Sunday, April 14, 2024

Mandarin Oriental gets the thumbs up and other Boca and Delray news

Mandarin gets nod 

Boca Raton is one step closer to having a Mandarin Oriental hotel.

       Acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, the city council on Monday approved plans for Phases 2 and 3 of the Via Mizner project on South Federal Highway. Phase 2 would be the 164-room hotel. Phase 3 would be a 104-unit luxury condo, residents of which would have hotel privileges. Phase 1 is the apartment building going up at Federal Highway and Camino Real. The project is allowed extra height because the developer agreed to observe the city’s downtown design guidelines.

       As expected, council members praised that design. The architect spoke of wanting not to wall off Federal Highway, Camino Real or the Boca Raton Resort & Club golf course to the east. Instead, a series of promenades will make the project blend in. The lesson learned is how parking garages wall off Mizner Park to the north.

       The sticking point for the council, as it was for the planning and zoning board, was parking. The project depends on sharing space in all three garages. When the project went to the board, there was no plan for valet parking, which everyone knew was absurd. Mandarin Oriental fans are not fans of parking their cars.

       Now that the developer, Penn Florida, has a signed agreement with Mandarin Oriental, everyone agrees that there will be valet parking. The question is how it will work, since there is no plan for designated valet spots. Doug Hess, Boca’s traffic engineer, wondered about backups as valets drove to distant spots to drop off cars or ran to pick up cars. City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser correctly called the traffic plan “vague.”

       Council members went back and forth with Frieser on proposed amendments, one of which would have stated that valet parking could not “dominate.” Eventually, however, the council approved the project without valet parking—the original version—but with language stating that city staff had not had time to review a proposal. That will allow staff the developer to work out something specific and come back to the council.

       As things were winding down, Councilman Scott Singer wondered if the city should require a “five-star hotel.” Others noted drily that the $262 million project wouldn’t work with a Days Inn. Penn Florida attorney Mitch Kirschner bristled that such language would amount to a “taking.” Councilman Robert Weinroth told Kirschner, “You aren’t helping your case.”

       Then everyone relaxed, rightly so. Assuming the parking issues can be worked out, Via Mizner should bring much more to Boca Raton than just the estimated $1.1 million in property taxes. Done right, it could be a signature project that lives up to the label.

ADL statement

       The Boca Raton-based Florida region of the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement Sunday condemning last weekend’s vandalism at the Islamic Center of Palm Beach. The ADL thus continues its tradition of calling out “hateful ideology,” no matter which religion is the target.

Delray ballot suggestion

       Though no member of the Delray Beach City Commission will be on the ballot next year, the commission could decide tonight to hold an election.

       One ballot question would ask voters to update Delray’s antiquated civil service rules. That change first would require legislative approval. A local bill has been filed. The other proposal would allow the commission to hire an internal auditor who would report to the commission, not to the city manager.

City Council variance headache

       At its last meeting of the year tonight, the Boca Raton City Council will make a decision that council members had hoped to avoid.

       On its face, the issue is simple. The owner of a vacant lot wants to build a house. Go a little deeper, however, and the issue touches on those ever-sensitive Boca issues of property rights and development.

       Natural Lands LLC owns the beachfront lot at 2500 North Ocean Boulevard, otherwise known as A1A. Gavriel Naim, of Miami, is the principal of Natural Lands. He wants to build a four-story house on the property, which Natural Lands bought in July 2011 for $950,000.

       The property, though, is just 88.5 feet wide. City code calls for a minimum of 100 feet. The setback from the road would be just 14.7 feet. Under the code, the house would have to be at least 25 feet from A1A.

       Naim submitted requests for two variances. In August, the Zoning Board of Adjustment voted 3-2 in support, but there was a problem. One ZBOA member had recused himself. Another position was vacant. Four votes are necessary to grant the variance.

       So Naim lost. He then appealed to the council, which heard the appeal in September and clearly wanted it to go away, sending it back to the board of adjustment. No luck. The board rejected both variances. Naim appealed. The council can’t duck the issue any longer.

       In his memo, City Manager Leif Ahnell recommends that the council reverse the zoning board’s decision and grant the variances. At that September hearing, however, many residents inveighed against the variances. They argued that approval would amount to the council selling out and failing to preserve the beachfront. The speakers were noisy enough at least to make the council flinch.

       Council members, however, have no higher priority than protecting the city from potentially expensive litigation. Highland Beach spent years in a losing legal fight over the height of a condo. Boynton Beach paid an $8 million settlement after the city commission approved, then rescinded, a development approval. If a property owner has rights under city rules, or meets the condition for a variance, the city has to side with the owner. And the city staff makes a well-researched, conclusive case that the council should reverse the zoning board.

       For an application to receive a variance, it must meet six criteria. The staff report addresses each one.

       1) The case presents “special and unique conditions.”

       The lot is one the few undeveloped properties in the multi-family R-3-F zoning district. Others also are less than 100 feet wide, but they are part of a Planned Unit Development, which means that they are considered collectively. The report points out that the city has allowed construction of single-family homes on other “nonconforming” lots.

       Regarding the setback, the report notes that the house must be built farther west toward A1A to avoid harming the dune line. The home thus would be no closer to the ocean than the two-family residence to the south. The staff calls the setback issue “atypical.”

       2) The applicant did not create the “special and unique conditions.”

       The lots in this area were assembled haphazardly many decades before Natural Lands bought the property. In addition, the owner could not have purchased adjacent property to the north or south—thus solving the width problem—because those properties are what the applicant calls “amenities” for condos on the west side of A1A. Some of those condo owners spoke against the variances. Nor is the owner responsible for the dune being where it is.

       3) “Literal interpretation” of the code would deprive the owner of property rights.

       The staff found that owners of lots less than 100 foot wide on the west side of A1A had received variances. More important, the owner of the lot at 2330 North Ocean Boulevard received improvements for a “nonconforming” property. The fact that the city granted some of those variances a long time ago doesn’t matter.

       4) The variance is the minimum the city could grant.

       If Naim desired, he could build a multi-family residence. Instead, he wants to build a single-family home, and the setback, according to the staff review, is the “minimum necessary for the structure that is proposed.”

       5) The project is “not detrimental to the public welfare” and does no harm to property in the area.

       As noted, the variances would set no precedent. The staff concludes that the home would be “the least intense residential use permitted in this zoning district” and thus would do no harm.

       6) The variance should not be “contrary to the objectives” of the city’s comprehensive plan.

       Having explained the other criteria in detail, the staff takes just one sentence to state that there is no conflict with the comprehensive plan.

       Expect some emotion tonight about this issue. In Boca Raton, the beachfront is precious, justifiably so. To vote against the variances with that staff report on the record, however, would be to invite a lawsuit. There’s no need to make Christmas come early for some lawyers.

      

        

      

      

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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