Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Delray’s Midtown Gets its Close-Up

The project formerly known as Swinton Commons faces a pivotal, accidental moment tonight in Delray Beach.

Why pivotal? Every element of the plan for the former Worrell properties and more—now called Midtown—will be before the city commission. Why accidental? Under Delray Beach’s system for development applications, the commission would not necessarily be able to take such a broad review of the project.

Hudson Holdings acquired the properties on and around Swinton and Atlantic avenues in 2014. They include the iconic Sundy House (pictured) and other historic buildings. Much of the debate has concerned what Hudson Holdings intends to do with those structures.

On the commission agenda are six items. Two ask the commission to abandon public alleys. Two seek approval of conditional uses: one regarding building height and width and one allowing residential-inn units for that area.

The final two are appeals of decisions by the historic preservation board. Hudson Holdings has appealed the board’s denial of the site plan, the architecture plan and building elevations. Commissioner Shelly Petrolia has appealed the board’s approval of Hudson Holdings’ request to demolish seven buildings and move three others.

In practical terms, commissioners will decide on the entire mixed-use project. They normally would have final say on the abandonments and conditional uses, but Planning, Zoning and Building Director Tim Stillings explained in an email that each appeal would be a “de novo” hearing. That means each will be a new hearing, as if the commission is seeing the item for the first time. In a normal appeal, Stilling said, the commission simply would determine whether the board’s action had been valid.

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Attorney Bonnie Miskel, who represents Hudson Holdings, said in an interview that Stillings called her and suggested this comprehensive approach. “We got that,” Miskel said. It also makes sense that elected officials, rather than unelected board members, decide such a complicated project in a key portion of the city.

Hudson Holdings wants to build 35,000 square feet of retail space, 22,500 square feet of restaurant space, 22,000 square feet of office space, 44 dwelling units, 39 residential-inn units and a 109-room hotel on 6.5 acres. There would be a pedestrian walkway near one of the alleys the city would abandon and two underground parking garages. Hudson Holdings’ investment in the properties reportedly is more than $20 million.

The project, revised from the original version, has had two hearings before the historic preservation board. The second one, in June of last year, lasted eight hours over two days. Board members were generally critical.

Since then, Miskel said, “We’ve come a long way.” She notes that Hudson Holdings has decreased the retail and restaurant space by 50 percent and increased the amount of office space. The hotel has been moved. There is “more room around buildings.” Hudson Holdings has “realigned properties.” The original plan showed no historic buildings staying on Block 61. Now, Miskel said, six buildings would stay.

Miskel said, “We disagreed then and we disagree now” with the board’s denial of the site plan. Yet she said Hudson Holdings has done “more outreach than any other project I’ve been involved with.” Miskel said Hudson Holdings principal Steven Michael and his designers held a community meeting last week that drew roughly 100 people.

There appears to be general agreement that Delray Beach needs redevelopment in this area at the heart of downtown near Old School Square. The Downtown Development Authority and the West Atlantic Redevelopment Coalition support Midtown.

The question, though, is what kind of redevelopment and to what degree. Politics could affect the commission’s debate. Petrolia is running for mayor against Commissioner Jim Chard. Mitch Katz is running for reelection to Seat 3 against Ryan Boylston, who served on the DDA board.

The staff recommends that the commission approve all the items, subject to terms the city has proposed. No other major items are on tonight’s agenda. That’s a good thing. Midtown will take a while.

U.S. Customs at Boca

The last we heard about the customs facility at Boca Raton Airport was that it would open in November, having missed the planned September opening.

But the building still hasn’t opened. The new guess, according to Clara Bennett, the airport authority’s executive director, is mid-March. Bennett said the authority received the certificate of occupancy from the city on Monday. The agency now will compile its “punch list,” during which Customs and Border Patrol will conduct its own review to determine if the facility is suitable.

Those reviews will determine if the opening—once planned for the start of high season—will happen near the end of the season. Bennett is estimating that it will take the authority and CBP six weeks “to be on the safe side.” Board Chairman Gene Folden said the authority still has to sort out late fees assessed on the facility’s contractor.

Camino Square update

In reporting on the Camino Square project last week, I said it would go back to the Boca Raton Planning and Zoning Board this month. On Monday, a city spokeswoman said the tentative plan now is that the project will go before the city council—acting as the community redevelopment agency—on Feb. 26.

That seems quite the gamble by Florida Crystals Residential, which wants to build 350 apartments on the former Winn-Dixie plaza near Camino Real and Southwest Second Avenue. The planning and zoning board unanimously recommended denial. There are no details on what Kimco, which owns the other half of the 9-acre site, would do to complement the apartments.

The developer has offered to dedicate its county impact fees for construction of a traffic circle at that nearby intersection. Normally, an applicant would try to make changes based on comments by board members before seeking CRA approval. Not this time.

Mizner Arts Depot update

The company that wants to buy Boca Raton’s historic train depot and use it as an entertainment and cultural venue has work to do.

I reported recently that Mizner Arts, a for-profit company whose principal is Holly Meehan, has a contract to buy the roughly 1.3-acre site from the Boca Raton Historical Society & Museum. The sale is contingent on city approval of the company’s plans.

On Jan. 23, staff reviewed the application and offered many comments. Most notably, staff wants to see a site plan, a floor plan and a landscape plan. Staff wants no food trucks on the property. Planners “strongly suggest” that Mizner Arts meet with neighbors. The city wants details on what the proposed “refresh” of the exterior would mean and information about paint color and trash pickup. There still is no survey of the property.

The police department noted that there had been “several burglaries” on the property in the last year and urged Mizner Arts to install adequate lighting and reinforced doors. Because the company envisions much greater use of the site, there are questions about parking.

The recreational services department also took issue with the comment in attorney Stephanie Toothaker’s December letter submitting the development application. Toothaker wrote that the historical society has operated the property since 1993. Actually, the city has been in charge of programming and operations and has spent considerable money on maintenance and upgrades. The department recommends that a condition of approval be preservation of royal palm trees the city planted.

Meehan attended the staff meeting. All the comments were “acceptable,” she told me Monday. “We’re working on the parking,” some of which will be off-site. Meehan said of the discussions, “I think we’re moving along.”

Hospital Ball a home run

During Saturday night’s Boca Raton Regional Hospital ball, Jerry Fedele said again that he’s the luckiest hospital CEO in the country. No kidding.

The event honored the donors who have given $5 million and more to Boca Regional. The hospital has so many mega-donors that those who gave a mere—I’m kidding, obviously—$1 million had their names on a scroll in the event video. It’s more evidence that Boca Raton’s philanthropy is more like that in a city of 3 million than in a city of 90,000. Thanks to all those donors.

Glickstein testifies against pill makers

Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein testified last week in Cleveland as part of the city’s lawsuit against makers and distributors of prescription painkillers. Glickstein is a lawyer by training.

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster is hearing many of the lawsuits by cities, counties and states. Polster’s “no-nonsense approach,” Glickstein said in an email, “is perfectly suited for something so complicated.” Glickstein said Polster acknowledged the courts are “being forced to act” because of congressional and White House inaction.

During Wednesday’s morning session, the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses “spoke about a broken and siloed regulatory environment, deeply flawed medical school and continuing education training regarding pain medication, and the actual neurophysiological changes from pharmaceutical opioids.”

The defendants, Glickstein said, responded by saying, in essence, “ ‘We know the rules are flawed, but we followed the rules and it’s not our fault.’ In many ways their position was people are dying from heroin overdoses, not opioid pain medication overdoses, which is nearly as preposterous as saying people die from lung cancer, not from the years of smoking the cigarettes sold by companies that knew they were highly addictive.”

After meeting with both sides, Polster designated six plaintiffs’ representatives to meet with the defendants, “who are requiring that any settlement be global and final.” Delray Beach’s firm is in the group. “The judge is acting as somewhat of mediator,” Glickstein said, “which is a novel approach for a federal judge but sensible to do at the outset rather than after years of litigation and millions in fees and costs wasted.”

Drop in overdoses

Delray Beach got some heartening news in the form of drastically lower opioid overdoses at the end of 2017 compared to a year ago. As city commissioners noted the lives saved, Commissioner Petrolia made a good point.

Not only do those decreased numbers mean fewer direct victims, Petrolia said. They mean fewer indirect victims—paramedics whose shifts don’t leave them drained from dealing with the overdoses. There are many such casualties from the opioid epidemic.

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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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