The Ramifications of Midtown Lawsuits and Other News of Note From Boca and Delray

Midtown Boca rendering

Boca Raton’s legal problems with Midtown keep getting worse.

The city already faces two lawsuits from Crocker Partners, a major Midtown landowner. A judge has rejected the city’s motion to dismiss one lawsuit. The other complaint seeks nearly $140 million in damages.

Now there’s a second lawsuit from the developer that owns the Strikes at Boca bowling center property—it faces Commercial Trail—and the building that once was home to Nippers—it faces Military Trail. The combined properties amount to about 10 acres.

On Monday, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Gillen ruled that the plaintiff—CR VII Boca—has established a case on the facts for relief. Gillen will hold a hearing within the next 10 days at which the city must show why the plaintiff doesn’t deserve that relief.

CR VII principal Nader Salour said he wants the city to approve the development application he submitted three years ago. Salour contends that when Boca Raton designated Midtown for Planned Mobility Development in 2010, the city effectively granted property owners the rights for residential development. In 2003, the city annexed Midtown from the county, whose rules had not allowed housing.

The city argues that the ban on residential development applies until the city says otherwise. So the city won’t approve Salour’s plan, which calls for 204 units. Boca Raton zoning rules for multi-family housing allow 20 units per acre.

As with Crocker Partner’s litigation, Salour’s lawsuit arises from the meeting last January at which the city council voted to adopt a “small area plan” for Midtown rather than set development rules related to residential units, building height and other issues after more than two years of discussion. Six months earlier, Crocker Partners Managing Partner Angelo Bianco had heard from the council that the city and the property owners were “very close” to a resolution.

Also like Crocker Partners, Salour bought his property after the PMD designation and for that reason. “Without any doubt,” Salour told me Wednesday. His company, Salour said, does not prefer to develop office buildings. “We like mixed-use projects.” In addition to the 204 housing units, Salour plans 64,000 square feet of retail.

This lawsuit has been expedited. One reason is that long delay in acting on Salour’s application. “We are being held up unjustly,” he said. Salour contends that his property now lacks any zoning. “The city won’t schedule our site plan application for review without regulations in place. Yet, they refuse to put the regulations in place.”

Boca Raton is now 0-for-2 before judges on Midtown lawsuits. Given 150 days to negotiate with Crocker the company filed suit for it $137 million claim, the city did not contact Bianco.

Instead, the city moves ahead on the “small area plan,” which Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke had proposed. She got support from Scott Singer—now mayor, then a council member—Jeremy Rodgers and Robert Weinroth. He chose not to run for reelection and is the favorite to succeed Steven Abrams on the county commission.

As Salour sees it, however, the “small area plan” amounts to more delay with no timetable for a decision. “I’m no wiser now than I was in January,” he said. “I’ve tried to find out if there is a schedule for getting things done.” Development Services Director Brandon Schaad has not said when the “small area plan” might be done.

For now, though, Boca Raton has much bigger Midtown issues to deal with. In about 16 months, the city council has gone from considering a comprehensive plan that could create a dynamic new neighborhood—with landowners paying for public works—to facing multiple lawsuits. What a fateful decision that was last January.

And more on what these lawsuits could mean

Not only could a court rule that Boca Raton owes massive damages for its inaction on Midtown, the city risks losing control over Midtown.

When negotiations started, the landowners spoke of 2,500 residential units over Midtown’s 300 acres, which the city would divide among the landowners. Some council members considered that too high, and the number for discussion dropped to about 1,500.

Any final number, however, would have resulted from those negotiations and would have been binding on the landowners. The city would have retained control.

Now there’s a new scenario. Crocker has sued. CR VII Boca has sued. If those landowners succeed, a judge could award them rights based on that 20-units-per-acre rule.

Salour wants 204 units. Crocker calculates that the company should have had almost 1,300 units. Just those two would total about 1,500.

What then would prevent Trademark Properties, which owns Glades Plaza on Midtown’s north side, from filing its own lawsuit? Trademark owns about 18 acres. Then there are Town Center Mall and Seritage, which owns the former Sears property on the mall site.

A cascade of successful lawsuits could push the allowed residential units within Midtown well past 2,500. Traffic standards would limit how much the property owners actually could build, but the city would get a jumbled mess, not a planned makeover.

Odds of a reset to pre-January are slim. Still, you’d like to think that someone in the city is thinking about it.

Getting the beach back?

Perhaps the public yet will own the property at 2600 N. Ocean Blvd. in Boca Raton.

The owner, Azure Development, plans a four-story duplex on that beachfront site. Three years ago, the city and the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District talked about one or the other or both buying that property and the lot at 2500 North Ocean. Nothing came of it.

At last week’s city council meeting, Councilman Andy Thomson said Azure attorney Robert Sweetapple had approached him that day to suggest that Azure would be “open to negotiating” a sale. Thomson did not know if Sweetapple contacted other council members.

Azure must get city approval to build east of the Coastal Construction Control line. The city had scheduled an appearance before the Environmental Advisory Board for October. When the developer revised the plan, however, the city asked for more time to review the changes.

Azure principal Richard Caster told me Wednesday that “it is still our intent” to build. “We’re ready to go.” But he did not rule out a discussion.

The developers might be thinking that the city council would reject their plan, given the location and public opposition to building on the beach. In that event, Azure would have less leverage in discussing a sale. Azure, of course, could appeal a denial.

Another question is where the money would come from. Buying and renovating the former Ocean Breeze golf course may be all the extra commitments the district can take on. The city might have the money, but it would depend on the price.

Last January, a district-commissioned audit placed the market value of the site at $7.2 million. The auditor noted that the price was based on the developer obtaining the necessary variances.

Lauzier one year in

Delray Beach City Manager Mark Lauzier is approaching his first anniversary. There’s general agreement that he has brought stability. During the previous three-plus years, Delray Beach had four city managers, two of them interim.

Lauzier, however, pledged his long-term commitment to Delray Beach. He bought a home in the city, which makes him the first resident manager since David Harden. What he proposes for the city will affect him.

For all that Delray Beach needs that residents can see, however, Lauzier understood that—to make it happen—the city also needs assets that residents don’t see. Delray Beach needs more and better managers and more of a focus on completion of goals. Lauzier needs a team.

Lauzier clearly is willing to try things. He made the popular police chief, Jeffrey Goldman, an assistant city manager working on community outreach. The two assistant chiefs are rotating as chief, which amounts to their auditions for the full-time job.

In a memo to city commissioners last July, Lauzier said, “The greatest organizational challenge to achieving excellence is the fact that we are in a basic rebuilding process while at the same time we also desire to achieve performance excellence in all we do. That requires resources. We will do the best we can with what we have.” He expressed a need for two managers who would work on strategy, budget and innovation.

As he did with the city’s department heads, Lauzier didn’t grant all of his own requests in the new budget. When I asked if Lauzier had filled his team, he emailed, “The current resources are adequate but not ideal. We have a budget operation of one professional with the support of a management fellow. . .But I guess the answer to your question is simply, YES.”

Florida Hou$e race

The race for the Florida House district that includes Boca Raton is one of the state’s most expensive, largely because of self-financing.

Republican Michael Caruso had raised $432,000, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. Of that, $210,000 came in loans from Caruso. Democrat James Bonfiglio had raised $360,000, with $220,000 in loans.

Though Republicans are certain to maintain their strong majority in the House, Democrats want to gain enough seats to give them some leverage. The Florida Democratic Party has given Bonfiglio $75,000. Caruso has received $82,500 from the Republican Party of Florida.

Only a handful of House races are more expensive. District 89 also includes eastern Delray Beach and coastal neighborhoods north to South Palm Beach.

County Commission race

Robert Weinroth
Robert Weinroth

And in terms of money, the most lopsided race could be for Abrams’ county commission seat. District 4 includes Boca Raton and most of Delray Beach.

Former Boca Raton City Councilman Robert Weinroth —the Democrat—had raised $262,000 as of the last finance report. Republican William Vale had raised $13,300. If Weinroth wins, the only Republican on the commission will be Hal Valeche. He represents the county’s north end. No Democrat has won District 4 since the county went to single-member districts in 1990.

Correction

In my Tuesday post, I misspelled the name of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum’s new acquisitions curator for South Florida. Her name is Aimee Rubensteen and her email address is: arubensteen@ushmm.org

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