Thursday, December 7, 2023

DDA’s Big Ask for Old School Square and Delray’s Water Lawsuit

The Delray Beach Downtown Development Authority wants nearly $1.4 million to operate Old School Square.

For starters.

DDA representatives revealed that number—$1.38 million—during Thursday’s meeting with the city commission and the community redevelopment agency. The DDA also would like the CRA to pay for new exterior lighting at Old School Square.

More details emerged about the DDA’s plan, and I’ll get to them. But money was the most anticipated issue.

When Old School Square for the Arts ran the cultural complex, the city didn’t contribute money toward operating expenses. The city maintained the grounds and building exteriors. The CRA contributed $750,000 toward programming.

Commissioner Juli Casale said the number at first gave her “sticker shock.” But, she said, “I’m comfortable with it.”

Casale has personal reasons for being “comfortable” with the number. She, Mayor Shelly Petrolia and Commissioner Shirley Johnson voted 14 months ago to end Old School Square for the Arts’ lease of the complex, leaving no one in charge. Casale is up for reelection in March.

Johnson was even more enthusiastic. “If there’s an ask,” she said to DDA Director Laura Simon and the group’s board members, “You’re going to get it.” She added, “I’ll get you every penny you need.” Johnson is term-limited next March.

Petrolia was more restrained, though she seems ready to support the request. She called the Cornell Museum, which is part of Old School Square, “underutilized” and spoke of “reimagining” the facility.

The money would have to come from the city’s operating budget, which provides most basic services. For that to happen, the commission would have to approve a budget amendment, normally used for smaller items.

One approach would be to take the money from reserves, a practice usually reserved for emergencies. Petrolia has criticized such use of the reserve fund.

On Monday, City Manager Terrence Moore said that was one option. He could provide commissioners with other options at today’s meeting.

Here’s another point about that $1.38 million request: The DDA almost certainly will want more.

This amount covers only operation of the Cornell Museum. The Crest Theater is not open; running it will demand a considerable amount of money. Also, we are almost two months into the city’s budget year. For a full budget year, the commission must assume closer to $1.6 million.

After saying of the DDA, “I have a lot of confidence in you,” Commissioner Ryan Boylston called the $1.38 million “a big number.” The comment prompted nervous laughter all around, but DDA board members made clear that they would be back for more. Boylston told me after the meeting that the city might have to pay the DDA as much as $3 million.

Frank Frione compared Old School Square to “a new business.” Most new businesses fail, he said, for “lack of capital.” He would have asked for at least $2 million. Another board member called the request “a drop in the bucket.”

With that money, the DDA over the next two months will begin what Simon calls a “rebranding” in the first phase of its takeover. It will focus at first on the Cornell, which Simon says will host a surfing-themed exhibit. That “rebranding” will be complete by next summer.

Simon proposed that the DDA change the name from Old School Square. Boylston, who owns a marketing company, opposes that. “Everybody knows it as Old School Square.”

Simon said the second phase would be a business plan by next October. It would include the Crest Theater, which the DDA believes will be open by next August. Doing so is costing the city another $1.3 million in capital costs. The city stopped work on renovations financed by a donor to Old School Square.

Other questions remain. Under previous management, the Cornell included an arts school that also employed aspiring artists. Old School Square for the Arts had hundreds of volunteers. The DDA has 20.

And while the DDA spoke of “collaboration” with other cultural groups, my sense was that the agency wants a free hand once it signs an agreement with the city and CRA. Critics have accused Petrolia of micromanaging city staff.

But Petrolia, Casale and Johnson set this motion. Now they will have to decide where—and possibly from what—the city will find the money for the Old School Square they wanted.

Commissioners to discuss lawsuit over Delray water

Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

Speaking of Casale, on today’s agenda for the commission meeting is a proposal for Delray Beach to join a class-action lawsuit against polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, or PFAs.

These toxins are called “forever chemicals” because they can be present for so long in drinking water. They have been detected in Delray Beach’s water.

When that happened, resident Rob Long—a member of the Palm Beach County Soil and Water Conservation District—used his newsletter to highlight the issue. Petrolia and Casale responded by trying to remove him from the city’s planning and zoning board for supposedly alarming residents needlessly.

Later developments showed that Long had been right. Now he’s challenging Casale in the March election. Today’s discussion may be the start of a campaign issue.

Boca may nix ALF talks


At tonight’s meeting, the Boca Raton City Council is scheduled to discuss adult living facilities (ALFs). But that discussion may not happen.

The item is an amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan that would define where ALFs could go near single-family neighborhoods. Councilwoman Monica Mayotte asked her colleagues to remove the item.

That was curious, because the staff memo notes that Mayotte had asked to schedule the amendment. Mayotte claimed that her words had been “misinterpreted.”

There’s a back story. Last year, Mayotte sponsored for consideration a proposal for an ALF near Addison Mizner School and next to the Boca Square neighborhood. Residents strongly opposed it.

The property owner has sued the city, claiming that planners did not say from the start that a plan amendment—which requires four of five council votes—was necessary. Not coincidentally, City Attorney Diana Frieser and the council just met in executive session to discuss the lawsuit.

As opponents of the ALF in Boca Square noted at the time, to approve it the council would have to acknowledge that ALFs could go in other single-family neighborhoods. Approval of just that ALF would have been spot zoning, which is illegal.

Frieser rejected Mayotte’s accusation that the issue is “not being handled correctly.” Frieser said, “I received express direction” from Mayotte to create the ordinance. The proposal indirectly suggests that Mayotte started this by sponsoring the amendment for the ALF in Boca Square.

Mayotte complained that the process was “putting me in a box.” Mayor Scott Singer said he would “welcome a policy discussion.” Councilman Andy Thomson agreed, though he noted that if Mayotte wants to postpone what she had asked for, “That’s game over.”

Many Boca Square residents were prepared to speak against the ordinance. Council members will decide tonight whether to grant Mayotte’s request.

Wildflower Park opens

Boca Raton opened Wildflower Park on Saturday with more of a whisper than a shout.

The city issued a news release about the opening but asked that news organizations not publish it until Friday. Parking is limited and there may have been concern about crowds overwhelming the roughly 2.5-acre site.

Wildflower is on the north side of the Palmetto Park Bridge at the Intracoastal Waterway. To the south is Silver Palm Park, which has the city’s motorized boat launch. The redone Silver Palm opened in July and connects to Wildflower via a walkway under the bridge.

In 2009, the city council approved $7.5 million to buy the Wildflower property, named for the nightclub that operated there. Council members wanted to lease the land for a business that would generate revenue for the city.

Instead, a few neighbors organized against a proposed restaurant. They got onto the 2016 ballot a referendum to prevent private use of the site. Voters approved it. Andrea O’Rourke used that issue in her 2017 council campaign.

The city spent $9 million on the Wildflower and Silver Palm, making Wildflower the priciest park in the city’s history, when you consider size and cost. Now facing term limits in March, O’Rourke continues to defend the expense. “It’s going to be a very popular destination.”

Delray officer waives arraignment for felony charges

Peter Sosa, a Delray Beach police officer, waived arraignment last week on five criminal charges related to an incident four weeks ago near his home.

Prosecutors said Sosa interfered with, and tried to harm, county firefighters working a blaze. Sosa pleaded not guilty to the charges. A judge scheduled a “case disposition” for Nov. 17. Sosa is on leave from the department.

No felony charges for Carson

Neil Carson

A Kaufman Lynn Construction executive will not face a felony charge of lying to the Delray Beach City Commission.

In August, Neil Carson—in sworn testimony—claimed that he was president of an HOA near a proposed residential development on South Congress Avenue. Carson is not even on the HOA board of his community. Carson had claimed that there was much support among his neighbors for the project.

Prosecutors said last week that they could not prove “all elements” needed for a conviction. Carson had pleaded not guilty, claiming that he had been tired and was nervous speaking to the commission for the first time.

Missed the last City Watch?

Visit our City Watch page and also sign up for our City Watch e-newsletter, where you’ll get the latest column delivered directly to your inbox.


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.

Related Articles

Latest Articles