City-Union Talks at Impasse

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Wildflower update

News flash: Talks at standstill

Not surprisingly, Boca Raton has been unable to reach agreement with the police and fire unions on new contracts. According to Assistant City Manager Mike Woika, an impasse has been declared. In an email Wednesday, Woika said there was agreement on “many issues,” but also disagreement on others—wages and pensions. Those, of course, are the main issues. The showdown has been inevitable since March, when Susan Haynie ran for mayor on a platform of pension reform and beat the union’s candidate, Anthony Majhess. The city’s proposal to the Police Benevolent Association makes major reductions in what are financially unsustainable pension benefits. I will have more next week.

Last week, the Boca Raton City Council authorized the staff to begin negotiating with Hillstone Restaurant Group on a formal lease proposal and site plan for a Houston’s restaurant on the Wildflower property. What are the main issues, what are the chances of agreement, and which side has the stronger position?

There is general agreement that the two main points are traffic and the lease terms. The site, on the north side of Palmetto Park Road and east of Fifth Avenue, is on the Intracoastal Waterway at the foot of the Palmetto Park Road Bridge. Fifth Avenue is just two lanes, with East Boca Raton Road feeding into it just north of the intersection. On the south side of Palmetto Park Road— also just two lanes—is Silver Palm Park, which includes Boca’s popular public boat launch. Just to the west is the planned Archstone project, with 378 apartments and 18,000 square feet of retail development.

Where will all that traffic go? Could all those customers at the Houston’s manage to park on the property? What if there is valet parking? What about traffic if trucks have to service the restaurant?

As the discussion ended, Mayor Susan Haynie offered a helpful perspective on the property—which the city purchased in 2009 for $7.5 million—and the area.

Haynie said the original plan for the Wildflower bar/club/restaurant called for only 70 parking spaces. Thus, it was no surprise that traffic was a problem during the Wildflower’s go-go days in the 1980s. Hillstone and the city have been talking about 128 spaces, and the number could rise to 141 if the spaces are made smaller.

Still, the area has grown since Wildflower closed, and other changes have exacerbated traffic problems even before the city and Hillstone begin talking. Haynie said, correctly, “We need to fix this intersection.” She pointed out that Fifth Avenue doesn’t align from one side of Palmetto Park to the other, and that the city took out turn lanes to make beautification improvements in the median. The city, Haynie said, might need to revisit that action.

Another idea is to seek additional property. Nearby is the site of the closed Maxwell’s Chop House restaurant, on roughly half an acre. City Manager Leif Ahnell said the city had discussed a sale with the New York owner, but the price was more than the property’s appraised value. It sold for $600,000 in 1989. The sense, though, was that the council would like to keep looking for land.

A resident who lives three blocks north of the intersection offered interesting ideas, such as extending the median into the intersection, routing traffic under the bridge and otherwise changing the flow, to move vehicles more smoothly. He got a much more receptive hearing than neighbors who continued to argue for a park that would complement Silver Palm. Disagree all you want, but the city did not buy the property for a park; the city bought it to create a gathering spot and to make money from it.

Which brings us to the lease. The entry point for negotiations is $500,000 annually in lease payments to the city, plus a percentage of sales, for 20 years with a 5 percent increase every five years. After that, there could be five renewals for five years each.

There seems little doubt that a Houston’s would do well on the site, even though there’s a Houston’s near Town Center Mall and another on the Intracoastal in Pompano Beach. “Upscale casual” restaurants are what Hillstone does, and all the council members were “impressed,” to use Robert Weinroth’s description, by Hillstone’s reputation and willingness to keep coming back. Last week was Hillstone’s third version of a plan.

If Boca Raton got, say, $600,000 a year, the return would pay for the property in little more than a decade. But if resolving traffic issues means adding property or creating new roads, that expense will figure into the negotiations. I can’t see how the two sides get to a number on the lease until they get to a solution on the traffic. That solution will have to include preventing diners—whether coming by car or boat—from using Silver Palm Park.

And the council wants that boating option. Hillstone did not include dockage in its latest proposal, and Haynie and others stressed that the company must allow boats. There also must be public access to the waterfront. In West Palm Beach, developers of a condo project on the Chapel-by-the-Lake property got city approval on their fourth try by, among other things, designing a public walkway in front of the condo for walkers and joggers.

“I’m very optimistic,” Weinroth said, that Boca Raton and Hillstone can work out a mutually beneficial deal. What could work against the city, though, is that Hillstone was the only bidder for the site. The council clearly was disappointed that, post-recession, such a spot didn’t generate more interest.

Hillstone surely knows that developing the site is a council priority. City staffers certainly do. Ideally, Boca Raton will get a thriving business that will help the neighborhood, not overwhelm it. But as with any negotiations, Boca Raton must be willing to walk away if the deal doesn’t work for the city and the neighbors.

New Mizner news

Scott Singer is the third member of the Boca Raton City Council to weigh in on the proposed New Mizner on the Green project: four condo towers, averaging 300-plus feet in height, where the Mizner on the Green rental complex stands.

“I have concerns with the size, scale and scope” of the project, Singer told me. “It’s hard for me to envision approving anything close” to what Elad National Properties has outlined in documents submitted to the city. Singer cited the 100-foot height limit on the property. Approving an exemption that significant “would have impacts beyond this parcel.” Singer is “willing to discuss” the project, but he’s clearly skeptical.

With Councilman Robert Weinroth, Singer makes it two of five council members who are decidedly dubious of this grandiose proposal. Michael Mullaugh sounds more open. The council may to hold a workshop on New Mizner on the Green next month.

ESPN Boca Bowl

These are lousy times for football. With the National Football League, it’s players who beat up women and children. With Florida State University, it’s the latest embarrassment from Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. He was suspended for half of Saturday’s big game against Clemson for yelling a misogynistic vulgarity in the Student Union. Nice move for a guy who nearly was charged last year with sexual assault.

On Tuesday, though, the Boca Raton City Council will approve an annual expenditure of $200,000 a year for six years to promote itself through what will be called the Boca Raton Bowl at Florida Atlantic University Stadium.

The deal is with ESPN, which will televise the game, and Palm Beach County. The game will feature teams that play in Conference USA, which includes FAU, the American Athletic Conference, which includes the University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida, and the Mid-American Conference, which includes teams from Michigan through the Midwest to Massachusetts.

This year’s game will take place on Dec. 23. The agreement says future games “probably” will also be played before Christmas. It’s hard to tell how much publicity Boca Raton will get from the game, but fortunately the TV audience won’t hear that the teams are playing at “GEO Group Stadium”—even if prison and football are looking more and more like related subjects.

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

For more City Watch blogs, click here.About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.

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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.