“New Benchmark” for Boca, more on FSU’s fumble, plus more.

hyatt_delray.jpg

Hyatt Place is coming to downtown

(Pictured: Hyatt Place in Delray Beach)

The vote Monday on the most prominent piece of land in Boca Raton was oddly anticlimactic.

For decades, the city council had sought a suitable project for the southeast corner of Palmetto Park Road and Federal Highway. Success finally came Monday afternoon. Acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, the council unanimously approved DDRI I.D.A. No. CRP-08-03R2—the plan for a Hyatt Place hotel.

The 200-room hotel will be 140 feet tall, with structures on the roof making the overall height 160 feet. It will be part of Ram Realty’s mixed-use Mark at Cityscape project. Hyatt Hotels pitches its Hyatt Place brand to business travelers, but the Hyatt Place in Delray Beach, which opened in 2012, also draws vacationers. The hotel’s general manager says things have been “terrific.”

Since Boca had tried to fill that downtown hole for about 30 years, you might have expected applause and Champagne after Monday’s vote. Instead, the discussion featured only a few questions from council members and just the faintest squawking from holdout critics who misunderstood setback rules for the hotel. The clerk recorded the vote, and CRA Chairman Scott Singer moved on to the next agenda item.

But make no mistake; this is a big deal. In downtown Boca, this vacant lot has stood out like a missing tooth. The city believed that you couldn’t just fill it with, well, anything. It had to be special. There were repeated references Monday to a “landmark project” on a “landmark corner.” Councilman Mike Mullaugh called it a “new benchmark” for downtown development.

Despite fears among some residents that a hotel will overwhelm the property, the Hyatt Place seems like a good fit. The one in Delray Beach works well in the Pineapple Grove neighborhood north of Atlantic Avenue. Though the Boca Hyatt Place will be one-third larger, the site also is more urban. In addition, the design is stylish, and the developers worked with the city’s staff and consultants to maximize the hotel’s compatibility with what the city wants to be a pedestrian-friendly section of downtown after all the buildings is done.

“We wanted to break the project down to a human scale, and I think we achieved that for the most part,” says Paul Slattery, whose Boca Raton firm did the architectural work for the Hyatt Place, as it did for the Hyatt Place in Delray. The main issue, he says, is how to “mass” the building—to make it work with the surroundings.

A key meeting, Slattery says, took place in February with Urban Design Associates, the city’s downtown consultant. Councilman Robert Weinroth praised the cooperation between the development team and the city. Slattery agreed: “It was a good team effort.” Changes were made to ease the impact from traffic. Example: Valet parking will be available only for the restaurant, not the hotel itself. Other requirements will encourage carpooling and the use of bicycles and buses.

Though Hyatt Hotels is a global company with more than 550 properties, the team for this Hyatt Place is intensely local. The engineering firm, like Slattery’s company, is from Boca. The landscape architect is from Delray Beach. West Palm Beach-based Kolter is developing the hotel, as it developed Hyatt Place Delray.

Slattery says Hyatt Place Boca will be a “visual landmark,” with recessed lighting at the top making the building visible to guests arriving on Palmetto Park Road after leaving Interstate 95. He says construction should start in March, with the hotel opening 16 to 18 months later, in time for the 2016 high season. If that happens, expect the city to throw a party that will be 30 years in the making.

Look Who Wants to Be City Manager

The list of applicants to be Delray Beach’s city manager is complete at 91, and the list contains some interesting names.

The most interesting is Mike Woika, who has been assistant city manager in Boca Raton for the last 10 years, part of a long-term triumvirate that includes City Manager Leif Ahnell and Deputy City Manager George Brown.

Other applicants are from South Florida, but they also come with questions.

Pat Salerno was city manager in Coral Gables, the affluent (average household income $114,000) city of 50,000 near Miami that is home to the University of Miami. But Salerno resigned unexpectedly last April, giving no single reason for his departure. Salerno’s supporters praised his record of raising the city’s reserves from $1 million to $28 million even during and after the recession. Salerno told the Miami Herald, “We turned this organization around. We changed the culture, the work ethics and the professionalism of the staff.”  Salerno’s critics cited what the Herald called a “brusque management style.”

Also applying is Bob Vitas, the former city manager of Key West. He resigned in June and accepted a buyout before the city commission was to take a vote of confidence or no confidence. News reports said Vitas likely would have been fired. The flashpoint was Vitas’ decision in June to name a new utilities director at a much higher salary than the previous director had been making. Vitas and the city attorney also reportedly clashed over whether the attorney had authority to review the utility director’s contract.

Still another applicant is Don Cooper, chief financial officer of the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies in Port St. Lucie. Cooper spent two decades as city manager of Port St. Lucie, and former members of the city council praise him for helping to transform what had been a massive subdivision into a city.

In 2009, however, Port St. Lucie sank roughly $40 million into bonds to build a headquarters for the Digital Domain movie animation company. Cooper cited what he believed to be a “commitment” to the city by Digital Domain’s CEO. In 2012, however, the company declared bankruptcy and laid off all its employees in the city. A year later, Port St. Lucie unloaded the building for $14 million, leaving the city with years of debt payments on a building it doesn’t own.

Among the applicants are people running governments from Hobbs, N.M., to Berks County, Penn. Another aspirant is Robert Kuvon, who lists himself as the founder of 7th Avenue Shakedown. It appears to be a community activist Facebook page focused on Delray issues.

On Tuesday, I reported that the city’s consultant in the manager search expected to choose about two dozen serious candidates from the list. In an interview Wednesday, Colin Baenziger declined to name any of those candidates. “I don’t want to get hopes up,” he says, adding that the list could shrink soon to about a dozen. The plan is to have the commission pick the manager on Nov. 3.

Does Baenziger think that the commission would prefer someone with Florida experience? “All things being equal,” he says, “they probably would prefer someone from Florida. But all things are never equal.”

Delray and The Pension Issue

While Boca Raton is at impasse with the police and fire unions over contract talks, Delray Beach is still checking the city’s options.

As in Boca, public safety pension benefits in Delray will overwhelm the city’s budget if changes aren’t made. Boca Raton chose to reform the current pension system by reducing the benefits. Another option would be for Delray Beach to get out of the pension business.

That would happen if the city shifted employees to the state system. Most employees in the Florida Retirement System are teachers, along with state and county employees. But some municipal police officers and firefighters also are members.

If Delray Beach switched, the city no longer would have a fire/police pension board that—because of rules about who serves on the board—essentially is under the unions’ control. The board makes decisions about investments, but the city is responsible for any shortages that result from bad investment choices.

Police officers and firefighters also might benefit from the switch. They contribute 9 percent to the city’s pension plan. Employees in the Florida Retirement System must contribute 3 percent, and that started only three years ago. The risk, of course, is that the Florida Legislature could increase that contribution if the state system seems inadequately funded. The state system, though, is in better shape than most local fire and police pension funds.

First, though, Delray Beach must run the numbers on all options. That has taken longer because in the last six months Delray has had a new—and at this point interim—city manager, a new city attorney, a new chief financial officer, a new human resources manager and a new police chief. We should know much more after the city commission and top administrators meet Tuesday in executive session to discuss collective bargaining issues.

It’s Trader Joe’s Time in Boca

As reported here last month, the Trader Joe’s in Boca Raton will open Friday with a temporary certificate of occupancy. The developer of East City Center, where Trader Joe’s will be the main tenant, did not bury power lines in front of the store, despite the city requiring it as part of the development order. Once the power poles were up, the developer tried to claim that burying the lines wasn’t feasible, but the city council didn’t buy that argument. The store will open as scheduled, but the lines must go underground, in about 90 days, depending on when Florida Power & Light can schedule the work.

FSU Fumbles Again

What a jolly two weeks it’s been for the Florida State University family. First, FSU’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Jameis Winston, embarrassed the university yet again with a profane, sexist outburst in the Student Union that got him suspended for last Saturday’s game against Clemson. Then on Tuesday, as predicted here, the trustees ignored strong opposition from faculty and students and made John Thrasher FSU’s new president.

Forget that Thrasher has no background in higher education, not even as an adjunct professor. Thrasher has supported the two most detrimental developments to higher education in Florida: abolition of the Board of Regents and creation of Florida Polytechnic University. The first ended statewide oversight of the university system, which had avoided wasteful duplication of programs. The second drained money from all other 11 universities.

Florida Atlantic University did it the right way last January, choosing John Kelly. FSU did it the wrong way, choosing John Thrasher.

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

For more City Watch blogs, click here.About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.

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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.