Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Mizner Park Legal Wrangling, Spanish River’s Latson is Out

Boca Raton is in a legal fight over how much the land at Mizner Park is worth.

Though Canada-based Brookfield Property Partners owns most of the buildings—including the retail, office and residential towers and the parking garages—the company doesn’t own the land under those buildings. But under terms of the 99-year-lease first granted by the Boca Raton Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) to Tom Crocker, Brookfield acquired the option to buy the land when it bought the buildings from General Growth Properties, the previous owner.

That option became available in 2016. It does not include the parcel on the north end that is home to the Boca Raton Museum of Art. It does not include the Mizner Amphitheater, which the city owns. The CRA also retains the 1.8-acre vacant parcel that adjoins the amphitheater to the east.

According to the lease, the price for the land will be $9.1 million or “fair market value,” whichever is higher. If the CRA and Brookfield can’t agree on fair market value, the issue goes to arbitration. For more than a year, though, the CRA and Brookfield—technically, Crocker Downtown Development Associates, though Crocker no longer has an interest—have been going back and forth over the arbitration process itself.

Based on court filings, the dispute started in March 2018. An attorney for Brookfield met with CRA representatives to discuss the company exercising its option. The CRA’s outside counsel responded the next month that there was nothing to discuss because Brookfield had not exercised the option and also had not stated what the company considers fair market value for the land.

As the CRA sees it, those are supposed to be starting points. Brookfield is supposed to lead. Brookfield believes otherwise. The company believes that the matter should go straight to arbitration without the company having to propose a price. Last November, the CRA filed a motion seeking a stay of the arbitration. A month later, Brookfield responded with a motion asking that a judge compel the arbitration.

Court documents show that Brookfield wants to know how much the retail leases might affect the land value. There are four ground leases in question. Any of them might affect the value, but the city’s position is that the leases are a matter for the arbitration panel once Brookfield declares its intent to buy the land.

Mizner Park

On March 8, the CRA prevailed. A judge denied Brookfield’s motion to compel arbitration. Five weeks later, however, Brookfield filed a counterclaim. In May, the CRA filed a motion to dismiss the counterclaim, arguing again that Brookfield is violating the process. A hearing on the city’s motion is set for Sept. 20.

For all the legal wrangling, the effect on Mizner Park and Boca Raton may be minimal. Obviously, a sale would mean a windfall for the CRA. The city council, which also acts as the CRA board, would have to decide what do to with the money. As I have reported, the city could be facing a budget shortage in two or three years because of smaller repayments to the city for services within the CRA.

Owning everything might make it easier for Brookfield to flip Mizner Park, but any new owner would have to comply with current development rules. Also, when Brookfield bought GGP last year, a company official addressed the problems with traditional retailing by saying, “We look for places where people are running away from.”

Brookfield Property Partners has a reported $160 billion real estate portfolio. To the company, Mizner Park may be just a rounding error. In Boca Raton, it’s iconic. I’ll have more on the lawsuit as it progresses.

Potential land use in Mizner

Rendering of Boca arts complex

Speaking of that vacant spot in Mizner Park, it might house a performing arts center. But don’t start thinking about buying tickets just yet.

Mayor Scott Singer and Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke told me recently that the city’s cultural consortium had inquired about the parcel. This is the same consortium that last fall presented a proposal for a performing arts complex on the 10 acres of city-owned land next to the Spanish River Library.

That plan stunned some council members. City Manager Leif Ahnell worried about giving up one of the few remaining parcels of public land. The city also owns a tract off Southwest 18th Street near Interstate 95 that was under consideration as a location for Addison Mizner Elementary School.

The need for land became more acute after the council’s decision last month against outsourcing residential garbage pickup. Boca Raton now will need more space for trucks than the current facility provides.

Singer said the consortium’s consultant had suggested the smaller site, which would be much less ambitions but also much less expensive. The council’s main concern with the Spanish River site was that the center would open and then not be able to sustain itself, leaving the city to take over.

The idea of a performing arts center at Mizner Park is not new. The money never has been there. Residents indicated support for a center as part of a new government campus around City Hall, but the council wants to scale back those plans. The consortium likely will come back to the council this fall with an update. Singer and O’Rourke said much would need to happen before the city considered donating the land.

The downfall of Latson

Spanish River High School (Photo by Christiana Lilly)

William Latson didn’t get it.

The former principal at Spanish River High School should have been happy that he still had a job. Palm Beach County School Superintendent Donald Fennoy reassigned Latson on Monday, after The Palm Beach Post revealed emails from Latson to a parent in which he denied responsibility for having to state that the Holocaust is a “factual, historical event because I am not in a position to do so as a school district employee.”

Latson responded with a statement to Spanish River faculty in which he claimed, “I have been reassigned to the district office due to a statement that was not accurately relayed to the newspaper by one of our parents. It is unfortunate that someone can make a false statement and it holds credibility but that is the world we live in.”

In fact, Fennoy reassigned Latson based on the emails from him, which are not in dispute. The action didn’t happen because of a parent’s “statement.” Indeed, the parent said she didn’t believe that Latson is a Holocaust denier. She believes that panders to Holocaust deniers.

So on Wednesday, Fennoy announced that he had fired Latson. State politicians of both parties had demanded the firing. Fennoy took the unusual step of issuing a video statement in which he said the district can’t be “fact-neutral” and acknowledged the “distress” the revelation caused the “Spanish River community” and beyond.

But the district let Latson slide a year ago, when the email exchange happened. The actions this week came only because the exchange went public. Latson should have been gone from the school a long time ago, and his own words buttress that conclusion.

Office Depot update

It’s been a bad stretch for Boca Raton-based Office Depot.

Although the financial markets are near record highs, Office Depot stock is trading at almost 50 percent lower than its 52-week high. And last month, the company opted out of the second phase of its tax incentive plan.

Under the agreement, Office Depot was to have invested $210 million for construction of its headquarters on Military Trail, retained 1,750 full-time jobs through this year and created 250 new jobs. Office Depot did all that.

The next phase of the agreement called for the company to add another 378 jobs in exchange for a $500,000 county tax break over five years. As the staff memo put it, Office Depot “has requested that the amendment be terminated.”

A PIO for Delray Beach

Interim Delray Beach City Manager Neal de Jesus just showed again why “interim” doesn’t describe him.

On Wednesday, de Jesus announced that he had hired the city’s new public information officer. She’s Gina Carter, who for the last six years held a similar position with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

Though Delray Beach has had such a position, it was an afterthought. In the last four years, Boca Raton has created a communications staff of four people to handle everything from media questions to social media.

Carter brings an unusual background. According to the accompanying news release, she holds two degrees from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. While in that city, she was a museum curator and a photographer.

This is a big position for Delray Beach, where political factions carp on social media. The city commission will hire a permanent manager this month. If that person isn’t Neal de Jesus, he or she will have to trust that de Jesus made the right choice in Carter. During my brief talk with her, she sounded excited about the job.    

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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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