Friday, April 19, 2024

The open space controversy is (hopefully) laid to rest

The open space issue

Boca Raton’s Great Open Space Controversy is now officially a manufactured controversy.

On Thursday, the city posted the backup material for Monday’s Community Redevelopment Agency meeting. On the agenda is a discussion of how the city has applied open space rules for downtown projects since Boca’s Downtown Development Order took effect in 1988.

Unfortunately for conspiracy theorists who rushed to judgment in December, the review shows that the city pretty much has applied Ordinance 4035 properly over nearly three decades. Under the ordinance, 40 percent of projects must be “ground to sky” open space, though not necessarily public space.

According to the report, the city has issued 125 individual development approvals (IDAs) for downtown projects since 1988. Sixty-six expired without the project being built or were amended. Of the remaining 59, the city found miscalculations of open space in 11. With some, the number was high. In other cases, it was low.

After the staff recalculated “to correct for consistency with the open space requirements,” all but one project was found to not be in compliance. That is Townsend Place (above), the condo on Mizner Boulevard just south of Royal Palm Place. Townsend Place counted the pool deck as open space, which would be acceptable if the deck were at ground level. Instead, it’s above ground level.

Overall, according to the report, the 59 projects contain about 1.8 million square feet of open space—26.3 percent more than Ordinance 4035 requires.

There is irony in Townsend Place being the only non-compliant project. A resident of Townsend Place is John Gore, president of Boca Beautiful. The group has taken out two ads in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that criticize the city council for allowing too much downtown development.

The headline on the first ad was “Breaking the law in Boca.” It accused the city of ignoring the open space rules of Ordinance 4035. City officials, the ad said, “condoned CHEATING.” The ad further stated that “developers have been substituting concrete for open space.”

Unless Gore has evidence that I don’t suspect he has, those claims are false. So is the claim in Gore’s second ad that what is being built downtown is less than half of what is planned.

Regular council critics—with an eye on the 2017 city election—have used such hyperbole for months. It started when city staff discussed a 2003 memo from the city’s downtown chief explaining how to interpret the open space rule. To the critics, the memo was a smoking gun. In fact, there wasn’t even a gun, much less smoke.

The memo didn’t change city policy. It sought to explain it for new staffers. City Manager Leif Ahnell, however, does recommend a change in the memo.

The first section deals with the definitions of open space. The second deals with how to apply the rules to multiple buildings on one site. The third deals with whether the open space standards are regulations or guidelines. Ahnell recommends retaining the first two sections but reversing the third. The open space rule, he writes, clearly is “regulatory.”

In a proper world, all this would have been handled routinely. Instead, in an attempt to placate a few critics whom the report likely won’t placate, the open space issue became a dangerous distraction from city business.

I will have more next week after the CRA meeting.

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.

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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