Midtown Moves Into The Election Crosshairs and Other News and Notes

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Midtown debate

The proposal to transform Boca Raton’s Midtown neighborhood has become an issue in the March election. Since campaign rhetoric may replace reality, here’s some helpful perspective.

In 2010, Boca Raton created several Planned Mobility Districts (PMD), designed to attract residents who live near their work. Not surprisingly, the city first set development rules for the PMD area in and around the Arvida Park of Commerce, since renamed The Park at Broken Sound. It is a major employment center, and the nearby Yamato Road Tri-Rail station is the system’s busiest.

The city, however, never has set rules for Midtown—from Boca Center to Town Center Mall—south of Glades Road. It’s also a jobs center, but current rules—which date to before Boca annexed the area from the county in 2003—prohibit residential development. Such development is the key component of the Planned Mobility concept.

Now, the four property owners—Crocker Partners, Glades Plaza, Cypress Realty and Town Center Mall— want Boca Raton to draw up the rules. The planning and zoning board heard the proposal on Dec. 22, with the idea that the city council would hold public hearings in January and February. But board members had questions, and council critics—notably mayoral challenger Al Zucaro—are claiming that the city wanted to rush things.

So last week, Angelo Bianco of Crocker Partners held a meeting at Boca Center to explain the proposal to residents of the four surrounding neighborhoods—Boca Bath & Tennis, Fairfield, Paradise Palms and Via Verde. When I spoke with Bianco on Monday, he said the meeting drew about 250 people who expressed “generally strong support” but also raised “many valid issues that we will address.”

The chief issue is traffic. The proposal would allow 2,500 residential units on the roughly 300 acres of developable space within Midtown. Bianco’s challenge is to persuade nearby residents that the “village” he and the others seek to create “actually would improve traffic.”

Within Boca Raton, Bianco said, are 90,000 jobs, with commuters filling 80,000 of them. If more employees lived within a walk or a shuttle trip from their workplaces, they wouldn’t need to use a car. A second Tri-Rail station north of Boca Center, linked to a shuttle service, could further decrease traffic in Midtown. Crocker owns that land.

Here’s another acronym: TOD, for Transit Oriented Development. It has the same goal: to get people out of cars by creating urban transportation amenities in a suburban setting. Boca Raton would like to create a TOD area between that second Tri-Rail station and Butts Road, east of the mall. If that happened, Tri-Rail could be eligible for grant money. The city council favors the station.

In late 2014, Crocker Partners bought back Boca Center and three Midtown office buildings that the company developed about 30 years ago. As I wrote 16 months ago after interviewing Bianco, Crocker didn’t spend $350 million just to manage these properties.

But Bianco calls the change an “extensive reconstruction of a tired area.” Midtown is far from the faded Boca Raton Mall that Mizner Park replaced, but the area is dated in its own way. At that December planning and zoning board hearing, an attorney for Simon Property Group confirmed what I had reported months ago: the mall will get an expensive makeover. Bianco wants to move all Boca Center parking away from the Military Trail to the back of the project and redo it around food and dining. Such investment could raise property values around Midtown and offer closer entertainment options.

A developer’s ambition, though, can be a neighborhood’s angst. Bianco said the company would move now to “more and smaller meetings, to go through issues.” He anticipates coming back to the planning and zoning board “in the spring.”

Meanwhile, Zucaro is working to foment opposition that he hopes will mean votes for him against Susan Haynie. Other candidates may do the same. Zucaro has been working especially hard in Paradise Palms, some of whose residents criticized the proposal when the planning and zoning board tabled the issue at its meeting last month.

But Ray Garcia, a former president of the Paradise Palms HOA, told me that most residents support the concept. Garcia confirmed Bianco’s account of last week’s meeting. Garcia did note, however, that his neighbors would like to see fewer units – and for the developers to retain a bowling alley. Cypress Realty, which owns Strikes, had proposed a mixed-use project for the site. Bianco said he hopes to put bowling lanes— which turn out to be very expensive to operate—above a garage.

As the Midtown and the campaigns progress, it’s important to note a few points:

  • Having created the Midtown PUD, the city must set the rules. That’s state law.
  • At this point, there are no “projects” under city review. That can’t happen until the city sets the rules, which are in the form of proposed ordinances.
  • As noted, the city’s goal is that second Tri-Rail station. Having the station adds to the residential density. Bianco said Crocker likely would seek to build 20 units per acre in a small area and about nine units per acre elsewhere.
  • The city, not the property owners, arrived at the 2,500-unit figure. Any final number would be apportioned among the landowners. At 2,500, Bianco said, Crocker would get about 1,500 units.
  • The current height limit within Midtown is 145 feet. Bianco said Crocker probably would build nothing taller than 90 feet.

“You’re never going to get everyone to agree,” Bianco said, “but we are telling (critics) that 80 percent of their neighbors are excited. We expect most people to come on board. We think the change would mean a vast improvement in their lifestyles.”

We should learn in a couple of months whether Bianco and the other landowners have made their case.

Clarification

Last week, I reported that Boca Raton City Council Seat B candidate Andrea O’Rourke had touted an endorsement by Local 1560 of the International Association of Firefighters. The union actually endorsed all three candidates in the race.

I should have noted that the other two candidates, Emily Gentile and Andy Thomson, also touted the union’s endorsement as if it were their own.

James Comparato

James Comparato, a principal in one of the area’s leading development companies, died over the weekend.

With his brother, Robert, Mr. Comparato ran Boca-based Compson Associates. Their father founded the company in Rochester, N.Y. Among other things, Compson is building the Tower 155 condo project in downtown Boca and is seeking to buy and develop Boca Raton’s western golf course. James Comparato had been handling that project while his brother worked on Tower 155.

News of the death surprised even people in the local development world. I’m told that Mr. Comparato had been ill for some time—he hadn’t been able to attend the funeral of his father last October—but didn’t widely share his problems. “A private man,” one employee called him.

According to a company news release, viewing will take place Wednesday at Glick Family Funeral Home, 3600 North Federal Highway, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Funeral services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, Boca Raton Regional Hospital, St. Jude Children’s Hospital or Jewish Adoptions & Foster Care Options.

Atlantic Crossing

Before tonight’s regular meeting, the Delray Beach City Commission will gather in executive session to discuss the Atlantic Crossing lawsuit. Two weeks ago, the commission postponed a vote on a proposed settlement. The deal would have added an access road to the project from Federal Highway, which has been a commission goal, but it did not address other issues. No settlement item is on the agenda for the regular meeting.

Executive session meetings are closed to the public, but the discussion likely will focus on what issues aside from the road commissioners want in the settlement. From the discussion on the first proposal, it is clear that most commissioners didn’t understand how it would have worked in context with the development agreement.

One example is the traffic calming measures to reduce congestion from the mixed-used project on the two blocks west of Veterans Park. Dan Sloan, president of the Marina District Homeowners Association, correctly noted that the settlement did not make clear whether the developer—Edwards Companies—or the city would pay for these improvements, which the HOA considers very important.

After asking around, I think the first proposal was rushed and thus underdone. The related mediation took place between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and without an executive session to hear from the commission as a group. With luck, a reset will result in a much better proposal.

All Aboard Florida

All Aboard Florida has announced a second closing of the gate crossing at Palmetto Park Road in Boca Raton.

The closing, while the company makes improvements for the Brightline passenger service, is scheduled to start at 7 a.m. on Feb. 17 and last until 6 p.m. on Feb. 22.