Tonight, Delray Beach nears a decision on one of those Really Big Deals for cities.
The city commission holds the first of two scheduled public hearings on new Land Development Regulations for the Central Business District. The changes would cover downtown core, West Atlantic Avenue, the beach and what would be called the Railroad Corridor along the Florida Coast Railway tracks. That last, new designation would include Pineapple Grove.
With all of the remarkable, positive change in Delray Beach over the last 20-plus years has come increasing public criticism of changes that progress has brought. Sidewalks are too crowded. Bicycling is dangerous. The city is approving projects too large for their location.
This resentment probably crested in December 2012 with the commission’s approval of Atlantic Crossing. The March 2013 city election brought in Cary Glickstein as mayor and Shelly Petrolia as a commissioner, both of whom had campaigned on a better-growth platform. About a year ago, the city asked the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council for help in drafting new regulations. Comments from residents and affected groups have shaped the proposals even until last month, but tonight will be the first commission vote. If the regulations are approved, a second vote will be necessary in two weeks.
Among other things, the new rules—more than 55 pages—call for wider setbacks and more pedestrian-friendly sidewalks. They require that the ground floor of a downtown project be a store or a restaurant. They require more open space as part of larger developments. They improve the bonus program for developers. In his memo to commissioners, Interim City Manager Terry Stewart says the changes increase the “importance of the public realm.”
Noting that Delray’s downtown master plan is 12 years old, Glickstein says the city should have made such changes during the recession. Building slowed dramatically, but it also seemed likely that growth would return. It did, in force. Like other South Florida cities, Delray faced many new applications for residential projects, most of them apartment buildings. That’s where the financing was after the home/condo bubble burst.
Without new regulations, Glickstein said, Delray Beach “had a flawed approval process and a more flawed waiver process.” Delray was offering incentives to developers without a policy for what the city wanted those incentives to create. “A new apartment building,” Glickstein said, “is not memorable.”
There’s irony in that last comment, since Glickstein’s company develops apartment buildings. He is correct, though, that Delray Beach was too often taking what was offered rather than getting what it wanted. Such an approach can make life hardest for the people Delray most wants to attract: downtown residents and outsiders who patronize city businesses and like to stroll through the city.
Glickstein supports the new regulations, which need three votes to pass. He argues that they address the two main issues: the ground floor and architectural design, guidelines for which are coming soon.
In an email to Stewart, however, Petrolia criticized the parking requirements as taking the city “from leniency to lunacy” and call them a potential “deal-breaker.”
Specifically, Petrolia envisions that a hotel with 120 rooms, a restaurant and meeting space might have to provide just 35 parking spaces. The public then would have to provide space with a garage. Petrolia calls that “unacceptable.” She also faults the requirements for offices, stores and apartments. Example: For two-bedroom complexes, the requirement would be 1.75 spaces per unit. Petrolia wants that to be two spaces.
Glickstein is right that the public will focus most on height and density, since even non-planners understand the terms. But the plan correctly limits the number of stories as a way to restrict height while leaving flexibility for more pleasing designs. Also, a planning council staff member pointed out that density alone isn’t the cause of downtown’s problems. Atlantic Crossing, for example, never had a density issue.
The problem is compatibility, and the new regulations should encourage it. The staffer told the commission that if a developer can’t meet the proposed setback requirements, the developer is building too much for the site. Interim City Manager Stewart wants the regulations to bring “predictability” to development decisions. The debate tonight may be anything but predictable.
The legal battle over the former Mizner Trail Golf Course is also a public relations battle.
Boca Del Mar homeowners who adjoin the property have challenged the Palm Beach County Commission’s approval in June of 252 homes on the roughly 128 acres. In their appeal, the Boca Del Mar Improvement Association seeks to persuade a judge that the commission violated county land-use rules.
One key argument is that a judge in 2008 ruled that the land had no inherent development rights. The county approved the master plan for Boca Del Mar—just east of the city limits—in the early 1970s based, among other things, on the open space the course provided. The plaintiffs believe that the landowners never intended to keep operating the golf course, which they declared in 2001-02 to be unprofitable and closed in 2005, right before the commission was set to rule on a previous plan to develop the land.
On a recent Friday, the developer—Mizner Trail Properties —issued a news release saying that it intended to sue the homeowners for rejecting a $250,000 settlement to the dispute and thus filing a frivolous lawsuit. But Robert Rivas, a lawyer for Sachs Sax Caplan, which is representing the homeowners, said the developer had offered no such settlement at “any time, in any amount.” He speculated that the move might have been designed to disrupt what appears to be near-unity among the neighbors that they should pursue the challenge.
Rivas did say the homeowners had received communication about possible sanctions, but no notice of a lawsuit. Rivas dismissed the idea that the challenge could trigger any sanctions. Neither side knows when the court will decide whether or not to hear the appeal.
Some commissioners in the 5-2 majority that approved the project argued that the redesigned project actually would benefit the homeowners. The homeowners disagree. In their petition, they say “the footprint of the development resembles a complex iron mold into which, if the developer gets its way, molten plastic—in the form of homes—will be pumped until the plastic seeps into all the creases and crevices in the mold.” I wouldn’t look for a settlement in this case even if one were offered.
As opposition continues to All Aboard Florida’s passenger service at high decibel levels from residents of northern Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, the study of commuter trains quietly continues. And for all the talk of All Aboard Florida being an economic “game-changer” for the region, the commuter line potentially is the real transportation breakthrough.
The South Florida Transportation Authority, which operates Tri-Rail, is leading a study of the Coastal Link, which would provide commuter service between Miami and Jupiter along the same Florida Coast Railway corridor that All Aboard Florida will use. All Aboard Florida’s parent company owns the FEC tracks.
Tri-Rail now ends at Mangonia Park, just north of West Palm Beach. Because Tri-Rail runs on the CSX tracks farther west, it doesn’t serve downtowns in Boca Raton, Delray Beach and elsewhere that are attracting new residents. The project would cost $600 million to $800 million, and depends on many things falling into place. One of them would be how commuter service could work with passenger service and whether Florida East Coast Industries would allow it to happen.
So if you live in Boca or Delray and don’t think there’s much to think about regarding All Aboard Florida but “quiet zones,” think again.
You can email Randy Schultz at firstname.lastname@example.org
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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