Massive Changes Could be Coming to Mizner Park and its Amphitheater Space

mizner park
Performing Arts Center Main View / Rendering courtesy of IBI Group, Inc

The proposal for a performing arts center in Boca Raton is ambitious in every way.

Start with the price: $101 million for construction and another $19 million for maintenance, an endowment and “working capital.”

Then move to the scope. The Boca Raton Consortium for Arts and Innovation (BRCAI) wants to transform the north end of Mizner Park into the cultural cluster that residents were promised when Mizner Park opened in 1991.

The Boca Raton Museum of Art occupies the westernmost of those three pieces of property. In the middle is the city-owned Mizner Park Amphitheater. On the east side is a vacant, 1.8-acre parcel that the community redevelopment agency owns.

Organizers want the city to donate that land and allow them to take over operations of the amphitheater and receive money that the city now spends to stage events and maintain the property. The consortium would build a canopy for the amphitheater—allowing events in bad weather—repurpose the facility and merge with the adjacent land to create a center that has many venues of varying size.

The renderings are from the architectural firm IBI Group, which is based on Canada. IBI’s website lists projects in the United Kingdom Oman, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, among others.

Finally, there’s the language. The consortium proposes a center that “embraces the fundamental changes to artistic performance and expression introduced by advances in technology” and “anticipates and adapts to the realities of an unpredictable and sometimes inhospitable climate, through re-imagining how vast indoor and sheltered spaces are conditioned and experienced.” One space would give visitors the sense of being in the rain without being in the rain.

Nothing would happen soon. Work on the redesigned amphitheater would not start until 2024. The entire project would open two years after that.

Organizers designed that timetable around fundraising. Andrea Virgin, a former dancer who served on the board of Boca Ballet and started a design center in the city, is BRCAI’s president. Brett Egan is president of DeVos Institute for Arts Management, the group’s consultant. During their presentation at Tuesday’s city council workshop, they stressed that the project wouldn’t start until the group had raised enough money.

From the council’s standpoint, risk is the issue. If the project stalled halfway through construction, the city would be left with that shell. Ten years ago, the city took over operating the amphitheater after a private group couldn’t make it work. That takeover was nothing compared to the prospect of a hulk at the north end of Mizner Park. The consortium is confident that the project would not break ground unless 100% of the capital for the project is raised in advance.

This group first came to the city council three years ago seeking the 10 public acres east of the Spanish River Library. Council members were skeptical, and the organizers have scaled back greatly in size but less so in ambition.

Virgin said the project would “fulfill the Mizner Park vision” and “position the city on the national map.” She and Egan spoke of the timing with the Brightline station that may open next year a short distance away.

This proposal comes, however, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is ravaging arts groups. Brightline hasn’t run trains since March, and the company hasn’t said when service might resume. The business plan assumes that the facility would draw lots of visitors from outside the city, but domestic and international air travel probably won’t recover until 2023 or 2024.

In addition, the transfer of control over the amphitheater comes close to a third rail of Boca Raton politics: Don’t mess with the amphitheater. Much discussion Tuesday centered on whether the city still could stage its popular free events on the schedule it wanted. The answer seemed to be yes. Mayor Scott Singer also asked what would happen when the city wanted to use the space for something like the rally after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. Again, Virgin and Egan seemed to say that it could.

Council members generally were supportive. Monica Mayotte saw “very minimal risk” to the city. Virgin said, “The burden is on us,” and noted that her financial contribution to this point ran to six figures.

Singer was the most cautious. “We’re rooting for you,” he told Virgin and Egan. But he added that the project “must succeed for everyone.” Singer spoke about the danger of the city inheriting “a partially completed project.”

City staffers now will start negotiating a lease for the Mizner Park property. There will be “a million points” to discuss, said City Manager Leif Ahnell, who sounded more skeptical than the council. He might have been understating about those million points.

Not all are in favor

One notable moment during Tuesday’s discussion came when Singer introduced Andrew Zimbalist. An economics professor at Smith College, Zimbalist basically trashed everything about the BRCAI proposal, from the revenue estimates to the structure.

O’Rourke clearly was steaming when Zimbalist finished. “This isn’t a conversation starter,” she said. “It’s a conversation stopper.” She pointed out that Zimbalist hadn’t been listed on the agenda. Egan said Zimbalist had been “blatantly inaccurate.”

Singer responded that, though he had contacted Zimbalist, “This is the first time I’m hearing any of this.” Yet a simple Internet search would have revealed Zimbalist to be a well-known critic of such public-private partnerships, usually as they apply to sports stadiums. Zimbalist generally believes that the public comes up short.

Despite what seemed like an ambush, and even though he may not reappear during discussion of the consortium’s request, Zimbalist did at least reinforce how important the city’s due diligence must be.

Rest in Peace Charles Siemon

charles siemon

Speaking of Mizner Park, without Charles Siemon, there almost certainly wouldn’t be a Mizner Park.

Siemon, who died on Sept. 24, was the “mastermind” behind the downtown Boca Raton that we know. That’s from Jorge Camejo, who was director of the community redevelopment agency when the CRA hired Siemon as a consultant in the 1980s.

The city had formed the CRA in 1980 to eliminate downtown blight. Where Mizner Park now stands, we had the Boca Raton Mall, featuring a movie theater, a dive bar and a failing department store. Camejo recalled how heavy rains used to leave standing water for days on the mall property.

In 1985, the Legislature passed the Growth Management Act. Camejo said he and others believed that the law amounted to the “death knell” for Boca Raton to redevelop downtown. It required public services to be in place before local governments approved development projects. Downtown lacked adequate infrastructure and had no way to pay for it.

Siemon’s solution was the Visions 90 plan that, among other things, assessed downtown property owners for those infrastructure improvements. Resistance was strong, but the revenue allowed the CRA to decide how much development downtown could handle and then propose Mizner Park as the centerpiece of that redevelopment.

Ironically, the city measured that development capacity in office-equivalent square feet—eight million of it. At the time, Siemon once told me, no one believed that many people would want to live downtown. Camejo said only 63 people lived within the boundaries that the city classified as downtown. Planners envisioned offices driving redevelopment. Yet Mizner Park features apartments, and recent political battles have centered on downtown residential projects.

Siemon started, Camejo said, after the “bottom fell out.” A referendum to allow an office project at Federal Highway and Palmetto Park Road—where the Hyatt Place Hotel stands—had failed in 1985. Nothing was on the horizon.

Once Siemon had crafted the plan, CRA Chairman Jamie Snyder led the political campaign. Despite opposition from no-growthers, every referendum was successful. Downtown is approaching that development cap.

“Working with Charlie was lots of fun,” Camejo said, “but he was very goal-oriented. He was going to get it done.”

Siemon went on to be the city’s best-known land-use lawyer. His commitment included his own money, moving his office to Mizner Park. With his partner, Wendy Larsen, Siemon founded the Festival of the Arts at Mizner Park.

His contribution to Boca Raton, Camejo said, “is almost immeasurable. He had a love affair with the city.”

iPic–and its building–persevere

ipic delray

Whatever the ongoing problems of the movie business, the future is more hopeful for the iPic building in Delray Beach.

Though iPic operates the multi-screen theater, a non-iPic entity owns the structure. When the city approved what was called Fourth and Fifth Delray, iPic agreed to move its headquarters to the project. The Retirement Systems of Alabama bought iPic out of bankruptcy, so that didn’t happen.

But the building does have Class A office space. Delray Beach drew one company—International Materials, Inc.—to fill part of the space. The city recently approved changes to the building’s layout to accommodate what the owner’s attorney, Neil Schiller, said would be a financial services company that would bring 100 jobs.

On their face, the changes were minor. But considering all the controversy that the project generated, the harmony among city commissioners stood in sharp contrast.

Commissioner Ryan Boylston called it “a good outcome.” Mayor Shelly Petrolia praised Schiller. It was the sort of comity one rarely sees these days in Delray Beach.

Campaign war chests filling up

The candidates who want to represent Boca Raton and coastal Delray Beach in the Florida House have raised a combined $650,000. District 89 is one of the few legitimate swing districts in the House.

Republican Mike Caruso, the incumbent, has raised roughly $340,000. Coincidentally or not, he got another $15,000 from the Republican Party of Florida after falsely accusing Delray Beach of “defunding” the police department. Caruso refused to correct himself even after the city pointed out why Caruso had it wrong.

Not surprisingly, Caruso also has received recent donations from industry groups—accountants, police unions, beer distributors. Republican incumbents generally get support from the Legislature’s special interests.

Democrat James Bonfiglio, who lost to Caruso by 32 votes in 2018, has raised $314,000. Unlike Caruso, Bonfiglio has loaned himself a sizable amount— $100,000. He has many more contributors than Caruso, but many of those donations are for less than $10.

Democrats have just 46 seats in the 120-member House. The party has claimed to be mounting a major effort to narrow that gap and has given Bonfiglio about $50,000. That’s about what Caruso has received from the Republican Party of Florida.

Many of the state’s 120 House members face token opposition or none at all. That’s not the case in District 89.