Monday, January 17, 2022

Future of Delray’s Old School Square Remains Unclear & More

Delray Beach got no bidders to run Old School Square. What happens now?

We will know more after today’s city commission meeting. City Manager Terrence Moore will provide what the agenda calls “Updated Direction for Interim Daily Operations for the Old School Square Complex.”

The lease termination with Old School Square for the Arts takes effect in four weeks. Last month, Moore contacted the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Development Authority and Arts Garage, seeking assistance with putting on events.

When we spoke last week, Moore implied that the search for a management company might not be over. He called the discussions with outside groups “not so much a request for help” but meetings to “discuss opportunities for collaboration.” Though city employees have been helping, Moore referred to “other external considerations” for staging events amid a “fairly viable environment.”

But Old School Square is much more than weddings at the Fieldhouse and holiday lightings. What about the popular art classes at the Cornell Museum taught by Old School Square-recruited volunteers?

“An external dynamic,” Moore said, “will create an environment” for the classes.

Another major issue is the unfinished renovation project inside the Crest Theater. After the city stopped work and Mayor Shelly Petrolia and commissioners Juli Casale and Shirley Johnson voted to terminate the lease, the donor withdrew the balance of the money. Nearly half the work remains.

Moore referred again to an “external dynamic.” The city will be “devising strategies” for the project.

One option, of course, is a city takeover of Old School Square. Critics of the termination believe that’s the result Petrolia wanted when the commission voted in August with no public notice and after taking no public comment.

delray cra

In his Dec. 17 newsletter to the commission, Moore included an email from Parks and Recreation Department Director Sam Metott. “It may be prudent,” Metott said, “to consider additional support in assisting (the department) with the continued operations” at Old School Square.

Metott noted three “district (sic) areas of need”–the Fieldhouse, the Cornell and “Outdoor Events (concerts.)” Metott said department staffers are “settling into the role” of hosting rentals at the Fieldhouse.

“However,” Metott added, “we may require some assistance with the Cornell Arts Museum as that involves a more distinct set of capabilities for curation and the daily functions.” Also, outdoor events involve “additional planning, scheduling and on-site logistics. Any support in that area would be beneficial.”

Old School Square for the Arts has sued the city, alleging wrongful termination. Two weeks from today, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge John Kastrenakes will hold a hearing on the group’s request for early mediation. The city wants Kastrenakes to dismiss the lawsuits.

If Petrolia, Casale and Johnson intended—for whatever reasonto cripple the group that created Old School Square, they may be succeeding. Board members confirm that the group has the equivalent of just 2.5 full-time staff members.

In addition, the community redevelopment agency continues to withhold $600,000 in grants that Old School Square for the Arts believes it is owed for from the 2020-21 budget year. Board member Scott Porten said he has been in contact with CRA Director Renee Jadusingh. “We requested records,” Jadusingh said. She added that the agency has not received all those records.

Commissioner Ryan Boylston voted with Adam Frankel against ending the lease. On Monday, Boylston said he still would like the commission to schedule a workshop meeting with Old School Square to “work out our differences.” Petrolia, Casale or Johnson would have to agree to such a meeting.

Boylston said there could be “a hybrid model” with Old School Square acting more as a fundraising foundation and the city doing more with operations. “They need things from us, and we need things from them.”

Moore might tell the commission that the city needs to hire someone to function essentially as the director of Old School Square. One person, however, hardly could duplicate what Old School Square for the Arts offered for more than three decades.

Former Commissioner Jim Chard, also an Old School Square board member, said of Petrolia, Casale and Johnson: “They had no backup plan.” Porten put it this way: “Replicating us isn’t so easy.”

Delray/BH3 lawsuit update

Project rendering by BH3

Speaking of lawsuits and Delray Beach, last month saw a flurry of activity in the lawsuit over the three blocks east of the Fairfield Inn.

In April 2019, the CRA awarded a contract to BH3 to develop the property. The agency considers the project, which would include a grocery store, vital to the continued redevelopment of West Atlantic Avenue.

In July 2021, the CRA terminated the contract. Board members claimed that BH3 had asked for too many extensions and had not delivered the desired design. The company responded that the pandemic had delayed negotiations with Publix, its preferred grocer, and that the additional time was justified.

On Dec. 10, Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Bradley Harper ordered the CRA to comply with BH3’s request for depositions. The agency was told to comply by next Monday. BH3 also had filed an amendment complaint seeking damages.

On Dec. 30, the CRA responded with a motion to dismiss that new complaint. The agency’s attorneys accuse BH3 of backing out of the project and asking for damages “that were never bargained for or contemplated.”

It’s hard to tell when the case might be resolved. While it goes on, nothing happens on the site.

East Boca mikvah

At the last Boca Raton City Council meeting of 2021, I heard the sort of anti-Semitism that last oozed into public debate seven years ago.

In 2015, the issue was a synagogue and worship center on vacant land east of the Palmetto Park Road Bridge. As I wrote at the time, debate touched on such topics as George Washington’s letter to the Newport Jews.

Some potential neighbors raised false issues about potential traffic problems. I wondered whether members of a Methodist church would have met the same opposition as members of an Orthodox Jewish congregation.

This time, the issue was conversion of a single-family home on Spanish River Boulevard east of Interstate 95 to a mikvah. Merriam-Webster defines a mikvah as “a ritual bath or bathing place for purification in accordance with Jewish law.”

Current law allows such conversions. As Councilman Andy Thomson noted, Boca Raton has many houses of worship—including his—in single-family neighborhoods. But it is a conditional use. The council must approve it.

The nearby Congregation Yagdil Torah bought the property in 2017. Many members live in the area. Rabbi Noach Light said they wanted a mikvah within walking distance for what speakers at the Dec. 14 described as a very private experience.

A few speakers opposed the mikvah because they said it would bring more traffic. Congregants noted that they would walk, not drive. Thomson pointed out that, with five children, his home generates far more traffic than what would go in and out of the mikvah.

A few other speakers, however, referred to the congregants as “them” or “they.” One man whose property adjoins the site said he had encountered congregants who refused to speak with him. “Is that because we’re the goyem?” he asked, using the Hebrew term for non-Jews. Other speakers referred to the project as “this bathhouse,” “this thing” and “a 7-11.” One man actually complained about having to stop his car on Spanish River Boulevard while police helped people—some of them congregants walking to Saturday services—cross the road safely.

Rabbi Light addressed such sentiment. Noting that he serves as a chaplain for the Boca Raton Police Department, Light said, “We care for all human life.” To the speaker who griped about stopping for people in the crosswalk, he said, “There is no need to apologize. I feel sorry for you.”

Fortunately, opponents made up the vast minority of speakers. Jews and non-Jews spoke movingly of shared holiday greetings with their neighbors and the importance of tolerance.

The council approved the mikvah unanimously. In keeping with the spirit of the season.

Boylston’s COVID bout

As South Florida COVID-19 cases hit record levels, the hope is that hospitalizations and deaths will not rise proportionately, as they did during previous case surges.

Which brings us back to Ryan Boylston.

Just after Christmas, Boylston, his wife and their two youngest children—ages 4 and 5—contracted the virus. His 12-year-old son had COVID-19 previously.

Luckily, all four had “very light symptoms” and now are testing negative. Boylston attributes that to him and his wife having all their vaccinations. This is why all responsible public health officials keep stressing that the best way to combat the virus is with vaccines.

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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