Saturday, May 28, 2022

Mizner Park Arts Center Talks Stall, Boca Beats Midtown Lawsuit, and More

Things got curious on Monday when the Boca Raton City Council discussed a non-profit group’s ambitious plan for a $100 million performing arts complex at Mizner Park.

Going into the workshop meeting, members of the Boca Raton Arts District Exploratory Committee (BRADEC) believed that the discussion would result in progress toward a lease with the city of the Mizner Park amphitheater and another for the vacant land on the east. They believed that such progress would mean discussion of the leases before the planning and zoning board and then the council for approval would happen soon.

That won’t happen. Indeed, if anything happens, it will be much later, not sooner.

City Manager Leif Ahnell stated that the city would hire “outside experts” to examine potential lease terms. Those experts would raise “additional issues.” Nothing would happen, he said, for at least five or six months. When Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke pressed him for a “timetable,” Ahnell said that he could not provide one. “This is not a quick process.”

Councilman Andy Thomson, though he agreed with the idea of hiring outside help, wondered why the staff hadn’t retained such a consultant already. Councilwoman Yvette Drucker asked the same question.

“We were never at the point” of retaining someone, Ahnell responded. Yet last October, the council expressed collective sentiment to examine the idea. It was clear then that any lease would be complex and detailed. How much money would BRADEC have to raise before the city turned over use of the land? How would the city protect itself? Who would control programming at the amphitheater, which BRADEC would be renovating and operating?

Ahnell countered that staff has been working on other projects, such as COVID-19 vaccinations. “There would have been no way” after the discussion last fall to hire a consultant.

The long silences between comments reflected the confusion and uncertainty. “I think there was an expectation set,” O’Rourke said, “that we have not met, and for that I’m sorry.” BRADEC President Andrea Virgin declined comment. “I’ll be happy to reach out,” Virgin said, “once we’ve had time to reflect on what transpired during Monday’s meeting.”

Though he also professed support for BRADEC’s goal, Mayor Scott Singer has been the most hesitant about the city making such a commitment. My read is that he swayed council members Monica Mayotte and Yvette Drucker from seeking a more detailed consensus on the leases. When that happened, things got squishy.

Workshops exist to provide “direction” to staff, but that didn’t happen, despite the anticipation and assumptions. For now, though, the arts center is in the slow lane.

Boca fends off Crocker’s Midtown lawsuit

Boca Raton had a legal victory last week. If only there were more reason to celebrate.

The 4th District Court of Appeal upheld a trial judge’s ruling against Crocker Partners. The company, which owns Boca Center and three other major properties nearby, had sought nearly $140 million in alleged lost profits.

Crocker had joined with three other landowners in seeking approval for a plan to redevelop that Midtown neighborhood and add apartments. The profits from housing, the landowners said, would finance the other improvements. The landowners had pledged to pay for all street improvements.

In January 2018, however, the city council refused to approve the new rules. Council members instead asked staff to create a plan for Midtown. Since the landowners did not know when that plan might be complete, the council’s action effectively killed the redevelopment plan. Crocker sued, and the other landowners went their own way.

Boca Raton annexed Midtown from Palm Beach County in 2003. The county rule that prohibited residential development remained in effect. In 2010, however, the city designated Midtown as a planned mobility district, to be designed in a way that reduces traffic.

Crocker argued that, in effect, the designation presumed that the city eventually would allow housing. The appellate court panel disagreed. When Crocker bought its Midtown properties in 2014, the judge said, the company should not have had a “reasonable expectation” that it could build housing.

The company sued under the state’s Bert Harris Act, which allows compensation if action by a local government reduces the value of property—a “taking.” Because the council made no decision, the court said, it took no action. Crocker thus could not claim damage from an “action.”

Angelo Bianco is managing partner of Crocker Partners. Though he disagrees with the ruling, “You live by the process.” He added, “It all seems so long ago. Midtown is kind of in the rearview mirror for us.”

Indeed, every time I drive through Midtown I think of what might have been. Joseph’s Classic Market has moved from Boca Center to Town Center Mall. Crocker had planned to remake Boca Center into what Bianco called “a foodie’s paradise.”

Activity continues. Crocker announced the opening this month of Vivo Pizza + Pasta at Boca Center. Amid what Bianco called “the retail apocalypse,” a hair salon and high-end jeweler opened in January. The office sector continues to do well, despite the pandemic. Restaurant Row, planned for a property near Boca Center, remains in city review.

Bianco is right about the Midtown debate seeming “so along ago.” The BocaWatch website, now fortunately defunct, was raging against Midtown as overdevelopment. Four of the five council members fell in line.

O’Rourke led the campaign against Midtown, dismissing the idea that the 30-year-old neighborhood needed an investment boost. Singer, then a council member, went along. So did Robert Weinroth, who is now on the county commission, and Jeremy Rodgers. Only then-Mayor Susan Haynie wanted staff to negotiate with the landowners over redevelopment rules.

So from the taxpayers’ standpoint, it’s good that the city avoided a costly loss in court. But better action by the council would have avoided the lawsuit—and brought the city a transformed neighborhood.

What happens to Ocean Breeze now?

country club

We know that the former Ocean Breeze golf course at Boca Teeca won’t be the home of the city’s new public layout. The city and the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District spent months never agreeing about that proposed course.

Now the two sides again are disagreeing about the property. This time, though, agreement could come soon.

With the owners of the Boca Resort & Club having donated the Boca Country Club course, the city and district must revise the Ocean Breeze deal. Under it, the district bought outright the 73 acres east of Northwest Second Avenue. For the 142 acres west of Second Avenue, the city underwrote bonds so the district could buy the property, with the district reimbursing the city for the annual payment.

At the time, golf and golf-related activities were to be the only uses. Now, there could be many others, though both sides have made clear that they will permit nothing but recreation. Neither the city nor the district will consider plans for development on the property.

This chapter in the Ocean Breeze saga began with the district proposing a new agreement. The city then sent a counterproposal to the district. Executive Director Briann Harms said, “It’s kind of in our court.”

Harms said the main issue is the district’s ability to access the west side to make any improvements to the east side. Deputy City Manager Mike Woika confirmed that during remarks at Monday’s workshop meeting. Harms said the district’s attorneys would compare the two versions and report to the board.

Board member Craig Ehrnst said that he saw problems with provisions related to the bonds and development of the property. “It seems like the city wants to own” the west side, Ehrnst said.

Board chairwoman Susan Vogelgesang said she had “similar concerns” about the west side. She added, however, “I am confident that we can work with the city council and city staff to the benefit of the community.”

The city spokeswoman expressed hope that there could be approval of the new agreement “pretty soon.” The city and district want to schedule a joint meeting in April. At that meeting, the two agencies likely will discuss the recreation survey that the city and district commissioned. Those findings will inform decisions about what goes on Ocean Breeze.

Vaccine appointment troubles


Today’s COVID-19 vaccine horror story comes from former Delray Beach City Commissioner Jim Chard.

He had been trying to book an appointment through the Publix website. The good news? He finally got one. The bad news? It was in Fort Walton Beach, just east of Pensacola and roughly an eight-hour drive from Delray Beach.

Having heard of people who drove from Atlanta to get shots in Broward County, I asked Chard if he took the appointment. No. He’s hoping for something closer.

And a correction

In Tuesday’s post about the Boca Raton City Council candidates, I said that Constance Scott had taken a leave of absence from her job at Florida Atlantic University while she campaigns. Scott said that she is taking vacation time.

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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