Saturday, May 27, 2023

Eyesore to Nightmare in Boca? And a New Lake Wyman Park

Very little of downtown Boca Raton remains blighted almost 40 years after the city sought to redevelop it, but there is one notable exception.

That’s the former Winn-Dixie shopping center (above) just north of Camino Real along the FEC railroad tracks. The Winn-Dixie has been gone for eight years, the building blocked off by chain-link fencing. The rest of the plaza also is abandoned. Neighbors agree that the property is an eyesore. They would love to see something there.

Enter the real estate arm of sugar company Florida Crystals. Two weeks ago, Florida Crystals Residential went before the planning and zoning board to pitch a 350-unit residential project for half of the property. The board unanimously recommended that the city council—acting as the community redevelopment agency—deny the project.

But discussion about Camino Square won’t end. In fact, it shouldn’t end, because the discussion isn’t just about the project. It’s about that whole portion of the city.

Though neighbors want redevelopment, their worry is traffic. The developer plans 631 parking spaces. Backups from Camino Square onto Southwest Third Avenue are one issue, but the real chokepoint—with or without the project—is where Camino Real meets Second Avenue.

Just to the west is the Camino Gardens neighborhood, which outsiders use as a short cut to and from downtown. To the south are a shopping center and the Estoville neighborhood. To the north are many apartment complexes and St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church. To the east is another shopping center and the railroad tracks, with many more gate closings coming because of Brightline.

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The developer came to the planning and zoning board with a surprise proposal: a traffic circle at that chokepoint. Florida Crystals had paid for a design. The company would dedicate its roughly $1.7 million in county impact fees toward construction of the roundabout, which would cost $500,000. According to the company’s analysis, there probably would be no need for eminent domain because adequate public right-of-way exists.

Camino Square goes back to the planning and zoning board on Feb. 22, presumably with significant changes. If the board likes the changes enough to recommend approval, the board could attach payment for the traffic circle as a condition. Because the board had so many problems with the project, discussion of the roundabout didn’t last long.

The city, however, also could decide to build the roundabout irrespective of any decision on Camino Square. That would avoid forcing the council to approve a project members might not like just to get the traffic circle. Boca Raton could use money from the infrastructure sales-tax surcharge to pay for the roundabout.

After hearing speakers complain about traffic around that Camino Real-Second Avenue chokepoint, board member Rick Coffin said, “I think the city has failed in this area. We need to fix something.” If the city did fail, one reason is a decision three years ago.

At City Manager Leif Ahnell’s recommendation, the city council deleted a requirement in the downtown development order that would have required additional lanes at Camino Real and Dixie Highway east of the checkpoint. Because more downtown projects than expected had been residential, compared to office, Ahnell said traffic had been lower than projected.

The change, he said, would better allow Boca Raton to preserve the historic character of the area. The priority was Addison Mizner’s offices on the southeast corner of Dixie and Camino. The old train depot is just to the north.

A review of that decision may come up as review of Camino Square continues. Mayor Susan Haynie said the city does need to provide relief. She noted, though, that finding room for those added lanes might be a problem because it could mean taking parking spaces from the Fresh Market along the tracks. The roundabout could help much sooner. According to the developer’s traffic consultant, it would raise the level of service on Camino Real from D—below average—to C, above average.

As for the project itself, board member Larry Snowden called it “an opportunity” but said there are “too many issues.” Aside from the traffic, board members were looking at only half of what might go on the site—the half that Florida Crystals owns.

Kimco, which owns the other half, wants to devote the land to retail, but there are no details and thus no plans. A company representative said four deals with retailers have fallen through because the site is so unattractive. Tenants want to see residents in place before committing, he said. Kimco’s preferred tenant is an “organic grocery store,” which supposedly would be different from the Fresh Market, Trader Joe’s and Publix stores nearby.

Haynie pointed out another problem with the split ownership. Florida Crystals wants to build its two, eight-story towers away from Third Avenue. So the city can’t envision how to manage traffic from the street because the city doesn’t know what would go next to the street.

Little underdeveloped space remains in downtown Boca Raton. Perhaps in working on how to make Camino Square fit on this eyesore the city can help the Camino Gardens area in a much bigger way.

475 Boca

A project on the opposite corner of downtown Boca Raton from Camino Square had better luck before the planning and zoning board at that Jan. 18 meeting.

475 Boca Raton would be a roughly 10-story tower with 48 condos behind the Morgan Stanley building at Palmetto Park Road and Southeast Fifth Avenue. Staff had recommended denial, but the memo said the project mostly complied with the downtown development order. The board added four conditions and voted 6-1 that the city council should approve the project.

Delray West Atlantic/Publix issues

Predictably, much venting ensued Monday when the Delray Beach City Commission held its latest meeting with the community redevelopment agency board.

The commission’s general source of frustration is the slow pace of redevelopment on West Atlantic Avenue. So the particular source of frustration is the CRA’s negotiations with Publix over a store on the 600 block.

After first rejecting a deal, Publix countered that the company would approve a store if construction didn’t have to start until Dec. 31, 2022. The company wants the delay so other projects would be in place when the store opened.

CRA staff members are hoping for an earlier commitment and will give an update at the agency’s Feb. 8 meeting. If Publix doesn’t agree to an earlier commitment, the CRA board may not approve the deal—Chairman Annette Gray said she would not—and the agency once again would start over. The CRA previously had a deal for a project on all three CRA-owned blocks east of the Fairfield Inn, but the developer couldn’t get financing.

Commissioner Mitch Katz expressed frustration that the CRA has been “doing nothing” on the other two blocks while negotiating with Publix. If the Publix deal dies, Katz would like the CRA to be “more creative” if the agency has to seek new proposals for the site. Katz and Commissioner Shelly Petrolia voted last year to have the commission take over the CRA. That motion failed, 3-2.

The new Lake Wyman

One of Boca Raton’s biggest mistakes was letting Lake Wyman/Rutherford Park deteriorate so much. Silt has closed the canoe trails. The boardwalk looks terrible.

Fortunately, however, the city is moving to fix that mistake and create an even better park. A presentation at the last city council workshop by the project’s consultant showed what residents can expect.

The redone park will have 33 acres of sea grasses, 26 acres of mangroves and 11 acres of exotic plants. There will be two kayak trails, one a quarter-mile long on the north end and one about one-third of a mile on the south. There also will be a half-mile walking trail

There will be a launch for motorized boats, though the number of trailer spaces remains uncertain. Council members made clear that new launch space would complement the existing launch at Silver Palm Park, not replace it. The park will include a boat-washing station.

Mayor Haynie said several factors led to the deterioration of the park. Vandalism, some if it by homeless people living in the park, has been a problem. After a gazebo burned, nothing happened while the city’s insurance claim was being processed. When the recession hit a decade ago, Haynie said, park maintenance dropped as a priority because staff knew that a makeover was coming. Then the council backed off an earlier plan because of opposition from neighbors to the south.

Nothing will happen soon. Because obtaining permits takes so long, work likely will begin early in 2020. Still, Haynie said the city could do the improvements in stages, starting with the new trails. Because the plan is to make Lake Wyman/Rutherford much more active, with more access points, Haynie said the vandalism should decrease.

As someone who took my children canoeing at Lake Wyman, I hope I can take my grandchildren on similar trips before they’re old enough to drive.

Camino bridge closing

For a year beginning in mid-April, it will be harder to get around the area near the Boca Raton Resort & Club.

Palm Beach County will be rebuilding the Camino Real Bridge, which is nearly 80 years old. Staging and work have begun, and county officials hope to complete the rebuild on that 12-month schedule. There’s one more reason to hope for a mild hurricane season.

Given the age of the bridge, the work obviously is necessary, but it will mean a traffic hassle. The busy resort is on the west side of the bridge and the Waterstone Hotel and residential neighborhoods are on the east side. The bridge is an alternate route to the beach for those who want to avoid the Palmetto Park Road Bridge.

Streets are tight near the bridge. A police department PIO says the city likely will have to assign a traffic officer during construction. But with the new span, which will remain roughly nine feet above the water, Boca Raton will be in good shape with the city’s three Intracoastal Waterway bridges. The Palmetto Park Road Bridge was redone in 1987 and the Spanish River Boulevard Bridge was done in 1971.

FAU thinks big

Florida Atlantic University is thinking big when it comes to next year’s state budget.

The total of FAU’s requests is more than $35 million. FAU again is seeking $18 million for a life sciences building at the Jupiter campus that would be part of the university’s collaboration with Scripps Florida and the Max Planck Florida Institute. Another $10 million would for the A.D. Henderson Lab School on the Boca Raton campus. The university also wants $3.4 million to expand the medical school in Boca Raton and $3 million for Tech Runway, the job incubator.

Firefighters endorse Mayotte

One of the most sought-after endorsements in Boca Raton elections is that of the firefighters union. For the March elections, the union endorsed Monica Mayotte in Seat D and took no position in the Seat B race between incumbent Jeremy Rodgers and Kim Do.

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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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