Friday, April 19, 2024

City Watch: “Visioning” meeting yields interesting results—and other news and notes

Visioning session

Boca Raton City Councilman Scott Singer’s “visioning session” last week may have shown how making the downtown public waterfront more appealing depends on having a downtown waterfront restaurant. Or maybe more than one.

Let us consider the irony.

Over the summer, Singer seemed to break with his council colleagues on what had been their common goal of concluding a deal for Hillstone Restaurant Group to lease the Wildflower property on the Intracoastal Waterway north of the Palmetto Park Road Bridge. His break came as residents opposed to the restaurant— because they don’t want it as a neighbor—got onto the November ballot an ordinance that would restrict city-owned waterfront land to four public uses. Nothing commercial would be allowed.

At Singer’s session, the goal was to ask participants to consider the joint potential of the Wildflower site and Silver Palm Park on the south side of the bridge. Participants most liked photos that depicted areas in other cities bustling with people drawn by commercial destinations, such as restaurants.

Singer called it “a very successful community discussion of a wide range of ideas.” Indeed. The most interesting idea continues to be moving the city boat ramp from Silver Palm Park to Rutherford Park. Another new/old one is the city acquiring by eminent domain the 0.6-acre vacant property that was home to Maxwell’s Chop House. That land is between the Wildflower site and Northeast Fifth Avenue. Having it would make a restaurant fit much better. Boca Raton has made inquiries. The property appraiser’s office sets the market value at $1.75 million. City officials said Monday that the owner had tossed out a figure of between $8 million and $9 million.

Moving the boat ramp “is the key to the puzzle,” said Derek Vander Ploeg, one of the architects who participated in the session. “It frees up many things. It would have to be sensitively done” at Rutherford Park, but “there’s plenty of room, maybe even for three ramps.”

Aside from boaters, Silver Palm Park gets very little use. Neighbors have complained to police about homeless people using the grills for fires. The only issue regarding Silver Palm Park during the Hillstone negotiations had been that parking for the restaurant should not affect parking for the boaters.

Singer told me that he had been “pushing for a second launch” and that a joint plan could work with the launch at Silver Palm because “the ramp takes up little room.” He would like any restaurant on the Wildflower property to have a “more prominent promenade” than the public walkway in the Hillstone site plan.

With luck, many of the participants came away finally seeing the false narrative of the campaign for the ordinance. Supporters claim that they are trying to preserve and enhance Boca Raton’s public waterfront by calling for a park on the 2.2-acre Wildflower site. Enhancing the public waterfront, however, means allowing the sort of private uses that the ordinance would prevent.

Without a way to draw people, the Wildflower site would be as little-used as Silver Palm. What a wonderful return on the public’s $7.5-million investment.

Any joint use of the two properties, Vander Ploeg said, “would need something to bring people. Perhaps not just one restaurant.” If the ordinance passed, however, the city couldn’t allow even a food truck or an ice-cream stand on either property. The ordinance would allow only “public recreation, public boating access, public streets and city stormwater uses.”

So by using a vibrant waterfront as their cover story, opponents of the restaurant may have shown that being vibrant depends on having the restaurant, which also could bring the city about $33 million in lease payments over 45 years, minus what the city pays in property taxes. Opponents have not said how they might replace that money.

Singer held the session on his own, and he will discuss it at tonight’s council meeting. He wants to “incorporate the comments” into the city’s comprehensive waterfront study. A successful downtown public waterfront, however, won’t happen unless the ordinance fails.

Golf course sale

In remarkably short order, the Boca Raton City Council agreed Monday on a plan for possible sale of the western golf course.

Deputy City Manager George Brown presented council members with three options for the 11 unsolicited offers the city has received: Set a date for developers to submit their final, best offer; formally advertise the 200-acre site through a Request For Proposal; seek development approvals from Palm Beach County—the course lies within the county, not the city—and then sell.

The council took little time to choose the first option, which also was the right option. Brown estimates that those offers could be ready for the Nov. 22 council meeting. Based on discussions with county officials, Brown believes that a developer could get approval for between three and five units per acre.

Boca Teeca residents packed the chambers in hopes that the council would make the Ocean Breeze course at Boca Teeca part of any proposal. That didn’t happen, although staff did peg the potential cost of the city/and or the Greater Boca Raton Beach & Park District acquiring Ocean Breeze—which closed over the summer—at $6 million to $20 million. That would include rehabbing the course and demolishing a hotel, among other things.

In addition, Brown said, any buyer that wanted to provide anything but a golf course probably would have to negotiate a new covenant with Boca Teeca. The current one limits use of the land to golf unless the residents vote to change it. Their resistance to doing so has frustrated Lennar, which would like to develop the property.

Lennar now would like to get the western golf course and transfer Ocean Breeze. That still might happen, but it isn’t the council’s priority now. Also, Mayor Susan Haynie wants Lennar’s updated offer to “monetize” Ocean Breeze, meaning to state a value for the land.

On Monday, council members most wanted some certainty about the two golf courses. In about two months, they should start getting some.

Delray iPic

Last week, the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency tabled until its Oct. 20 meeting a request from iPic to extend until Jan. 31 the deadline to close on the property for the company’s downtown project—Fourth and Fifth Delray.

To close, iPic must have building permits. Getting the permits means finalizing development agreements, notably on the parking garage. Though I’ve heard for weeks that both sides are working hard, the deals aren’t done.

The CRA assembled the property, and chose iPic three years ago. Ideally, said CRA Director Jeff Costello, the agreements would go to the city commission for approval on Oct. 18 and to the CRA two days later.

Delray traffic tragedies

For the second time in a month, a transportation tragedy in Delray Beach is prompting a discussion.

In August, it was the death of a woman who fell on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks just north of Atlantic Avenue. She was killed when her husband could not move her from the path of a freight train.

Last week, it was the death of an 82-year-old Uber drive, J. Gerald Smith. According to police, Smith was crossing Northeast Sixth Avenue—Federal Highway—on Northeast First Street when Roger Wittenberns crashed his Lamborghini into Smith’s Buick Enclave. Police say Wittenberns had been drinking and was driving very fast. The crash occurred at about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. Wittenberns was seriously injured.

Regarding the FEC accident, the city and Florida East Coast Industries are discussing whether the company might build a barrier to keep people from crossing the tracks north of the grade crossing at Atlantic Avenue. Regarding the car crash, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) will study the accident history at the intersection. Since the makeover of Federal Highway, some residents have complained that drivers regularly speed on what the city made into a slower, scenic route.

In an email, City Manager Don Cooper said, “We are looking at all aspects of the road, including traffic signals, which will have to coordinated with FDOT and Palm Beach County, and sightlines to see if there are safety concerns. It should be noted that incident appears to be the result of excessive speeding and other factors. You can’t design around inappropriate actions.”

Mayor Cary Glickstein recalled that the only discussion of a traffic light at that intersection “was in conjunction with” Atlantic Crossing, the project on two blocks to the east. Glickstein said the idea was for the developers to pay for the light. Nothing happened.

Train risk

Speaking of transportation risks, the Delray Beach Fire-Rescue Department last week presented a fairly terrifying “vulnerability assessment” for the risks of FEC trains carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG.)

In June, the FEC began testing cars to carry 10,000 gallons of LNG, which will make up an increasing share of the global gas market. It produces far fewer of the emissions that cause global warming.

The department’s report envisioned three scenarios, the worst of which is a BLEVE—Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion—at the Atlantic Avenue crossing. Anyone within 344 yards could die within a minute. And you thought the new Brightline trains could pose problems.

Fortunately, no such BLEVE has happened anywhere. Other scenarios are far less threatening. Still, City Manager Don Cooper said Delray Beach, Boca Raton and Boynton Beach are working to have a collective supply of foam for fighting what would be a new, scary type of fire.

Delray attorney note

The Delray Beach City Commission was to have met today to rank the applicants for city attorney. That meeting won’t happen, and has not been rescheduled. Mayor Glickstein said the commission is trying to agree on a date when everyone is available.

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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