Sunday, April 14, 2024

Is Boca missing the mark on downtown design?

Design missing the Mark?

Boca Raton has been trying to get the look of the city’s downtown right for 23 years. As a meeting set for this morning shows, the city still isn’t satisfied.

From 8:30 until 3:30, the city’s consultant, Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh, will lead a discussion about the Interim Design Guidelines that the city adopted in 2008— as part of Ordinance 5052—to encourage aesthetically pleasing development. The guidelines updated rules the city approved in 1992 as part of Ordinance 4035. That came four years after Boca Raton adopted its Downtown Development Order, which set a limit of 8 million square feet of “office equivalent” space downtown.

The 2008 change offered developers a deal: Make your projects look the way Boca wants, and you will get to build higher, and thus make more money. But you’ll have to undergo more review. If you want to build under the old (1992) guidelines, you don’t get the added height but you also don’t have to wait for the added review.

Specifically, buildings in downtown projects that use the 2008 guidelines can be 140 feet tall instead of 100 feet. The tallest building can go up another 20 feet to accommodate “tower elements or “mechanical enclosures,” as long as no one lives there.

According to Deputy City Manager George Brown, the city passed the 2008 ordinance because people didn’t like the buildings they were seeing from the 1992 ordinance. “We heard that they were boxy, that they weren’t pedestrian-friendly, and that there wasn’t a sense of place.” Brown declined to offer examples of projects that annoyed residents and council members “because I don’t want to offend anybody.”

The 2008 change came as the Great Recession hit and development stalled, so for several years no one could see if the change was working. Then came a post-recession flurry of approvals for added height under the guidelines. The Mark at Cityscape, which the council approved in May 2012, is the first to near completion. “They’re basically down to fixing the trees,” Brown said. As the project, with 208 apartments and 18,000 square feett of retail and office space, has taken shape, there has been a collective, “Huh?” from council members and residents I have spoken with.

Their complaint is that the Mark looks ordinary, not distinctive—and thus is not worthy of the added height. Given that sentiment, the city council proposed today’s meeting as what Mayor Susan Haynie calls “a kind of after-action report.” Council members won’t participate, though some or all may attend.

In their roles as board members of the Community Redevelopment Agency, council members will get a post-meeting report from Urban Design Associates on how, with the Mark, the design guidelines worked—or didn’t work. The consultant’s conclusions will address the question, as Brown put it, “Is there a lesson learned?”

Based on what Urban Design Associates concludes, the council could ask for changes to the Interim Design Guidelines. Or the council could decide that the guidelines are working and make them permanent. Or the council could decide that the guidelines don’t help and drop them, going back to the rules adopted in 1992.

There will be two public comment periods at today’s meeting, and they should be lively. Important as the consultant’s report will be, however, it’s also important to understand what won’t happen, no matter what Urban Design Associates concludes.

Any changes to the guidelines would not affect projects the council has approved. That means Palmetto Promenade, formerly known as Archstone, on East Palmetto Park Road. That means Via Mizner, the residential project at Federal Highway and Camino Real on the southern border of what Boca calls the downtown. Obviously, that means the Mark.

That also means the Hyatt Place hotel, which will be built just west of the Mark. When the council approved the hotel last September, though, council members and some residents gushed that the design guidelines had produced just the kind of project Boca Raton wanted. If the consultant believes that with the Mark the guidelines failed, one question will be why they worked for one project and not another.

When Boca Raton updated its master plan in the last decade, the city asked Urban Design Associates to hold several public meetings and create a Pattern Book that would help the city implement the downtown design guidelines and realize those planning goals. The language from late 2010 is predictably lofty and optimistic:

“The public response called for stronger pedestrian connections, human-scaled and articulated buildings, active street frontages and a dynamic skyline. In short, we want a remarkable downtown.

“With these clearly established goals, the Pattern Book for Downtown Boca Raton presents tools that will allow developers, architects and residents to convert a collective vision into our new reality. Drawing on the tradition of American planning and carefully crafted design guidelines, we will redefine the character of Downtown Boca Raton as a timeless and progressive city.”

Five years later, Boca Raton soon may determine if that language was prophetic or unrealistic. Either way, here’s one last thing to remember:

Less than 20 percent of allowable downtown development space remains. The downtown that Boca Raton has is mostly the downtown that Boca Raton will have until the time comes to rebuild it.

The House goes home

On Tuesday, the Florida House quit on the state.

In an unprecedented move, House leaders ended the legislative session three days early, leaving only the Senate in business and killing many bills. No one in Tallahassee could remember, or find any record of one chamber having a hissy fit and bolting.

House leaders have refused to expand Medicaid, a move that would extend health insurance to roughly 850,000 working-poor Floridians. The Senate supports extending coverage, using money from the Affordable Care Act. The Senate would overcome Republican hostility to the law by obtaining a waiver from the Obama administration for a plan called the Florida Health Insurance Exchange Program (FHIX). It would use the same Medicaid expansion money and cover the same people, just with a different label and under different rules.

Yet the House has refused, despite support for the plan from Florida’s major business groups. I wrote last week that the plan especially would help hospitals like Bethesda in Boynton Beach, which sees many uninsured patients— many of them pregnant women.

Gov. Rick Scott, who favored Medicaid expansion two years ago, now opposes it. Like the House, it’s all about ideological opposition to the Affordable Care Act. He and House leaders believe, wrongly, that the Obama administration is withholding a decision on another source of health care money for the working poor—the Low Income Pool—to force Florida to expand Medicaid. This week, the governor sued the federal government over that issue, as if a lawsuit will help anything.

In fact, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services want Florida to spend that Low Income Pool money better —and told the governor two years ago that the money would stop if he didn’t craft a better program. But Scott has taken no action.

Loss of that Low Income Pool money and the failure to expand Medicaid would be a double blow to Bethesda. But the standoff matters to all area hospitals. Boca Raton Regional stands to lose about $1 million, Delray Medical Center about $2.7 million and West Boca Medical Center about $2.5 million.

In its budget, the Senate included $2.2 billion from the Low income Pool and $2.8 billion for FHIX. The House included neither item. Worse, the House offered no plan even for replacing the Low Income Pool money, much less expanding health coverage. Senators are negotiating with Washington over the Low Income Pool money. That’s a better strategy than litigation.

By leaving early, the House guaranteed that the Legislature won’t pass a budget. The state’s fiscal year ends June 30. The Legislature can meet in special session before then, but such a session will do no good until there’s some compromise. And right now the Senate is the only responsible actor in Tallahassee.

Sober house bill

Fortunately, the House did pass the “sober house” bill before quitting on the state. Boca Raton, Delray Beach and other cities that are homes to many of these recovery residences see the legislation as a first step toward running bad operators out of the business.

The Senate passed the legislation last week, so it will go to the governor for what we assume will be his signature, since the two versions got only two negative votes. Any bills that had passed the Senate but had not received a vote in the House will die. Ironically, one of those bills dealt with state water policy and was the top priority of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, who sent the chamber home early.

Though Crisafulli said Wednesday that the House was ready to begin budget talks—so why didn’t he stay?—such standoffs usually get resolved only when a deadline nears. A special session to pass the budget and deal with health care might not happen until mid-June, two weeks before the end of the fiscal year and a potential shutdown of state government. In the meantime, all government agencies—school districts in particular—that can complete their budgets only after the state budget passes must wait.

Ag Reserve school

Last week, the Palm Beach County Commission allowed a school in the Agricultural Reserve Area. The decision showed that the county must make development in the reserve more restrictive, not less.

Donna Klein Jewish Academy will have about 2,500 students. The school will be just north of Delray Marketplace, one of two “traditional marketplaces” allowed in the reserve under a plan designed to limit development and preserve farming.

The school is allowed as an institutional use, and county staff recommended approval, but the school is another of the typical suburban projects that aren’t compatible with farming. As part of its current review of rules for the reserve, the county should consider whether to ban any more “institutional” projects.


You can email Randy Schultz at

For more City Watch blogs, click here.About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.

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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