Monday, May 29, 2023

Mizner Park: 30 Years Later

Everyone’s favorite redevelopment project is showing its age—but changes may be coming

It’s impossible to imagine Boca Raton without Mizner Park, but it’s hard to imagine what Mizner Park might look like in five years.

Recent months have brought much change. Brookfield Property Partners, an entity of Toronto-based Brookfield Asset Management, acquired Mizner Park in 2018 when the company bought General Growth Properties. GGP had been the management company.

Mizner Park retains a large retail component. Despite questions about the future of malls, Brookfield saw an opportunity.

“We look for places,” an executive said, “that people are running away from.”

Brookfield began to back that up by bringing new tenants to Mizner Park. The Blue Fish, a sushi chain, took the place of Rack’s Downtown Eatery. Calaveras Cantina, which touts “sexy Mexican food” at its Jupiter location, filled the Junior’s space. Before that, it had been home to Ruby Tuesday. And Ouzo Bay announced this summer it was leaving.

Other changes, however, offer new attractions. Lost Weekend, a bar that features pool and other games, replaced The Cheese Course near the IPIC theater. Lost Weekend will be part of the Sub-Culture Restaurant and Nightlife Group which also owns Kapow! and the Dubliner—other restaurants in Mizner Park that attract younger people. The company also owns Subculture Coffee Roasters in Delray Beach.

Lost Weekend in West Palm Beach

Replacing the unlamented Uncle Julio’s will be Strike 10, which bills itself as “not your ordinary bowling alley.” It aims to attract children’s birthday parties during the day. At night, “when the adults come out to play,” there’s a DJ and live music.

Mizner Park won’t turn 30 until 2021, but a recent Palm Beach Post story referred to it as “aging.” In retail years, that’s probably accurate. For example, Simon Property Group just gave Town Center mall, which opened in 1980, a $40 million facelift. And property owners in Boca Raton’s Midtown neighborhood pitched their redevelopment plan, which the city council rejected, as a necessary “makeover” for an area that was developed in the late 1980s.

Indeed, Mizner Park does show its age in some ways. Stairwells are grimy. On a recent midweek morning, some of the grass on the public plaza was faded, and a homeless woman sat on a bench. For all the new tenants, as of this writing nothing had replaced Truluck’s. Even with Calaveras Cantina opening across the street, that’s a missing commercial tooth on one of the main entrances.

Yet Boca Raton approved, and invested in, Mizner Park to spur downtown redevelopment and create a civic hub. In most ways, the city has accomplished those goals.

Outside of Mizner Park, the 300-plus acres within the community redevelopment agency (CRA) are approaching build-out under terms of the plan that the CRA board approved in 1992 and voters ratified a year later. The CRA’s mission when the city created it in 1980 was to eradicate blight. Only one blighted area remains: the former Winn-Dixie shopping center on Camino Real. In January, the CRA approved the Camino Square residential/retail project for that site.

Mizner Park itself has become the city’s meeting place. It starts each year on Jan. 1 with Something Big Yoga. It continues with the Festival of the Arts in March and the summer concert series at the amphitheater. This year’s Seafood and Music Festival drew so many people that Mizner Park restaurants complained about cancelled reservations. Diners couldn’t find parking.

It’s not always about entertainment. In March 2018, the Moms Demand Action march for gun control ended at Mizner Park. The crowd overflowed the amphitheater.

Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke

“Mizner Park has been the crown jewel of place-making and gathering in our downtown,” says CRA Chairman/City Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke. “I see that continuing.”

But in what form? Will Mizner Park be more a place with high-end jewelry stores, or more a place with an Atlantic Avenue vibe—or something of both? First, let’s look at who owns what in Mizner Park and how much control the city has over its future.

The CRA owns all the land except for the amphitheater. Remember, the CRA is the arm of Boca Raton that governs downtown. City council members act as the CRA board. The city itself owns the amphitheater and the building, having taken over in 2010 from the Center for the Arts at Mizner Park. Brookfield owns all the retail, office, residential buildings and parking garages, part of Brookfield’s $160 billion real estate portfolio.

The CRA has six leases for use of its land. Some are for the retail, office and residential portions of Mizner Park. Others are with nonprofit groups. The Boca Raton Museum of Art leases the northeast corner for its facility. The Mizner Park Cultural Arts Association leases space in the building just north of the Yard House restaurant that once housed the International Museum of Cartoon Art.

Summer in the City 2018 80’s Throwback Game Night at Mizner Park Amphtitheater on June 22, 2018

According to a city spokeswoman, “several city/CRA departments are in regular communication with Mizner Park management and tenants.” Matters can range from parking to code enforcement to public safety.

Under its lease, Brookfield can exercise an option to buy the CRA-owned land covered by commercial leases. That option does not include land leased to the museum, the cultural arts organization and the vacant parcel east of the amphitheater. The two sides, however, first must go to arbitration and agree on the fair market value.

Last November, Brookfield sued the CRA, alleging that the company didn’t need to seek arbitration. In May, the CRA filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The CRA argued that Brookfield was trying to skip a step as it investigated whether to buy the land. The issue remained unresolved at press time for this article.

Boca Raton Mayor Scott Singer

Even if Brookfield bought the land, Mayor Scott Singer said, the transaction wouldn’t significantly affect the direction of Mizner Park because of covenants in the leases. He noted, correctly, that the city—meaning the CRA—would have to approve any new project that Brookfield might propose.

Litigation aside, Singer favors “collaboration” with Brookfield and all other leaseholders. “We don’t have direct control,” he says, over Mizner Park’s future. Example: The fate of the Lord & Taylor store in the southeast corner.

“We have to create the framework that will let all the tenants succeed.” O’Rourke says, “I would like to see all the spaces filled with vibrant activity.”

Any plan begins with understanding the mistakes of 30 years ago. Today, the garages wouldn’t face Federal Highway. And the two rows of facing shops might be closer together for a better dynamic.

“There’s a dead zone in the center,” Singer says of the plazas. The city has added small features, such as a putting green and oversized chessboard, but “we need to reinvigorate the public space,” Singer says.

Rendering of Rosemary Avenue in CityPlace, which will be renamed Rosemary Square. (The Related Companies)

For example, West Palm Beach draws lots of people to the city’s interactive fountain at the foot of Clematis Street. One option could involve that CRA property on the northeast corner, possibly a candidate for the performing arts center proposed by the Boca Raton Cultural Consortium. The group asked if the city council would donate 10 acres of city-owned land next to the Spanish River Library. The council made no commitment. Since then, the consortium’s consultant suggested a smaller site—such as the one in Mizner Park—might be more feasible.

O’Rourke says, “There is an opportunity to explore the potential” of a performing arts center. The north side of Mizner Park—with the museum and amphitheater—then would be the cultural cluster initially envisioned in the 1990s.

Like West Palm’s CityPlace, rebranded Rosemary Square, Mizner Park’s future might include more residential, because of existential changes in brick-and-mortar retailing. And the apartments have been a hit; those who drafted Boca’s downtown plan never anticipated so many people would want to live there.

Whatever happens, Boca Raton’s elected officials agree that Mizner Park should remain as public as possible. When Related Group inquired about buying the amphitheater and that adjoining parcel to build housing, council members pledged that the facility would stay.

“Mizner Park became the model for other mixed-use projects like this,” Singer said. “Our job is to keep Mizner Park thriving for the next 30 years and beyond.”

This story is from our September/October 2019 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.

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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