Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Facts About Tri-Rail, Issues with Royal Palm Place Expansion and More

Time yet?

It happened a long way from South Florida, but the massacre in Las Vegas should prompt more reflection about violence—especially gun violence—in our country. The shooting was the worst in American history, with nearly 60 killed and more than 500 injured—some of them trampled rather than shot. Barely a year ago, the shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando had been the worst. That toll was 49 dead and 58 wounded.

Among the 10 deadliest mass shootings on record, six have occurred in the United States. Ponder that.

Midtown update

The Boca Raton Tri-Rail station. Photo by Aaron Bristol.
The Boca Raton Tri-Rail station. Photo by Aaron Bristol.

This is a catch-up item from pre-Irma that we will hear more about. The topic is Boca Raton’s Midtown neighborhood.

About two weeks before the storm arrived, Tri-Rail held two meetings regarding the proposed second station in Boca Raton, near Boca Center on Military Trail. The station is a city council priority for all the right reasons. Boca Raton would be the only city with two Tri-Rail stations. The Yamato Road station, which serves the many businesses in the northwest area, is the busiest of the 18 stations between West Palm Beach and Miami.

There is a campaign against the station, however, by opponents of residential development in Midtown. Boca Raton declared Midtown a Planned Mobility District in 2009, meaning that development within it should seek to reduce traffic. One way is to encourage mass transit.

The city is seven years late in writing rules for development within Midtown. The council has held two workshop discussions on the subject—the more recent in July—but nothing is scheduled for the planning and zoning board, which would be the first stop. The four major property owners within Midtown are seeking permission to build up to 2,500 residential units.

BocaWatch Publisher Al Zucaro called the Tri-Rail station part of a “billion-dollar gift” to the Midtown property owners and a “justification” for allowing that residential development. As became clear during those meetings, however, Zucaro’s premise is false.

Palm Beach County Commissioner Steven Abrams is chairman of the Tri-Rail board and a former mayor of Boca Raton. He explained that Tri-Rail approached the city about a second station—not the other way around. Tri-Rail made that approach in 2009, long before the outlines of a new Midtown began to take shape.

A Tri-Rail official said projections show that even without residential development in Midtown, the new station could draw between 900 and 1,000 riders a day. That would make it one of Tri-Rail’s busiest. Most likely, Tri-Rail will decide next summer to put the station in its five-year-plan, with opening set for the end of 2022. State and federal grants would finance construction.

After all that information had come out, Boca Raton City Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke rose to discuss the “perception” that the Tri-Rail station is a stalking horse for Midtown. Any “perception,” though, comes only from BocaWatch, where O’Rourke served as editor for a year. O’Rourke said her goal was to “get real clarity” on the station, but she then raised fuzzy issues.

How would passengers cross six-lane Military Trail to reach the station? How could downtown residents get to the station? What about assisted living facilities? Couldn’t the city be on the hook for many expensive improvements to make the station happen?

Regarding access, Abrams drily said passengers would “cross the street.” Abrams noted that he crosses busy Tamarind Avenue in West Palm Beach when he takes Tri-Rail to the county government center.

More important, Abrams and Mayor Susan Haynie pointed out that grants are available for any such projects, if needed. Abrams said no city has been stuck with costs associated with opening a Tri-Rail station. Downtown residents? Presumably, they would drive there or get a lift. The station primarily would serve the area near Town Center Mall. Tri-Rail’s Coastal Link, on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks, would serve those downtown folk if commuter rail ever expands.

When I spoke with O’Rourke after the meeting, she said, “I’m new at this. I don’t have any institutional knowledge.” It’s true that O’Rourke has been on the council only since March. But it’s easy enough to determine that there’s no conspiracy between the city and Tri-Rail to benefit Midtown. The conspiracy exists only in the mind of BocaWatch.

Land for Tri-Rail

The legitimate issue with Midtown and Tri-Rail is land for the station.

Perhaps the best location is the site of the former King’s Market, near the intersection of Northwest 19th Street and Military Trail. Crocker Partners, one of those four Midtown property owners, owns that land. The presumption has been that Crocker would donate land for the station. Tri-Rail has identified no money for land, just for construction.

Because Crocker wants to build residential units, however, the company’s willingness to donate land could depend on how many units the city allowed. Such discussions among Crocker, the city and Tri-Rail can’t happen until Crocker and the city agree on the company’s proposed traffic plan. Midtown had been scheduled for the planning and zoning board on Sept. 14, but Crocker asked for a delay. Angelo Bianco of Crocker Partners said he hopes to get “feedback” from city staff this week.

Royal Palm Place expansion

Boca Raton’s architectural consultant has issued its first evaluation of Royal Palm Place’s proposed expansion. The Mellgren Planning Group’s sentiment toward the project could be summarized as: needs work.

This review is not the final one, which would be advisory only. Because of the project’s size and “prominence,” Mellgren offered this initial review to highlight “major concerns.” The developer, Investments Limited, now will hold a town hall-style meeting and “consider design alterations based upon public comments.”

After that, Mellgren will conduct a second, more detailed review that examine whether the project complies with Ordinance 4035, which governs downtown development. Mellgren representatives will attend the town hall meeting and early meeting before the community appearance board.

Investments Limited proposes two buildings. The larger one, along Mizner Boulevard, would include 220 rental apartments, about 5,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space and a 500-space parking garage. The other, along South Federal Highway, would include 69 more rental units, about 11,000 square feet of retail and restaurant and a 301-space parking garage.

Mellgren points out early in the report that one tower appears to be 13 stories tall, rather than the 12 stories Investments Limited is claiming. Mellgren identifies nearly 40 other issues with the project, which already has had two rounds of feedback from city staff.

Among other things, Mellgren questions why the buildings—on the supposed “edge” of downtown—are so high. Mellgren questions the project’s “creative interpretation” of Mizner design and the layout of streets within the project. The larger portion of the project, Mellgren said, advertises itself as three buildings but looks instead like one “general mass.”

Public reaction to this project will be interesting. The Boca Beautiful group strongly opposed the Mizner 200 condo across Mizner Boulevard from Royal Palm Place. Boca Beautiful even got an architectural review of Mizner 200, which the group called “The Monster on Mizner.” BocaWatch joined the criticism of Mizner 200.

As of Monday, however, Boca Beautiful’s website had nothing on Royal Palm Place—just more opposition to Mizner 200, which the council approved in August. Similarly, BocaWatch has not opposed the Royal Palm Place expansion, even though it’s also large.

With Mizner 200, the city council requested last-minute changes to the design. I get the sense that with Royal Palm Place the city wants to address issues between the developer and the public much earlier.

Council meetings

There will be a quirk in next week’s meeting schedule of the Boca Raton City Council.

Normally, the council meets as the community redevelopment agency almost every other Monday and holds a council workshop immediately afterward. The regular council meeting takes place on Tuesday.

Monday, however, Boca Raton government is closed for Columbus Day. The city could have moved everything back a day, but Councilman Robert Weinroth wanted to attend a lobbying session Wednesday in Washington with the state’s congressional delegation. The main topic is reimbursement for Hurricane Irma damage and cleanup.

After much discussion, the council scheduled all the meetings for next Tuesday: the CRA and workshop meetings starting at 1:30 p.m. and the regular meeting at 6 p.m. The decision came after Weinroth and Councilwoman O’Rourke sniped at each other from each end of the dais about the supposed priorities that go with council service.

Irma debris update

About that Irma debris, here’s an update:

A Boca Raton spokeswoman said trucks have completed at least one pass through all city neighborhoods. The amount collected has topped 100,000 cubic yards. Boca Raton’s contract calls for the contractor to make three passes before routine yard trash pickup resumes.

In Delray Beach, Mayor Cary Glickstein said again Monday that pickup “will take a while.” He did confirm that Interim City Manager Neal de Jesus obtained a guarantee from the city’s contractor for at least nine trucks to do pickup at first and 15 after that. Like Boca Raton, Delray Beach had to pay more because of competition for trucks from recovery in Texas and now Puerto Rico.

Boca, Delray and flooding

Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston, not South Florida. Still, the disaster called new attention to flooding issues, including the National Flood Insurance Program. It was set to expire at the end of September, but President Trump authorized an extension until mid-December so Congress can work on reforms to the program.

Monday night, Boca Raton updated its floodplain rules. Delray Beach will do the same tonight. Residents of cities that align their development rules to floodplain maps can get discounts on their flood insurance. Palm Beach County just issued new floodplain maps.

IBM anniversary

On Oct 14, the Historical Society of Greater Boca Raton and IBM will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the company coming to Boca Raton.

At its height, IBM employed nearly 9,000 people at its complex west of Interstate 95 on Yamato Road, where the personal computer was invented. Nearby Don Estridge High-Tech Middle School is named for the leader of that development team. Estridge died in a 1985 plane crash.

The local chapter of the IBM Alumni Association will help stage the event. It will take place on the Boca Raton Innovation Campus at 5000 T-Rex Avenue, beginning at 9:30 and running through lunch. The public is invited.

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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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