Thursday, May 23, 2024

Progress on Old School Square and Boca’s Aletto Project

The Delray Beach City Commission wants the group that created Old School Square to be part of Old School Square’s future. Over the objections of Mayor Shelly Petrolia, that is about to happen.

On May 9, the commission held a workshop meeting with board members of Old School Square Center for the Arts. Though a previous commission ended its lease of the cultural complex, four of five current commissioners see a role for the group with the Downtown Development Authority. The DDA has a contract to operate Old School Square until Sept. 30, 2024.

DDA Executive Director Laura Simon called the meeting “a good first step.” Though the DDA board and Old School Square have had no formal meetings, Simon supports “anything we can do to work together. There are definitely options.”

Practically speaking, the commission is giving the DDA no choice. That likely will become more apparent at the commission’s meeting next week.

Commissioners appoint the seven DDA board members. Terms of four members end July 1. Two are leaving because of term limits. Two others did not apply for reappointment. On Tuesday, commissioners will choose their replacements. Twenty-one people have applied.

As it happens, those four commissioners who support a role for Old School Square Center for the Arts—Ryan Boylston, Angela Burns, Adam Frankel and Rob Long—will make the choices. The only person who won’t is Petrolia. How fitting.

At that May 9 meeting, sentiment on both sides was for reconciliation. Petrolia was the notable exception.

“I don’t feel all warm and fuzzy,” Petrolia said. She defended her vote to end the lease. She fumed that Old School Square had sued her personally, not just the city. She referred to a “federal investigation” of Old School Square that the group’s board members say isn’t happening. She claimed that Old School Square “destroyed” the Crest Theater.

When Petrolia was part of an anti-Old School Square majority, these accusations went unanswered. Not this time.

Former Mayor Jeff Perlman, now on the Old School Square board, said to Petrolia, “I could refute everything you said.”

Petrolia: “It’s the truth.”

Perlman: “It’s your truth” He called the allegations of financial mismanagement and worse “libelous,” adding, “You won’t let us move on.”

Petrolia continued to pout throughout the hour-long meeting, exchanging verbal fire at the end with Frances Bourque, who founded Old School Square.

Given that the city and Old School Square had settled their respective lawsuits on terms that bind both parties not to disparage the other, Bourque said, “It’s not for you to espouse one side.” Responded Petrolia, “I’m not bound by anything.”

But the mayor is an outlier. Boylston on Wednesday said the meeting “went great.” The goal, he said, was not to make any big decisions. The focus had been on how best to help Old School Square, because the ramifications of that lease termination are becoming even more serious.

For the budget year that ends Sept. 30, the city is giving the DDA roughly $1 million for operations at Old School Square. Some DDA board members considered that amount too low. For the next budget year, Simon said, there is a “good chance” that the DDA will ask for much more. The new board will discuss the agency’s budget next month. Old School Square Center for the Arts had covered operating costs.

In addition, the Crest Theater remains closed due to unfinished renovations of interior areas—including classroom space—that began in 2021. The city is spending $1.3 million to complete work that Old School Square had financed through a private donation. But just before the commission ended the lease, city officials stopped the project over a permit dispute, and the donor withdrew the balance.

Then there’s the theater itself. Under its lease, Old School Square Center for the Arts could take all the equipment it had purchased over 32 years. Public Works Director Missie Barletto said recently that replacing that equipment and reopening the theater could cost $4 million.

So it would seem that Delray Beach now needs the group that it evicted. Old School Square board members talked about restarting the popular art classes at the Cornell Museum. They talked about tapping their donor and volunteer bases while stressing, as one board member said, “We don’t want to interfere in any way” with the DDA.

Simon said her agency has created one new staff position of cultural arts director to run the Cornell. The DDA will add two contractors—a special events manager and a facilities manager. Simon does not envision more staff “at this point.”

Last week, the DDA began a series of events called “Summer at The Square.” It will include, among other things, music, a return of the Summer Green Market and Mindful Mondays focused on health and wellness.

Simon noted that the agency also has taken over operation of the Fieldhouse, a popular event venue, and the grounds of Old School Square. The agency hopes that the summer programming will lead into a packed schedule for high season.

During discussions about Old School Square, DDA board members had implied that they wanted a free hand.

Boylston made clear Wednesday, however, what he expects of the DDA from here, and that does not include what he calls “advocacy.” The agency’s mission, Boylston said, is downtown marketing, economic development and placemaking. Otherwise, “I expect them to support the decisions of the city commission.”

Aletto project moves forward

aletto square
Aletto Square on East Palmetto Park Road; Renderings from Compson Associates

Boca Raton City Council members really wanted to approve The Aletto at Sanborn Square. And they did.

Their desire showed first when they scheduled the project for a vote after the developer asked for that favor. By early April, the staff had not scheduled an appearance before the planning and zoning board and then the council—acting as the community redevelopment agency—when Carl Klepper of Compson Associates wrote to Councilman Mark Wigder. As CRA chairman, Wigder runs the meetings.

Klepper wanted Aletto “heard” before the slower summer meeting calendar began in June. The council then set Aletto for those two meetings on May 18 and May 22. The planning and zoning board recommended approval by a vote of 6-1, and the council approved the project unanimously.

Aletto will bring two office buildings, restaurants and some retail to a comparatively small site one block east of Sanborn Square. Neighbors told the CRA that the project was far too large and would disrupt the area. They worried about losing Tucci’s, a popular restaurant. The owner of a small adjoining property said Aletto would cut off access for his tenants.

There were several judgment calls when Aletto went through staff and council review. In each case, the call went for the developer. Example: Part of the parking garage’s ground floor—which is covered—will count as open space. Downtown projects must provide a minimum amount of it.

I spoke with Wigder on Wednesday. That garage space, he said, will have pedestrian access and thus satisfy the requirement that downtown projects promote walkable areas. In addition, the developer will offer a downtown shuttle to such places as the Brightline station. City officials have tried for nearly a decade to establish a shuttle. Klepper said Tucci’s would stay.

Wigder also noted that Boca Raton has approved roughly 3,000 downtown residential units in the last decade-plus but no new office buildings. His list of positives, Wigder said at the meeting, “was five pages long.”

After complaining about “misinformation,” Mayor Scott Singer again pointed to the council’s priority of more office space to keep Boca Raton from missing out on business recruiting. That priority also is driving proposed changes in the city’s job-heavy northwest that I will report on this month.

Some residents who spoke against Aletto live in Tower 155, one block east on Royal Palm Road. Singer noted that the condo is taller than one of Aletto’s buildings. Tower 155 generated controversy when the CRA approved it. Council members shrank the required size for projects to get extra height under downtown architectural guidelines.

“I appreciate the concerns,” Singer said, “but I don’t share them.” Councilwoman Yvette Drucker added, “Well said.”

Updates to architectural guidelines in Boca

Speaking of downtown Boca Raton, the council just approved an update to those architectural guidelines. Council members and city planners hope the change will bring a wider range of building designs and more innovative projects.

Owen execution resumes as planned

Duane Owen, photo from Florida Department of Corrections

Not surprisingly, the execution of Duane Owen is back on.

Gov. DeSantis issued a temporary stay of the June 15 execution after defense attorneys mounted an insanity defense. Within about two months in 1984, Owen murdered 14-year-old Karen Slattery in Delray Beach and Georgianna Worden, a single mother, in Boca Raton.

Owen’s insanity claim had failed in the Slattery killing. This time, in the Worden murder, lawyers had argued that Owen was trying “to fully become the woman he was.” DeSantis’ latest executive order, however, states that the three appointed psychiatrists concluded that Owen “has the mental capacity to understand the nature of the death penalty and why it is to be imposed upon him.”

Big expectations for FAU basketball

Photo by Alex Dolce

Dusty May has given himself a tough act to follow.

After coaching the Florida Atlantic University men’s basketball team to the Final Four, May has seen analysts predicting the same level of success for this season. The Athletic website’s ranking for 2023-24 have the Owls fifth. That’s one spot behind Kansas, winner of four national championships.

Longtime analyst Seth Davis notes that FAU not only didn’t lose any transfers but didn’t lose May to a higher-profile job. Though the team’s top two scorers declared for the June 22 National Basketball Association draft, they were not invited to the combine for top prospects and likely will return. Davis said FAU enters the season with “huge expectations.” No kidding.

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Randy Schultz
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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