Midtown Passes, Delray Wins; New Griping About the CRA and More

The Delray Beach City Commission met for nearly nine hours Tuesday night into Wednesday morning.

And it was worth it.

The feature attraction was Midtown, the mixed-use project on and near Swinton and Atlantic Avenues. The properties include the iconic Sundy House. If the commission had delayed a vote, further delay might have killed Midtown. At the next meeting, which won’t happen until after Tuesday’s election, the city will have a new mayor and perhaps three new commissioners. Developer Hudson Holdings would have had to start over.

Instead, by a 4-1 vote, the commission approved Midtown. The meeting went so late because many residents spoke and because the commission, city staff and the developer’s representative reworked the plan. As Mayor Cary Glickstein said, it wasn’t the ideal process, but it happened in public view and it ended well.

City planners could explain the details best—and the project already had changed in the last few weeks—but the key improvement Tuesday/Wednesday involved the design of an office building on Atlantic Avenue. Glickstein said it was the issue that had him “still struggling.” Given the nature of some of the properties and the area, Glickstein wanted more “compelling” architecture.

IMG_0887The result was that Hudson Holdings agreed to eliminate one floor from the building and rework the look. Fortunately, the developer had hired Rick Gonzales. No architect in the county has a better reputation when it comes to historic preservation. Gonzales turned the 93-year-old Methodist church in West Palm Beach into The Himmel, now the public hub of CityPlace.

To all commissioners except Shelly Petrolia, the change means that Midtown will align more closely with the new Central Business District Land Development Regulations and thus provide what Glickstein called “authenticity.” To allay fears that Midtown could become another Uptown Delray—the project that collapsed after three years—Hudson Holdings agreed to start construction on a key block within two years. That’s how long Delray Beach allows before development approvals expire. The commission attached many other conditions, such as an effort to hire local contractors and employees.

Though all parties held up impressively as the hours went by, the effects of the marathon session showed. As discussion ended on that construction deadline, someone asked if “vertical construction” could apply to the underground parking garage, not just to buildings. Probably, Commissioner Mitch Katz said. “Just vertical down.” The brief laughter lightened the mood.

It was a wonderfully practical outcome for both sides. Hudson Holdings can begin work on a project that Delray Beach needs and is much better than first proposed. As one resident asked, “If not this, what?” The area is deteriorating. South Swinton Avenue especially needs an infusion of private capital. No other developer is waiting in line. Had the commission voted no, the perfect would have become the enemy of the good.

Dissenters mainly included the city’s historic preservation idealists. The historic preservation board twice rejected Midtown’s key components. While acknowledging that only about 2 percent of Delray Beach buildings are considered historic, Glickstein said of the area in question, “This isn’t Gettysburg.” He meant that the history is in the buildings, not any sacred ground. Moving some of those buildings won’t eliminate the history.

Katz correctly praised the speakers. Many stayed under the three-minute limit. Both sides made good points. If the speakers had been lawyers, a judge would say that the case had been well argued. Hudson Holdings’ attorneys, Bonnie Miskel and Neil Schiller, stayed flexible.

Credit also goes to Planning, Zoning and Building Director Tim Stillings and other staffers. They checked to see that the changes complied with code. At one point, Stillings made a key catch, and the language was changed. City Attorney Max Lohman made sure that everything was legal. His performance might make those who want a new city attorney—a full-timer, not a contractor—think again.

A successful Midtown could catalyze redevelopment on West Atlantic Avenue and provide needed downtown office space. Nothing is certain, but something is possible. With luck, those eight-plus hours one day will look like time well spent.

(Delray Midtown renderings provided by Hudson Holdings)

And the politics underlying the issue

With Delray Beach’s election coming Tuesday, politics was part of the dynamic as the city commission debated Midtown.

As I predicted, Commissioner Petrolia—who is running for mayor against Commissioner Jim Chard— remained opposed. Midtown’s critics form part of Petrolia’s base. Many of those critics also opposed the iPic project, which Petrolia voted against.

As I did not predict, Commissioner Katz—who opposed iPic—voted for Midtown. He could have pleased Petrolia voters by voting the other way, and Katz had been a Petrolia ally for much of his term. Facing a challenge from Ryan Boylston, however, Katz has sought in the last year to separate himself from Petrolia.

Chard might have wanted to avoid voting at all, and thus avoid annoying anyone. Indeed, at one point Chard suggested sending the proposal back to the historic preservation board.

The rest of the commission, though, didn’t want to put off the vote. Chard still might have tried to chum up Petrolia voters by voting no. Midtown still would have passed, 3-2. But that would have been inconsistent with Chard’s stated priority to redevelop West Atlantic. So when the first of many votes came, Chard hesitated, then said, “yes,” and continued to say “yes.”

And up pops the CRA question

With 3 a.m. approaching and everyone drained, you would have thought that almost all the commissioners would have only perfunctory end-of-meeting comments. Glickstein obviously would have thoughts about the end of his five years as mayor, but no one expected much else.

Then Commissioner Shirley Ervin Johnson stunned everyone by asking whether the commission wanted to vote on taking over the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). Imagine a New Year’s Eve party breaking up when one of the hosts breaks out Christmas presents.

Johnson’s request was surprising for reasons aside from timing. Last year, she joined Mayor Glickstein and Commissioner Chard in voting not to have the city take over the CRA and for the commission to become the CRA board, as the Boca Raton City Council is the CRA. Commissioners Katz and Petrolia favored the takeover.

For Johnson, the flashpoint apparently was an item on tonight’s CRA agenda. The board previously had rejected a proposal from Publix for a store on West Atlantic because the company wouldn’t commit to build it until the end of 2022. Now the same proposal is back before the board.

Johnson complained that the CRA board “is more dysfunctional than ever” and that the decline is “on me” because of her deciding vote last year. During the Midtown debate, she had pushed strongly for a tight timetable: “Please start digging.” Johnson often has expressed frustration at the three wasted years on Uptown Atlantic. She worries that the Publix deal could tie up key property for nearly five years with no guarantee of a store.

Lohman said voting on the takeover would be legal, but Chard worried about the “optics” of acting on such a major issue before a near-empty chamber with no public notice. Despite her vote last year, Petrolia also was cautious. She wondered if voting yes would mean the commission had to run Thursday’s meeting.

The commission ultimately asked City Manager Mark Lauzier to attend the CRA meeting and ask the board to delay signing the deal with Publix. If the board members are smart, they will agree. If the commission had voted Wednesday morning, the takeover would have passed.

As noted, Glickstein is leaving. Petrolia or Chard will be off the commission. Katz also might be gone. Johnson, though, will remain. As she showed with Caring Kitchen, Johnson can pick an issue and stick with it. Her new colleagues may feel differently, or they may feel more like Glickstein. He said of the CRA, “We have to do something. I see it getting worse.”

Boca police contract

It took just 13 minutes Wednesday morning for the Boca Raton City Council to ratify the three-year contract with the Fraternal Order of Police. The contract will be retroactive to Oct. 1, the start of the budget year.

According to the department, there are 30 vacancies, or nearly 25 percent of the sworn officer force. To improve recruiting, the new contract raises starting pay between $5,400 and $6,300, According to the city’s human resources director, salaries for new officers will be among the highest in Florida. Salaries for the second and third year will increase 3 percent.

The contract will cost an extra $1.8 million for this budget year and $4.8 million more over three years. Councilman Jeremy Rodgers voted against the police and fire contracts in 2015 and against the new fire contract. Rodgers explained his change by citing the number of vacancies, which has caused many officers to work a lot of overtime, and new demands for school safety after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. In contrast, Rodgers said, the fire department “has more applications than we can handle.”

One reason for the vacancies may be that the last contract contained pension changes that hit new and less-experienced officers harder. Like Delray Beach, Boca Raton now is trying to pay police officers more when they are working and less after they retire.

El Rio construction

I had reported that work to raise and level out Southwest 18th Street in Boca Raton between the El Rio Canal Bridge and Dixie Highway will leave just one lane open for local traffic. The city wants commuters to find another route during the nine months of construction, which will accompany Phase 2 of Hillsboro/El Rio Park.

That work begins Monday. In addition, the railroad crossing at 18th Street will be closed from Tuesday until at least Friday.

In other traffic updates, County Commissioner Steven Abrams reports that improvements at 18th Street and Military Trail are nearly done. Next, Abrams said, the county will resurface pockmarked Military Trail from the Broward County line to Palmetto Park Road. That work starts next week and will take about three weeks. Revenue from the sales-tax surcharge is financing that project.

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