Via Mizner Comes Into Focus, Observations on Midtown and the Inspector General Issue

via mizner
Rendering of Via Mizner

Boca Raton approved Phases 2 and 3 of Via Mizner in December 2015. Tonight, the new version of that project goes before the planning and zoning board—also with some changes to Phase 1.

To review, Via Mizner will encompass roughly 8 acres north of Camino Real on Federal Highway, backing up to the golf course of the Boca Raton Resort & Club. Phase 1, at the intersection on the south end, has 366 rental apartments. Phase 2 is a Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Phase 3, on the north end, is a 92-unit condo whose owners will have privileges at the hotel.

Developer Penn-Florida has made numerous changes, though many are minor. The office space in Phase 1 would increase by about 3,000 square feet and the retail would shrink by about 6,000 square feet. The total area of the hotel section would be about 10,000 square feet larger and the condo portion would be 25,000 feet larger.

Penn-Florida proposed Via Mizner under Ordinance 5052. It allows downtown projects to exceed the 100-foot height limit if they follow architectural guidelines intended to create more appealing structures. The Hyatt Place Hotel just north of Via Mizner is the most recent 5052 project.

Though the staff report says that the planning and zoning board recommends approval to the city council, it raises issues related to parking. That was a potential sticking point when city council members—acting the community redevelopment agency that oversees downtown projects—debated Via Mizner 2 and 3 three years ago.

At the time, Penn-Florida proposed shared parking across three garages and no valet service. Some council members questioned whether guests at a five-star hotel would be content to park their cars. They asked the same question about owners of condos that are listed for between $2 million and $20 million.

Penn-Florida now proposes three valet stations. City planners still have concerns about parking. Among other things, they note that in one garage drivers would have to back up if they went too far. Penn-Florida also wants tandem parking—two cars essentially using one space—for valet operations. Planners have “concerns” about that.

Penn-Florida Vice President Al Piazza told me that the first issue should not be a problem. That garage is for the condo, and owners will have assigned spaces. They won’t be searching. He also said Via Mizner might have four valet stations, with another for “retail customers.”

Though he acknowledged that the garages will have “a few tight turns,” Piazza noted that Via Mizner will have 1,400 parking spaces among the three buildings. One reason for the redesign of the Phase 2 and Phase garages is to have fewer spaces underground. Piazza said that request came from the fire department.

I would expect considerable discussion about parking among planning and zoning board members and the council. The council debate could be interesting. Three of the five members are new since that 2015 approval. Via Mizner likely will go to the council/CRA next month.

Demolition for Phase 2 and Phase 3 is complete. Preparation, such as moving water lines and FPL cables, will take “the balance of the year,” Piazza said. Penn-Florida hopes to open the $200 million project “by the end of 2020.”

Boca Helping Hands proposal

James Gavrilos (left) former executive director of Boca Helping Hands, checks out food items in the BHH pantry. (Photo by Aaron Bristol)

Also on the planning and zoning board agenda is a proposal from Boca Helping Hands to buy a building near its headquarters and convert the site into a parking lot.

The organization had served food in the city’s industrial district for years. Then Boca Helping Hands wanted to expand into career counseling, among other things. After getting approval for the new building last year, however, the city told Boca Helping Hands heard that the permit had been issued mistakenly.

Though the staff recommended denial when Boca Helping Hands applied again, the city council disagreed. In granting the approval, though, the council attached conditions related to parking.

At the time, Boca Helping Hands officials noted that they had a deal with the adjacent Warehouse Pub to share parking. Now Boca Helping Hands has a deal to buy the bar. The purchase surely is contingent on the city approving the demolition and conversion. This time, the recommendation is for approval.

Boca Museum of Art renovation

Rendering of updates at the Boca Museum of Art

Speaking of revered Boca Raton institutions, don’t mess with the Museum of Art.

Last year, the museum got approval for a renovation of its property on the northwest corner of Mizner Park. As part of that renovation, a trellis that provides shade on a sidewalk adjoining Federal Highway would come down. Replacing it would be a cable and vine pathway known as an arcadia that you see in many fancy gardens.

According to the staff report, however, that option didn’t please the Florida Department of Transportation. So the museum decided to eliminate it and came back to the Community Appearance Board for approval.

Which the museum didn’t get. Board members worried about a 200-foot “blank wall” along Federal Highway with no shade, in violation of city code and denied the change. The museum’s appeal came to the city council, acting as the community redevelopment agency, last week.

Councilwoman Monica Mayotte set the tone immediately. The wall is “just another canvas” on which the museum can work. Jeremy Rodgers disagreed with a community appearance board member who said granting the appeal would set a bad precedent. Andrea O’Rourke agreed. She called the museum “an amazing partner” in Boca Raton’s nascent Art in Public Places Program that is an O’Rourke priority.

The museum won its appeal unanimously.

FEMA reimbursements

A tree torn out of the earth by Hurricane Irma. (Photo by David Shuff)

Hurricane Florence submerged eastern portions of the Carolinas almost one year after the edge of Hurricane Irma brushed South Florida and disrupted Boca Raton and Delray Beach.

Cities seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for hurricane preparation and response costs. Delray Beach’s revised total is $8.5 million, with the city expecting to recover about $7.2 million. I couldn’t confirm Boca Raton’s figure on Wednesday or whether the city has submitted one.

During last week’s budget hearing, however, City Manager Leif Ahnell revealed one interesting number: it costs Boca Raton $500,000 a day to prepare when a hurricane watch or warning includes the city.

Midtown rezoning postponement

One of the major property owners of Midtown, Crocker Partners, wants to make Boca Center into a food destination. (Photo by Aaron Bristol.)

The Boca Raton City Council last week postponed a vote on two rezoning proposals for the Midtown neighborhood. Though neither would have set redevelopment rules and would be necessary no matter what the city does, the issue apparently remains sensitive enough that the council decided to wait.

Well, yes. The city faces two lawsuits over the council’s refusal to set those rules. Meanwhile, the sense of unreality continues as the council discusses the “small area master plan” Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke got her colleagues to approve last January in lieu of negotiating with the four major landowners.

Two-time failed mayoral candidate Al Zucaro made opposition to Midtown a priority as publisher of BocaWatch. Listening to Zucaro and his followers, one might have thought that opposition was widespread.

The city’s Midtown consultant, however, told council members during a recent workshop meeting that only 10 percent of residents who responded to a survey opposed development of Midtown. The rest were supportive, ambivalent or didn’t care.

Hmm. So why didn’t the council direct staff to negotiate? That might have prevented the lawsuits—one of which seeks $137 million in damages—and given Boca Raton a revived Midtown.

Now, things are a mess. The landowners are suing or preparing to file applications for their own projects. Gone for now, and maybe for good, is the comprehensive approach on Midtown.

One resident said she wants the council to create a special assessment district for Midtown “so the residents don’t have to pay” for public works improvements. Actually, the landowners were ready to pay before the council shut down negotiations.

Months ago, when Crocker Partners Managing Partner Angelo Bianco said Midtown needed a makeover as the neighborhood enters its fourth decade, O’Rourke said, “I think it’s fine the way it is.” At that workshop, however, O’Rourke acknowledged that “some parts could use some work.” Where was that talk in January?

Downtown updates slated

The Boca City Council will get lots of downtown updates when it meets Monday as the community redevelopment agency. Scheduled are reports on downtown parking, parking meters and signs and lighting.

The Inspector General issue

I have written often about the resistance of cities—including Boca Raton—to paying their share of oversight by the Palm Beach County Office of Inspector General.

The county commission created the OIG and Commission on Ethics in 2009, after five elected officials had gone to prison for misusing their offices. That action gave the OIG oversight of county government. A year later, more than 70 percent of voters in all 38 cities extended that oversight to municipalities.

That ballot item included a system of financing the OIG. Cities would pay based on population. Boca Raton and others, though, challenged the method, saying that the county couldn’t force the cities to pay. The cities lost at trial but won on appeal.

So since the OIG started work eight years ago, the county finances almost all 23 staff positions. The office still can take complaints and offer advice to the cities, but the office is understaffed to do so. Given its workload, the office should have 40 positions.

Here’s a thought:

Nothing prevents a city from paying its share of the office voluntarily. One recent estimate was $150,000 for Boca Raton and $130,000 for Delray Beach. Next year’s budgets aren’t final. The cities wouldn’t have to repay all those back years. And such a gesture would respect the voters who demanded that oversight and were willing to pay for it.

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