site is “underutilized.” Her argument, though, seemed to be that allowing the office project would overutilize the site.

Petrolia also disagreed with Boylston’s comment that the historic designation and the land-use issues are linked. In a letter to the city after the vote, however, the developer said he is withdrawing the request for historic designation. The developer “anticipates integrating the Doc’s building” into the project.

Social media in Delray Beach celebrated the protection for Doc’s. In fact, the designation—like the land-use changes—would have required two votes. Now that the developer has withdrawn the request, there will be no second vote and no historic designation for Doc’s.

Neil Schiller is the developer’s attorney. He said Petrolia was wrong to dispute Boylston. The land-use votes, he said, “had everything to do with Doc’s.” Schiller said the developer will “reconfigure” the project. Doc’s will remain closed.

Jerich headed to trial

Delray Beach pride intersection, photo courtesy of the City of Delray Beach

The man accused of defacing Delray Beach’s LGBTQ streetscape will go to trial.

A Tuesday plea conference didn’t produce a deal. A calendar call is scheduled for Feb. 11. Jerich faces one felony charge and one misdemeanor charge for the incident that occurred last June during a parade for Donald Trump.

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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