Boca’s most ambitious redevelopment idea since Mizner Park was derailed by city politics.
It will go down as Boca Raton’s biggest missed opportunity.
In late 2015, major landowners in Midtown were prepared to invest $1 billion over 10 years and create what Crocker Partners Managing Partner Angelo Bianco called a “transformational village” in a dated part of the city. Midtown is the area from Town Center mall to Boca Center, stretching from Glades Road on the north to the Paradise Palms community on the south.
Crocker owns Boca Center and three nearby properties, which the company bought in late 2014 for roughly $350 million. Boca Center was a repurchase. Tom Crocker built it in the late 1980s.
Bianco had assembled a coalition that also included Simon Property Group (Town Center mall), Trademark (Glades Plaza) and Cypress Realty of Florida (Strikes@Boca and the building that was home to Nipper’s Bar). Along with investments in their properties, they were ready to spend about $30 million on public streets and sidewalks—money that otherwise might come from taxpayers—for this new neighborhood.
Midtown also would get Boca Raton’s second Tri-Rail station. After The Park at Broken Sound—which the Yamato Road station serves and is Tri-Rail’s busiest— Midtown is the city’s largest employment cluster. Crocker would donate land for the station. The landowners would pay for a shuttle at the station to serve employees and anyone who wanted to visit Midtown. Bianco called the combination of potential, timing and landowner cooperation “a stroke of luck.”
All Boca Raton had to do was approve reasonable rules for redevelopment—rules that the city already had committed to approving. For more than two years, on behalf of the landowners, Bianco asked, begged, demanded and cajoled city council members to do so. In January 2018, however, the council refused.
Instead, council members asked for a “small area plan” for Midtown. No such term existed. The move was clearly the latest in a series of delaying tactics, but this time the landowners wouldn’t wait any longer.
These days, there is no talk of a vibrant new Midtown that would be a neighborhood and a destination. There is talk only of lawsuits. Bad politics cost Boca Raton this opportunity and could cost the city much more.
“It’s so wasteful,” Bianco said in September. His company has filed three Midtown-related lawsuits against the city. One seeks $137 million in what Crocker claims are lost profits. “We don’t generally go to the courthouse. The city forced us to do so.” The city denies Crocker’s allegations in all the lawsuits.
Understanding how we got here means going back about two decades.
Until 2003, Midtown was part of Palm Beach County. The city annexed it in 2003, but the county’s planning rules still applied. Those rules prohibited residential development.
In 2010, however, Boca Raton gave Midtown a Planned Mobility Development designation. The Park at Broken Sound—formerly the Arvida Park of Commerce— has the same designation. Development within such areas offers mass transit and other options to reduce traffic.
Having given Midtown that designation, the landowners believed, Boca Raton obligated itself to set development rules that would allow residential development. Most notably, the city had to decide how many units to allow and how high buildings could be. In late 2015, Bianco recalled, “it wasn’t controversial.”
Enter Boca Raton’s anti-growth politics. The BocaWatch website, which at the time was loudly anti-development, gave voice to critics who all but accused the city of conspiring with the landowners to rush the project through city approvals.
A few residents of Paradise Palms complained about increased traffic on Military Trail and charged that Bianco had failed to hold enough meetings with neighbors.
That started the bad politics. Then came some bad luck: Charles Siemon had a stroke.
Siemon is the land-use attorney who basically wrote the rules that led to the redevelopment of downtown Boca Raton and Mizner Park. He brokered the deal between developer Tom Crocker and the community redevelopment agency and helped to write the contract. Then he was part of the effort to pass the Mizner Park referendum. No one in the city has more credibility on planning.
Crocker had hired Siemon to explain—in his persistent, professorial way—the Midtown proposal to members of the planning and zoning board and then to members of the city council. Siemon would have been the counterweight to the critics.
After the stroke, though, Siemon couldn’t play that role.
“On a personal note,” Bianco said, “that’s the saddest part of this. Charlie acts as a shepherd. It was a real issue with Midtown and a big loss.”
In 2012, the city had allowed 2,500 residential units in the Park at Broken Sound. That number became the starting point for Midtown, though Bianco at one point said 1,300 units “is most likely.”
Critics, however, used the higher figure to claim that Midtown wanted to create a “mini-city” that would sap city services and flood schools. The landowners responded that the target market for the rental units would be childless couples, the demographic least likely to require lots of services. Critics demanded specific plans, not “pretty pictures.” The landowners responded that they could offer only conceptual drawings—not specific projects—until the city approved the rules.
Meanwhile, factional anti-growth politics were rising across the city.
Some nearby residents opposed a restaurant on the Wildflower property, even though the city council had bought the site for that purpose. When negotiations between Hillstone Restaurant Group and the city slowed in early 2016, one of those residents organized a petition drive for an ordinance that would block the restaurant.
The campaign for the ordinance was deceptive. Backers falsely claimed the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce wanted to sell off waterfront parks. But the deception worked. Voters approved the ordinance in November 2016.
By now, the restaurant could be paying rent to the city. Design and financing of the planned Wildflower Park for that property hadn’t even been approved as of this writing, in late 2019—three years later.
Under Publisher Al Zucaro, BocaWatch continued to foment that anti-growth sentiment after the waterfront ordinance passed. BocaWatch would champion the March 2017 council campaign of Andrea O’Rourke, who herself had championed the waterfront ordinance and had served as BocaWatch’s editor for a year. Zucaro ran for mayor in 2017 and 2018 on an anti-development platform, losing both times.
Once on the council, O’Rourke became the voice of Midtown’s critics. In late summer, she attended a meeting at which Tri-Rail officials laid out the schedule for construction of the Midtown station. O’Rourke wanted to address the “perception” that the city had sought out the Tri-Rail station to promote Midtown development.
The only such “perception,” however, had come from BocaWatch. Zucaro called the station part of a “billion-dollar gift” to Midtown landowners. The station, he claimed, was “justification” to allow housing.
In fact, as the Tri-Rail contingent explained, the agency had approached the city. Tri-Rail did so in 2009, even before Boca Raton had given Midtown that Planned Mobility Development designation.
Those questions also sounded contradictory coming from O’Rourke. She had run for office criticizing the council for creating too much traffic. Mass transit—like Tri-Rail—gets cars off roads. Now she was opposing it.
Coincidentally or not, two months after that Tri-Rail meeting city planners released draft ordinances to govern Midtown development. The staff recommended that landowners not get city approval for any residential development until the Tri-Rail station opened. Under Tri-Rail’s schedule, that would have been another five years. The maximum number of units would have been 600.
Residential was key for the landowners, Bianco explained recently, because they needed profits from that investment to drive the other investment. “Retail is dicey,” Bianco said, stating the obvious. There was “no demand for new office space” in a neighborhood with lots of it.
Crocker wanted to transform Boca Center, Bianco said in 2015, into a “foodies’ paradise.” It will happen—but in Delray Beach, with Delray City Market. The collective investment, Bianco said, would create a “24/7 environment.” At the time, Keith O’Donnell, one of this area’s most successful real estate brokers, said of Crocker, “They are the best at doing what they’re doing, so I’m very excited about it.”
On Jan. 23, 2018, the city council had one last chance to save that ambitious Midtown concept. The ordinances were on the agenda. Six months earlier, Councilman Robert Weinroth had told Bianco during a workshop meeting that he and the city were near agreement.
Not hardly. The meeting started badly and deteriorated from there. O’Rourke dismissed Bianco’s argument that Midtown needed reinvestment. Yet he kept pressing.
“Just tell us (the landowners) the rules,” Bianco said. With any individual project, the council “can say no. The public will be involved. We just need to know the rules.”
Instead, O’Rourke proposed that the council ask the staff to create that “small area plan” for Midtown. That term did not exist in planning lexicon.
“Just because it hasn’t been done,” O’Rourke said, didn’t mean that the council couldn’t do it. When Development Services Director Brandon Schaad and others expressed confusion about the term, O’Rourke advised the curious to “Google it.”
Then-Mayor Susan Haynie protested. “We don’t even know what it is,” she said of “small area plan.” Councilman Jeremy Rodgers said, “It seems like we’re making up things as we go along.”
Yet Rodgers, Weinroth and Scott Singer joined O’Rourke in voting for the “small area plan.” They had support from City Attorney Diana Frieser, who said the majority was on solid legal ground. Only Haynie voted to postpone a vote for two months and try to work out something with the landowners.
Before the “small area plan” was done, the lawsuits came. Crocker filed its first of three in April 2018. One seeks $137 million in lost profits under the Bert Harris Act. If property owners can prove that government illegally lowered the value of their land, they can seek damages.
Another lawsuit seeks to compel the city to write rules for Midtown. The third alleges that some of the city’s elected officials violated the state’s open-meetings law to promote the idea of the “small area plan.”
Cypress Realty’s Nader Salour also sued. He alleges the city had refused even to consider his site plan.
As of October, a judge had dismissed Crocker’s Bert Harris claim and ruled against Salour. Each case is on appeal. Crocker’s two other lawsuits were proceeding.
In November 2018, Bianco said, he sent a proposal to the city that would settle all of Crocker’s litigation. Almost a year later, he said, Frieser’s office hadn’t even responded.
A city spokeswoman confirmed only that the council had met in a private executive session to discuss the offer. One can reasonably assume that no consensus emerged from that meeting to offer a counterproposal.
Even if the city prevails in court, however, that momentum toward a new Midtown is gone. Trademark and Simon are going their own way on plans for their properties. Crocker is proposing only a “Restaurant Row” near one of its Midtown office buildings.
The Tri-Rail station is likely dead. Crocker’s offer of land depended on acquiring those development rights, and the agency doesn’t have money to buy land for the station.
Admittedly, Midtown came with challenges because the concept was so ambitious. The biggest were dealing with traffic on Military Trail and reshaping the area into a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.
But Mizner Park posed its own challenges and had many critics. Today, no one can imagine Boca Raton without it. Bianco wanted to use the lessons of Mizner Park —the parking garages should not have faced Federal Highway—when planning Midtown.
Creative ideas were out there. Example: Extend Butts Road south of Town Center Road to Military Trail, which could divert traffic from the section of Military Trail that runs through Midtown.
A happy outcome, however, would have depended on the council collectively telling city administrators and Frieser to make negotiations with the landowners a priority. The council never did.
In late 2018, the city did complete that “small area plan” for Midtown. It recommends an emphasis on mobility, “complete streets” for walking and not just driving, and notes, “revitalization is needed.”
In other words, the plan calls for all the changes that the landowners recommended. Now, however, there is no private capital for that investment. All Boca Raton has for Midtown is a useless plan.
“Politics prevailed,” Bianco said, “and everybody lost.”