A Boca Czar, Art in Public Places and Other Ideas for Downtown

downtown boca
Mizner Park in downtown Boca Raton.

Does Boca Raton need a downtown czar?

It’s not a new question. It’s been around for a decade, since City Manager Leif Ahnell added the title of community redevelopment agency director. The CRA is in charge of downtown. Jorge Camejo, who had been CRA director, now has the same job in Hollywood.

The question arises again after several discussions Monday by city council members. Some concerned ongoing downtown issues such as a shuttle service, parking, signs and lighting. Another discussion involved the new Art in Public Places program.

I’ve written this blog since March 2014. One constant among council members during that time—whatever their views on development—is frustration over the slow pace of progress on downtown. Example: In 2008, the council approved Ordinance 5052, which allows an extra 40 feet of height if a project follows city-approved architecture guidelines. Yet those guidelines still are not final.

Boca Raton similarly has failed to resolve questions about parking. This week, the council heard yet again that there’s no land for a new garage east of Dixie Highway. The council heard yet again that the city could ease the weekend downtown parking crunch by leasing private spaces that tend to clear after 5 p.m.

Two representatives of Investments Limited, the largest downtown property owner, advocated for such a private-public plan. Such a plan obviously could mean money for Investments Limited, but it may be the only realistic option. Mayor Scott Singer yet again called for a garage, perhaps on land west of Dixie Highway near the Downtown Library, but it’s unclear that he would have enough support on the council.

During discussion on the budget, Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke raised another downtown-related idea. She wants the city to help boost the Mizner Park Cultural Center, which leases space in what used to be the International Museum of Cartoon Art.

O’Rourke also pushed for creation of the Art in Public Places program. She has made culture a priority, saying the added emphasis would help Boca Raton’s economy. O’Rourke noted that attorney/founder Charles Siemon and others are leaving the cultural center board. Perhaps the city should take over the organization, as they city did with the Mizner Park Amphitheater?

Whatever the council decided to do, it would be one more downtown proposal that could circle for years. O’Rourke’s idea matters because Boca Raton envisioned Mizner Park as a civic/cultural hub, not just a place to shop, dine and go to the movies. That distinction allowed for the use of public bonds. Mizner Park wasn’t supposed to be just a big development project.

Mizner Park also was supposed to lead redevelopment of the entire downtown. To a degree, that has happened. But as I wrote in a Boca magazine report last year, no one is completely satisfied.

Boca Raton has a downtown marketing director, Ruby Childers. But the city hasn’t had someone with authority from the city manager over downtown since Ahnell got rid of Camejo. Though Ahnell is a whiz at finance, he has no background in planning. His job aside from downtown is complex and comprehensive.

Similarly, Development Services Director Brandon Schaad—the city’s top planner—oversees building issues citywide. He also has been working on the “small area plan” for Midtown. Deputy City Manager George Brown handles development issues. Again, though, his duties extend citywide. Among other things, he’s been trying to work out a compromise with the Lake Worth Drainage District on canal clearing.

At one point, Councilwoman Monica Mayotte suggested a parking task force, acknowledging that it would be yet another committee. But the city already has the Downtown Advisory Committee. The problem isn’t lack of ideas. The problem is execution.

Based on their comments, council members want a reliable downtown shuttle, a coordinated sign system, complementary lighting, more public parking, better connectivity, more “walkability,” prettier buildings and completion of the architectural rules. The list might be longer than that.

The Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce long has supported re-creation of a downtown director with a suitable resume and real authority. For council members, it might be an investment toward ending their frustration.

Arts & Culture

O’Rourke is drawing more interest from her colleagues in financially supporting the Art in Public Places and perhaps the Mizner Park Cultural Center.

During the second and final budget hearing, O’Rourke proposed as much as $125,000 for the art program. She noted the many cities that subsidize such programs in the name of esthetics and economic development. The program has a council-appointed board but no budget.

Mayor Scott Singer indicated support in concept, but he pointed out the “accountability” problem of giving public money to a board. That’s never happened.

The consensus was to wait and hear what the board would do with the money. O’Rourke agreed, and she added that she wasn’t sure herself about the figure.

Regarding the cultural center, O’Rourke floated the idea of a $150,000 subsidy. As with the art program, the consensus was to get more information.

O’Rourke said, “This is a dawn of a new era” for culture. Boca Raton has lagged in this area, but the city seems ready to start catching up.

FEMA expenses

I wrote last week that Delray Beach has submitted $8.4 million worth of Hurricane Irma-related expenses to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A spokeswoman said this week that Boca Raton has submitted $8 million in costs to FEMA. The reimbursement rate should be about 75 percent.

Pension fund return shortages?

Just as Delray Beach city commissioners were wrapping up discussions Tuesday night on the 2019 budget, they got a very unpleasant surprise.

The boards of the police and fire pensions have voted to lower the expected rate of return on the funds’ investment next year from 8 percent to 7.25 percent. Since the funds run on contributions from employees and the city in addition to investment returns, that will mean a combined shortage of at least $1.9 million and perhaps as much $2.5 million.

The city will have to make up the difference. The news came with no warning. Since the budget year starts Monday, the city can’t do anything except take the money from reserves. Fortunately for Delray Beach, those reserves are ample, despite efforts by Mayor Shelly Petrolia and Commissioner Adam Frankel to raid them for tax cuts.

Also fortunately, City Manager Mark Lauzier has said that he intends to start discussion of the 2020 budget in February. Between another year of added pension costs and the possible loss of $1.2 million if voters increase the homestead exemption, next year will be a challenge.

The ultimate parking issue

Even more so than in Boca Raton, policy issues can come up in Delray Beach during public comment. The city resolved one such issue this week.

Last week, a representative of Grieco Ford and Grieco Mazda—whose parent company is MAG Enterprises—took his allotted three minutes and much more to ask for help with a site to store cars during the two years it will take to build new facilities on South Federal Highway. Given that the company is a fairly large employer, commissioners were receptive, even if they were working things out on the fly.

Tuesday night, a formalized proposal was on the agenda. Staff recommended that the commission allow Grieco to use 2.6 acres in the southeast section of downtown. The site had been used for storage during the Federal Highway makeover. The staff recommended that the commission attach 16 conditions.

After some back and forth—Bill Bathurst and Ryan Boylston said that asking for 40 trees around the lot was excessive—the commission approved the temporary parking lot. Everyone seemed happy.

Welcome resolution

Haitian-American residents came to Tuesday night’s meeting to praise a resolution that makes Delray Beach a “welcoming city.”

The resolution, which the commission approved unanimously, says that Delray Beach “celebrates its cultural diversity and acknowledges the positive contributions of our foreign-born residents. The city wishes to promote use of its services by all of its residents who are eligible to receive them.”

Note that the wording refers only to “foreign-born.” Mayor Shelly Petrolia noted that the sentiment applies even if residents “may not be full citizens.” The action has nothing to do with immigration laws, but we’ll see if certain politicians and cable TV bloviators will accuse the commission of making Delray Beach a “sanctuary city.”

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