Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Brightline Vote Set for Dec., Boca National Makes Progress & Delray Gets Ride Share Zones

The Boca Raton City Council spent roughly five hours over two days this week discussing the proposed Brightline station. This is where things stand now:

• No final vote will come until at least Dec. 10. The original schedule timed the vote for Nov. 26. Some residents complained, however, that it would fall two days before Thanksgiving, when people might be out of town. If the vote didn’t happen then, it would be delayed until January. The council meets only once in December.

• Virgin Trains USA (VTUSA), which operates the Brightline service, wants to break ground in March. That’s why the company wants the quick timetable.

• The council wants to move the parking garage 20 feet farther south. That would place the structure 45 feet from Library Commons, the residential neighborhood north of the Downtown Library.

• The city also may give Library Commons an easement between the neighborhood and the library. That would enhance the buffer.

• Council members want the company to share revenue from the parking garage. VTUSA charges passengers as much as $15 to park overnight. Under the most recent lease, the company would get all the money.

Collectively, the council still wants the station to happen. Individual members note that many details remain and that the city hasn’t made a final decision, but it would stun me if the station doesn’t happen.

Residents of Library Commons, however, remain opposed at best and hostile at worst. One resident who spoke at Tuesday’s workshop meeting called the proposal “despicable.” Another said the council was willing to “sell out the library.”

Those residents suspect that the station and garage will lead to more development on the library site—and thus on their doorstep. One resident said council members will wear “a scarlet letter” if they make a deal with VTUSA.

brightline garage boca
Brightline garage rendering

That’s why council members want the company to shift the garage south. Doing so, however, would displace even more parking spaces in the library lot. That would force VTUSA to include more library parking in the garage and thus increase the share for which the company is paying. As things stand, Virgin Trains would pay about $2 million and the city would pay $12 million.

The only issue to have been resolved is the future of the Junior League of Boca Raton’s community garden. It’s next to the Florida East Coast Railway tracks, east of the library. The station would go there. A representative said the Junior League likes the proposed new location at Meadows Park. VTUSA would pay up to $300,000 to move the garden.

Most important among the remaining issues is the location of the garage. Library Commons residents showed a computer model with the garage much farther south and much more library-friendly.

Such a placement, of course, would eliminate the possibility of an apartment or hotel on the library site. No council member, though, expressed support for anything more than that 20-foot shift. Virgin Trains wants right of first refusal if the city ever sells the library property.

Indeed, though council members asked many questions, they mostly avoided any mention of development other than the garage and station.

Several Library Commons residents claimed that Virgin Trains has an option to buy a 0.3-acre lot south of the library. No council member asked company representatives if that were true. I asked Ben Porritt, VTUSA’s senior vice president for corporate affairs. He said, “I don’t have anything to offer you on the properties.”

Similarly, council members didn’t ask about other stations Virgin Trains might be seeking. Several speakers quoted a Sun-Sentinel editorial from last Sunday—I wrote the editorial—that referenced “direct talks” with five cities in Broward County. They are Deerfield Beach, Pompano Beach, Dania Beach, Hollywood and Hallandale Beach.

Porritt disagreed with the term “direct talks.” The company has had “communications” with those cities. “If somebody asks, we’re going to listen,” Porritt said. The only “active negotiations,” he said, concern stations in Boca Raton and Aventura and at the Port of Miami.

Still, Boca Raton officials like the idea that the city would be on a short list of stations. It speaks of exclusivity. Adding that many other stops would make the station feel much less exclusive.

Virgin Trains Vice President Brian Kronberg pushed back on the idea that the service would be too expensive for many Boca Raton residents and those who work at large employers such as Florida Atlantic University and Boca Raton Regional Hospital. Monthly ticket plans, he said, could lower the cost of a one-way ticket from West Palm Beach or Miami to $8.

Maximizing the station as a destination for visitors would mean building a crosswalk to the east over Dixie Highway. The city hopes to get grants to build one. That issue may come back before the final vote.

I’ll have more next week.

Boca National progress

There was progress this week on a new public golf course in Boca Raton.

The city council and the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District board met Tuesday. Out of that meeting came an understanding that the city will seek bids to design and build the course. Doing so will take several months. Once the council picks a design, board members will decide whether they like it enough for the district to share in the operation of the course.

Though the district board wanted veto power over the design, the council clearly wasn’t going to agree. “We want their thoughts,” Councilman Andy Thomson said, “but it’s our money.” The district had planned to pay for construction, but now doesn’t have the money.

Board Chairman Susan Vogelgesang noted that the district would own the entire course once the bonds to buy the land are paid off. “Shouldn’t we have input?” As to district participation in the management, board member Craig Ehrnst said, “We don’t know until we see it.”

Council members believe, rightly or wrongly, that the district’s preferred design was too expensive. District board members believe, rightly or wrongly, that the council wants a course that wouldn’t be able to compete with the popular county course in West Boca called Osprey Point.

Yet with the council insisting on control, and with both agencies eager to get the work started, the compromise seemed the best outcome. Price Fazio, which the district chose to design the course, has cut the cost to between $13 million and $15 million to make the course ready for play. Other expenses, such as a permanent clubhouse, would come up for discussion later.

“It was progress,” Thomson said. Engel agreed. “If anything, much of the acrimony that had been part of previous joint meetings was gone.”
Vogelgesang said, “It went better than I expected.  The fact that the city wants to take another six months to (seek bids) will be a great exercise and education for them.” Added Vogelgesang, who plays golf, “For a golfer, the research is an interesting experience, but none of the council members are serious about playing the sport. Maybe this process will give them the incentive to play and learn about what goes into a playable course.”

An agreement on these new terms could be ready for a vote by the council and board in January.

Does Boca have the cash?

Consider that Boca Raton has no money in any budget for the train station or the golf course. The combined cost could be about $25 million or a bit more.

Yet one question that hasn’t come up is whether the city has the money. It does. In reserves. Those who have claimed that Boca Raton is sitting on too much money may have new grounds to make their case.

Latson will appeal

Former Spanish River High school Principal William Latson, photo courtesy of SDPBC

As expected, former Spanish River High School principal William Latson will appeal his firing.

After the disclosure of his controversial email exchange with a parent over teaching of the Holocaust, Latson was reassigned to a district administrative job. Because Latson stated that he could not acknowledge the Holocaust as a fact, however, pressure kept mounting to fire him.

So last week, the board did that. Superintendent Donald Fennoy cited, among other things, Latson’s absence when Fennoy was trying to reach him. Latson’s supporters thus claimed that the board sacrificed the former principal to appease critics.

Latson will take his case to the Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH.) An administrative law judge will hear arguments about whether the board had sufficient reason to fire Latson.

Delray ride-share zones

rideshare sign

Delray Beach is doing a very smart thing.

Because the city’s downtown is so popular, and because so many people get there by using ride-share companies, traffic clogs up. Drivers get annoyed. Pedestrians are less safe.

So the city has established seven ride-share zones for pickup. The hope is that passengers will be able to get into and out off vehicles more safely because vehicles won’t be stopping in the middle of the street. Taxi drivers and drivers for Uber, Lyft and the other services also should be discouraged from cruising for passengers.

The zones have signs. They are in effect between 5 p.m. and 3 a.m. Drivers can’t stay in them for more than five minutes. Before 5 p.m., the zones will be loading areas for commercial vehicles.

The zones are just north and south of Atlantic Avenue on Northeast First, Second, Third and Fourth avenues and Southeast First, Second, Third and Fourth avenues.

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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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