Sunday, July 3, 2022

Old School Square’s Future Remains Uncertain as Lawsuit Proceeds

Old School Square is the issue that won’t go away in Delray Beach.

Three months after Mayor Shelly Petrolia and city commissioners Juli Casale and Shirley Johnson’s eviction of Old School Square for the Arts from the city’s cultural complex took effect, the Cornell Museum and the Crest Theater remain closed. In addition to their normal duties, city employees are helping to schedule and run events at the Fieldhouse and Pavillion, Old School Square’s other components.

On the agenda for today’s commission workshop meeting is a discussion of what City Manager Terrence Moore calls “future direction for partnerships at the Old School Square Complex.” After Johnson joined Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel in rejecting a proposal for the Boca Raton Museum of Art to operate the Cornell for 18 months, the city needs a new plan because of what Petrolia, Casale and Johnson did.

Then there’s the Crest. One year ago, a private donor was financing renovations to the interior that included installation of a restaurant-style kitchen that Old School Square for the Arts envisioned as a job-training locale for city youths.

With no warning, however, the city stopped work on the project. That happened one month before the vote to terminate Old School Square’s lease. City Attorney Lynn Gelin claimed that Old School Square hadn’t obtained a permit. The group denied the allegation and continues to do so.

The donor withdrew her money. Barring something unexpected, the city will have to pay to finish the work. The irony is that Petrolia, Casale and Johnson claimed that they were looking out for the taxpayers when they ended Old School Square’s lease.

I had heard early estimates of between $500,000 and $600,000. But Boylston told me last week that the number may be more like $1.2 million. Frankel said the same thing. He and Boylston voted against ending the lease.

Petrolia and the four commissioners also sit on the board of the community redevelopment agency. Next week, they and the two appointed members will hold a commission-CRA workshop before the regular CRA meeting. One topic will be those improvements to reopen the Crest.

Discussion may focus on whether the money would come from the city or the CRA. Either way, the money would come from the public. And whatever the source, there will remain the question of who operates the Crest.

City Manager Terrence Moore said he and his team put these items on the agenda “to help enable City Commission to offer thoughts, vision and direction for opportunities accordingly. City administration and staff are likewise prepared to accept and to facilitate guidance that may be offered as a result of these discussions.”

Translation: Old School Square’s future remains mostly uncertain. The discussion should be interesting.

Old School Square lawsuit moves forward

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The Crest Theater at Old School Square, photo by Carl Dawson Photography courtesy of the Delray Beach DDA

Meanwhile, there have been developments in Old School Square for the Arts’s lawsuit against Delray Beach alleging wrongful termination.

Last month, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge John Kastrenakes gave a split decision to Old School Square for the Arts and to Petrolia, Johnson and Gelin, who are named as individual defendants along with the city. Kastrenakes dismissed some counts in the lawsuit, but he let others stand.

Also last month, Kastrenakes denied the motion by Petrolia, Johnson and Gelin to delay discovery, during which the two sides exchange information about information and witnesses. Petrolia, Johnson and Gelin since have filed identical motions seeking to limit how much information they must turn over. Old School Square alleges that Patrolia and Johnson were part of a conspiracy to terminate the lease.

Finally, Kastrenakes released a case management plan. On that schedule, the deadline for reaching a settlement through mediation would be Feb. 15, 2023. If there is no settlement, the projected trial date is April 21.

In January, Old School Square proposed a settlement. Petrolia, Casale and Johnson refused even to discuss it.

Final vote on setting Delray utility rates

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Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

On the agenda for today’s regular city commission is the final vote on setting new water and sewer rates for Delray Beach. The action is necessary to finance construction of a new water plant that the city hopes to open in 2026.

The proposed rate schedule is close to what the city’s consultant first recommended. The average homeowner’s bill would rise from roughly $58 to about $80 over the next four years. That added revenue will support the bond issue to finance the plant. After 2026, annual increases would be capped at a lower amount and rise much more slowly.

Delray to weigh Senate Bill opposition

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Another item asks the city commission to formally express Delray Beach’s opposition to Senate Bill 620. It would allow businesses in Florida to sue cities over regulations that cost a company at least 15 percent of its profit in one year.

As I wrote last week, reporting showed that a puppy mill contributed $125,000 to Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. SB 620 was a Simpson priority. The Senate passed it before the session was half over. The House then went along.

Delray Beach prohibits puppy mills. The bill has not gone to Gov. DeSantis. Neither has the state budget, so cities still don’t know how their requests for state money fared.

Boca citizens join to offer zoning improvements

Twenty years ago, Michael Weppner started thinking about ways to improve North Dixie Highway in Boca Raton. Ten years ago, Weppner told me, he became “active” in doing so.

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Michael Weppner; photo courtesy of Compass

Now Weppner, a realtor, has money from the city to examine potential zoning changes for the stretch from 20th Street to near Spanish River Boulevard. He and a group of about 20 other people want to bring “citizen-led change.” They plan to hold two planning meetings, known as charrettes. Out of those, they hope, will come ideas for the city council to consider.

Weppner said, North Dixie “just stays in bad condition.” On the east side are older duplexes, one after the other. On the west side is the Florida East Coast Railway track. Behind the track are industrial buildings.

“It’s a poor use of great real estate,” Weppner said. Many duplex owners are absentee landlords. There are perhaps 200, but Weppner only has spoken to three. His goal is for the city to allow mixed-use development, such as buildings with an office on the first floor and a residence on the second floor.

Weppner said single-family homeowners to the east have been supportive. So have Deputy City Manager George Brown and Development Services Director Brandon Schaad. Weppner hopes to hold those charrettes “by fall.”

PBC to request George Bush Bridge repair funds

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George Bush Bridge

On today’s Palm Beach County Commission agenda is a request for $207,000 toward repair work on the George Bush Bridge in Delray Beach.

The bridge got stuck in the open position on March 3 when its shafts sheared. The bridge reopened on April 29. In addition to the repairs, county engineers recommend twice-a-month monitoring of the span that could drop to monthly if no more problems come up. The monitoring will cost $72,000 per month.

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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