New Downtown Campus Dream Plans, Alina Runs Into Roadblocks

It’s exciting. It’s expensive. Tell us more.

That was the Boca Raton City Council’s collective response last week to a consultant’s draft plan for a downtown government campus. Boca Raton would get a new city hall, police station, community center, parking garages and other public spaces that would create a meeting/gathering place connected to downtown, possibly with an elevated pedestrian walkway.

So, yes, it’s ambitious. But as council members noted, it also could define Boca Raton for decades.

The target is the roughly four blocks around city hall, at West Palmetto Park Road and Boca Raton Boulevard. On the north side, the downtown library would form a triangular hangout section with a new community center and the children’s museum. The southern portion would be government/public safety, with city hall and the police station. At its current location, the station is too close to the railroad tracks for ideal entry and exit.

New plans also could mean new traffic patterns. The consultant, Song and Associates, recommends closing Boca Raton Boulevard at Palmetto Park Road to make the area more inviting to pedestrians. More changes could come, depending on which plan the council chooses. Northwest Fourth Avenue probably would need work.

Mayor Scott Singer noted the obvious—the project is “very expensive.”

Of the consultant’s two options, the council preferred the more expensive. Well, sure. This is Boca Raton. That option, Singer said, would be “considerably more expensive and take longer” because of all the demolition. The police department could stay at its current headquarters during construction, but city employees would need to move.

(Courtesy City of Boca Raton)

Yet what had been only a point of discussion for three years has taken form. Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke said the campus had appeared “pie in the sky” until the consultant presented drawings. “I’m excited.”

And no one disputes the need. City Hall is a half-century old and outdated in terms of space and technology. Song estimated that the new community center could be four times larger than the cramped, 13,000-square-foot facility. Singer has been pushing for a parking garage west of the railroad tracks that could serve downtown. One of the two would do that. The other would be for city employees. Each garage would have 600 spaces.

Uncertainties remain. The consultant’s options did not include the tennis center. Athletic fields, a skate park and a basketball court are near the community center. Council members seemed inclined to keep some form of organized recreation space, but there are no details. The complex might include a cultural center, but that likely wouldn’t happen if the city’s cultural consortium pulls off its plan for a performing arts complex on Spanish River Boulevard.

But there also are certainties. The Mizner Park Amphitheater won’t move or close. The council shot down the 2016 offer from Related Group to build the campus in exchange for the amphitheater site. At a recent meeting, the council reaffirmed its commitment to the children’s museum. Council members also remain open to the idea of a train station—for commuter rail or Brightline—on a city-owned site east of the library.

The consultant will be back—date unknown—with a more detailed plan and an estimate of how long it would take and how much it would cost. The city hopes to get $65 million from GL Homes next spring for the company’s purchase of the western golf course. All or part of that windfall could be a down payment on the campus. The rest could come from a bond program. Depending on the type, a bond could require voter approval.

Boca Raton has no scheduled elections next year. This council almost certainly will choose the campus plan and how to pay for it. Based on their response last week, council members seem to like the prospect.

Boca Bowl!

Tonight’s Boca Raton Bowl will be the fifth in what was a six-year deal packaged by ESPN. The network would like to strike a new deal before next year’s game.

“Without a doubt,” Doug Mosley said Monday in an email. Mosley works for ESPN and has served as the bowl’s executive director from the start. Cheribundi Tart Cherry became the name sponsor last year in a deal that also expires in 2019. Florida Atlantic University hosts the game. Boca Raton contributes $340,000 in addition to providing city services.

Discussions involve the network, the city, the county—which also contributes—FAU and the participating conferences that send their champion each year. One is the bunched Mid-American, with 11 of its 12 teams in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana or Illinois. The other is the far-flung Conference USA, which stretches from Texas to North Carolina to South Florida. FAU won the conference and last year’s game, but the Owls regressed this season.

Locally, the Boca Bowl has drawn participation from many community groups and dozens of sponsors. “We’re actively communicating with all parties about new agreements,” Mosley said. “It will go a bit like tipping over a row of dominos. Once one new agreement is completed, that will tip into the next and so on.”

Mosley hopes for a new deal “very soon. It’s just a matter of getting those dominos lined up.”

Alina on the way? Or in line for a lawsuit?

Rendering of ALINA Residences

Over the weekend, Elad Properties announced the demolition of Mizner on the Green to make way for Alina Residences, the luxury condo. The website promises a “downtown sanctuary,” but the project has not been able to separate itself from city politics.

The City Council, acting as the community redevelopment agency, last Monday postponed a vote on Elad’s request to build Alina in two phases. Opponents—most of them residents of Townsend Place, on Alina’s south side—complained that Elad was trying to sneak through a new plan. City staff, however, had recommended approval. Elad’s attorney, Bonnie Miskel, thought that the company had reached a deal with Townsend Place and Investments Limited, which owns Royal Palm Place. It’s on the other side of Mizner Boulevard.

Then Robert Eisen, who works for Investments Limited and had been representing the company and Townsend Place, couldn’t attend Monday’s meeting because he was sick. On Dec. 4, Eisen had emailed to CRA Chairman Andrea O’Rourke conditions regarding landscaping to which his side had agreed. Miskel said Elad also had agreed. A deal seemed to be in place.

Apparently, however, some Townsend Place residents objected. When they spoke last week, Eisen wasn’t there to explain the negotiations. O’Rourke criticized Elad for supposedly reneging on the compromise that had led to CRA approval of the project in August 2017. Miskel’s explanation that any “new” conditions had come from Eisen’s side, not Elad, didn’t persuade enough council members to proceed with a vote.

Elad wants to build the 121-unit north tower first. The company is asking to phase the project, Miskel said, “as a little bit of an insurance policy.” Phase 1 will take two years, and city approval has “added three years” to Elad’s timeline. Though sales are “going quite well, it’s already a different market” from when Elad started, Miskel said. “And it could get more different.”

The company is making a public relations push. In the news release announcing the demolition, Elad touts its move to Boca Raton and a partnership under which the company donated all reusable appliances and other products from Mizner on the Green to Habitat for Humanity of South Palm Beach County.

Eisen told me Monday that he met with city officials last Thursday and has given Miskel “a new, improved proposal.” Miskel said she “had yet to read it.” There is agreement that one condition proposed by Townsend Place/Investments Limited would have been illegal.

Through a city spokeswoman, Development Services Director Brandon Schaad confirmed that the city received the communication from Eisen and the concurrence from Elad. After review, Schaad said, the staff “had a number of objections to what was proposed, and felt generally that the language submitted would need to be substantially rewritten if it was to be included.” Schaad added, “Even though we had relayed our concerns to Mr. Eisen and the applicant in advance of the hearing, they never clarified until the hearing.”

Perhaps things will get settled at the Jan 7. CRA meeting. If not, Boca Raton could face yet another development-related lawsuit. The city just settled one over a downtown senior center, but three Midtown lawsuits are very much pending. The common theme is that the council is not granting some developers due process.

Elad, Miskel said, “has been very patient. We have been willing to work with the residents.” If the CRA doesn’t approve the phasing plan next month, however, “My client will seek his day in court.”

New sponsor for Delray Open

Speaking of local sports events, Delray Beach’s pro tennis tournament has a new presenting sponsor.

Promoter Mark Baron announced last week that Boca Raton-based Vitacost would be part of the event, which takes place at the city’s tennis center. Vitacost, a subsidiary of Kroger, is an online retailer of everything from diet supplements to beauty/health care and sports-related products, down to a spray for cleaning yoga mats.

The tournament is scheduled for February. According to the news release, 20 Association of Tennis Professional players have committed. Match Point and Delray Beach remain in negotiations over a new contract.

College district

As Boca Raton nears a decision on the downtown campus, work remains on the plan to create a college-oriented district along 20th Street near the east entrance to Florida Atlantic University.

The topic came up a recent conference of mayors that Boca’s Scott Singer attended. His counterparts were from as near as Miami and as distant as Topeka, Kan., and Sioux Falls, S.D. The discussions, Singer said, reminded him that “we have problems in Boca Raton that others would envious of.”

Other cities have proposed university districts as a means to perk up blighted neighborhoods. Twentieth Street is hardly that. The neighborhood has “a lot of positives,” Singer said. “There’s successful retail.” It’s one of Boca Raton’s industrial zones. Property owners are making money. The city, Singer said, must make it “economically viable” for them to switch uses under new zoning that would allow the transformation.

One new angle Singer mentioned is the area west of the El Rio Canal, which is FAU’s border. “It’s a dead zone,” Singer said. Indeed, there’s nothing until 20th Street bends to meet the edge of the campus. So FAU and the city will talk about a plan to incorporate that section of the campus into the one for the several blocks along 20th.

And trash talk

Much sooner than the downtown campus, the Boca Raton City Council might have to decide whether to outsource residential garbage pickup.

A spokeswoman said the city expects bids from private companies to arrive in mid-January. Private firms already pick up at businesses and from mix-used projects, such as Mizner Park. City employees, however, handle single-family neighborhoods and apartments.

In mid-2017, City Manager Leif Ahnell told the council in a memo that Boca Raton is running short of space to house garbage trucks. Costs for residential collection are rising with the city’s population.

The council, however, has committed only to seeing the numbers, not switching. Either way, the city would keep control of vegetation pickup, given the delays that can result in hauling away debris after hurricanes.

Missed the last City Watch?

Visit our City Watch page and also sign up for our City Watch e-newsletter, where you’ll get the latest column delivered directly to your inbox.