City’s Midtown Review Hits Roadblock & More From Boca and Delray

“Now where do we go?” Boca Raton City Councilman Scott Singer asked just before midnight Tuesday.

Good question. Singer, though, might have raised it before joining all his colleagues except Mayor Susan Haynie in going with the crowd on Midtown.

The council had been set to cast a final vote on rules for redevelopment in Midtown, the area from Town Center Mall west to Boca Center. Instead, after almost five hours that made the council look too much like Congress, Singer, Jeremy Rodgers and Robert Weinroth agreed with Andrea O’Rourke that the city should create a “master plan” for Midtown before deciding on the rules.

But what would the plan study? Though Development Services Director Brandon Schaad said he liked the idea, he didn’t have many specifics. “Roadways,” he offered. Or “whatever the council wants.” In fact, Freud couldn’t figure out what this council collectively wants on Midtown.

You have O’Rourke, who, after getting that vote, couldn’t explain what she would do with it. You have Rodgers—who’s running for reelection in March—and Singer—who’s running for mayor next March—trying to work with Midtown landowners yet not annoy those who oppose or are skeptical about Midtown redevelopment and dominated public comment Tuesday night. Rodgers first declared himself opposed to the “master plan,” then quickly switched after Schaad’s remarks.

And you have Weinroth. Six months ago, he told Crocker Partners’ Angelo Bianco—who has been speaking for most of the landowners—that a compromise was close. Until recently, Weinroth might have been a reliable vote with Haynie against O’Rourke’s motion that the landowners consider a delaying tactic.

Weinroth, however, is now running against Haynie for the county commission in November. He quickly seconded O’Rourke’s motion for the “master plan.” Or maybe it will be a “small area” plan. Or something.

The city owes it to residents to be a tough negotiator. The city, however, owes it to landowners to be a straightforward negotiator and to the wider city not to blow an opportunity. Indeed, before Tuesday night’s mush Midtown negotiations had been progressing.

The landowners had agreed that the proposed maximum of 2,500 residential units could be lower, perhaps as low as 1,300. They had agreed to pay for all public works improvement to accommodate redevelopment. They had shown a map of where those residential units would be built. They will pay for a shuttle within Midtown.

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Bianco told the council that three issues remained. The landowners object to the requirements that a Tri-Rail station be built and all infrastructure be in place before the city grants any development approvals. The landowners also want a height limit of 145 feet, to match the tallest existing building. City planners want a 105-foot limit.

Haynie listed other points. She wanted more details about changes to Military Trail, on the eastern edge of Midtown and “more definition” on setback rules. There was the intriguing idea of extending Butts Road south from Town Center Road to connect with Military Trail and thus create a bypass for through traffic.

Resolving those issues would lead to agreement between the city and the landowners and the new Midtown that the council claims to want. That’s how normal negotiations work.

Projections are that Midtown redevelopment will take 10 years. It’s been eight years since the city declared Midtown one of five Planned Mobility Development areas in Boca Raton. It’s been 13 months since the ordinances for Midtown first went before the planning and zoning board.

As Bianco has noted often, setting the rules doesn’t commit the city to any particular project. Each one will have to undergo its own city review.

Much of the discussion Tuesday night, however, was off-point or uninformed. Would the residential be condos or rentals? Actually, the city can’t require a type of housing. Switching from commercial development to residential would mean more traffic. In fact, residential creates less traffic. Opponents of a Midtown Tri-Rail station said the agency loses $120 million a year. There’s a deficit, but $120 million is the operating budget.

City Manager Leif Ahnell said, somewhat hesitantly, that he would bring back details of the “plan” study at the next meeting. Weinroth thinks that yet another workshop will bring out more details.

Weinroth acknowledged that he might not be on the council for the decision. He is resigning in March to make the commission run. “We have to be deliberative,” he said. “If it takes a few more months, that’s better than future council asking in 10 years, ‘What were they thinking?’ “

Elected officials in Boca Raton probably won’t lose votes by criticizing developers. But stringing along the Midtown landowners is risky. Bianco reminded them of the landowners’ planned $1 billion investment in Midtown. Though the landowners have threatened to sue if the city doesn’t act on the rules.

Haynie proposed a sensible postponement until the March 27 meeting. Her motion lost to the vague “plan.” The council also gave Schaad no direction on the Tri-Rail and infrastructure requirements and the height, though Weinroth said he doesn’t consider it essential.

The council slogged through five hours Tuesday night on Midtown. When the discussion ended, there wasn’t much to show for those five hours.

Side note

I’m always interested to watch the exchanges when big projects get before the Boca council or the Delray commission. The presenters usually are lawyers, and the elected officials act like judges, seeking to poke holes in the arguments.

On Tuesday night, the attorney for Midtown was seeking to explain how the residential development would not clog the roads. O’Rourke asked bluntly, “How will (development) not add traffic?”

There followed a long silence, which is never good at such moments if you’re the developer. Eventually, the explanation came—more than once during the evening. At that moment, though, score one for O’Rourke.

The Rafael Nadal rumors

Rumors about Rafael Nadal (pictured) and Patch Reef Park just won’t go away.

Two months ago, board members of the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District—which owns it—had to dispel talk that they wanted to sell the park to Nadal. The 16-time Grand Slam singles champion supposedly is looking for a house in the area.

In fact, the board members couldn’t sell if they wanted to. Palm Beach County chipped in $1 million for Patch Reef and would have to approve any such transaction. That scenario is unlikely.

The new rumor is that the district might turn over the tennis facility to Nadal or a group associated with the Spaniard. Board members denied that. Chairman Bob Rollins and other board members said the only commitment has been to a tournament April 28-30 in Nadal’s name. Executive Director Art Koski, though, will meet next month with The Nadal Group.

Board member Craig Ehrnst said, “It was always ‘exploratory’ for a long-term partnership, but nothing was ever presented. They seemed willing to invest in the facilities to create an indoor tennis facility in exchange for shared usage.” The tournament will require a number of courts, but Ehrnst said, “We should be able to accommodate everyone at other facilities.”

Haynie’s campaign kickoff

Speaking of that Haynie-Weinroth race, Haynie’s campaign kickoff next Wednesday is well-timed.

Haynie raised just $3,500 in December for the District 4 campaign to succeed Steven Abrams. Of that, $1,000 came from a relative in Georgia and $500 came from her husband, Neil Haynie.

Since The Palm Beach Post published its article in October alleging that Haynie voted illegally on matters related to James and Marta Batmasian—Haynie denies it—she has held back on fundraising. Investigations by the county and state ethics commissions continue.

Weinroth—whose kickoff event was Wednesday night—had raised $116,000 for his council reelection campaign, but he must get permission from the donors to switch their money. He and Haynie had many similar donors when they were running for city office.

Delray talks development app process

For all their disagreements on other issues, Delray Beach city commissioners generally agree that they don’t like their development application process.

Among the complaints:

It’s too slow. It’s not consistent. It’s confusing. Too many small decisions get to the commission and too many big decisions don’t. I recall during debate on the iPic project that residents didn’t understand why the Site Plan Review and Appearance Board—with the wonderful acronym SPRABZ—seemingly was the more important reviewing body than the commission.

So two years ago Director of Planning and Zoning Tim Stillings wrote a memo to then-City Manager Don Cooper that laid out some options to improve the process. Stillings suggested combining the site plan and planning and zoning boards. He talked about streamlining review of site plans.

It’s election season in Delray Beach and there’s a new city manager, Mark Lauzier. So I checked with Stillings to see what has happened.

In an email, Stillings said, “We’ve slowly been working on the draft code changes to address the issues raised in the memo.” He hopes that the city can adopt the new process this year, “But I don’t have a definitive schedule to provide at this time.”

The city charter, Stillings said, prevents combining the boards. But what they review could be reorganized. Stilling said the city also is “discussing a tiered approach” in which larger and more complex projects would require approval by the elected commissioners. Review board members are unelected commission appointees.

Because Delray Beach allows appeals from the site plan review and appearance board, projects might still get to the commission. But for most residents, the process probably is confusing—understandably so. Making it clearer would help everyone.

Brightline in the news

Brightline continues to be a hot topic. Friday’s news conference in Boca Raton drew reporters from all South Florida newspaper and television stations, including Telemundo. Brightline trains have killed two people who went around gates in the down position. Politicians in the Treasure Coast who never liked Brightline—the trains won’t stop in that area—want the state to require safety improvements north of West Palm Beach that could cost the company $350 million.

Even those who don’t ride must get accustomed to a busier coastal rail corridor. I was curious to know how many trains are running as part of the company’s limited service from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale. A spokeswoman said Wednesday that it’s 10 trains each way during the week and nine on the weekend. When Brightline starts full service, the company expects to run 16 trains each way, every day.

Ag Reserve update

There’s hopeful news in the fight to protect Palm Beach County’s Agricultural Reserve Area.

The county planning commission recently unanimously recommended denial of the application for a nursing home on the southeast corner of the reserve. That project, south of Horseshoe Acres and north of Long Lake Estates, would have eight times the number of beds allowed under current rules and could bust zoning rules throughout the reserve.

In addition, the county is buying out the South Florida Water Management District’s share of a 571-acre piece of farmland. The district considered the land surplus. County ownership will make it easier to ensure that homes don’t replace crops. Such a conversion on that key site could open the reserve to more development.

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