Monday, September 25, 2023

Wildflower Park Update, New Plans for Office Depot Site and Justice Served in Delray Crash?

The future of a property that might have made money for Boca Raton became clearer this week.

During Monday’s workshop meeting, City Council members saw new plans for a park on the Wildflower property along the Intracoastal Waterway at the Palmetto Park Road Bridge. The council wants to combine the Wildflower site with Silver Palm Park on the south side of the bridge. The combined site is about six acres.

Fortunately, Councilmen Jeremy Rodgers and Andy Thomson pushed back against the idea of reducing the number of parking spaces on the Wildflower property and making it uber-exclusive. Let’s look at the numbers.

The city paid $7.5 million for the 2.2-acre site where the Wildflower nightclub stood. The city’s consultant estimated that construction of the Wildflower park and improvements to Silver Palm could cost as much as $8 million. That may be over and above the $3.5 million already in the 2020 budget for Wildflower and Silver Palm.

Given that expense, Rodgers and Thomson said, Wildflower/Silver Palm cannot be a neighborhood park. All residents must be able to get there easily, and that means parking. One silly idea was that people who lived farther away would park at City Hall and take a shuttle. That hardly would work for a family with small children.

Mayor Scott Singer agreed. So one directive to the consultant, EDSA, was to add more spaces on the Wildflower property. That will come from shrinking “event space.” Since the parking spaces won’t be paved, the city will have flexibility.

Another issue is the bathroom at Silver Palm. It’s near the water, and a majority of the council wants it moved back, away from what a planned promenade to connect Silver Palm with Wildflower.

But moving the bathroom could cost $500,000 because of all the underground cables and wires. The bathroom also was just renovated. So the consultant will shift the bathroom in new drawings and city staffers will try to get a better idea on cost.

One sticking point is the intersection. The section of Fifth Avenue south of Palmetto Park Road doesn’t align with the section on the north side. That’s a potential safety issue. Then there’s the space under the bridge, which Palm Beach County owns. The council doesn’t want to allow cars under the bridge, which would allow for more public amenities. Resolving that issue with the county could be as simple as providing space only for the bridge tender’s car.

Wildflower/Silver Palm will be open 24 hours. The boat launch at Silver Palm never closes, since many anglers like to fish at night. City Manager Leif Ahnell said setting a closing time would mean having to lock the park, and doing so would be costly and complicated.

At times, council members seemed to be playing the old SimCity game. They asked for nice access points here and different types of seating there. They talked about food trucks, pop-up bars, kiosks and small concerts. They talked about trees. They talked about turning areas for boat trailers. They talked about public art. They talked about places where older residents could exercise.

Rodgers said Wildflower/Silver Palm should be “a signature park for everyone. It has to be right for the entire city.” The consultant will return in a couple of months with much more detailed drawings based on the council members’ comments.

The Backstory

Wildflower Park (Randy Schultz)

Now that the Wildflower is taking shape, let’s review how Boca Raton got here with this land and what the final version may look like compared with earlier ideas.

The city council bought the site in 2009 with the idea of using it to produce revenue. In early 2016, having asked for bids, the city was in the final stages of negotiating a lease with Hillstone Restaurant Group. The lease could have brought Boca Raton $3 million over the first five years, with payments rising after that.

But some residents who live across the Intracoastal opposed the restaurant. Through a petition drive, they got onto the November 2016 ballot an ordinance that would prevent use by a private group. Supporters claimed falsely that the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce wanted the city to sell off waterfront parks. The ordinance passed.

Since then, we’ve heard people say that the Wildflower should be nothing but a passive park. At $7.5 million, that would be a very expensive passive park. We’ve heard people say that the Wildflower and Silver Palm Park could be Boca Raton’s version of Riverwalk in San Antonio, Tex. Really? That popular downtown stretch is five miles long.

Based on Monday’s comments, Boca Raton will wind up with something more than a passive park but hardly the dynamic destination that will draw people for much of the day—as a nice restaurant would. There was much talk Monday about “self-policing”—how to draw enough people at night so that transients didn’t take over. There weren’t many specific ideas.

Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke, who used the waterfront ordinance to help her 2017 campaign, still insists that the Wildflower should have space for a water taxi. It supposedly would allow people to travel to the Wildflower from, say, Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. The taxi, O’Rourke said, would “mitigate” traffic. Mayor Scott Singer disagreed. “I’m skeptical,” he said, “about the viability of a water taxi.” He’s right to be skeptical.

The combined park may not open until 2022, and it could be later than that, though Singer and others want to cut the time for approvals and permitting. It will take even longer after the park opens to know if the Wildflower justifies that $7.5 million investment.

Old Office Depot site

It’s been 12 years since Office Depot moved its headquarters from Delray Beach to Boca Raton. During that time, the nearly 50-acre site on Congress Avenue at Old Germantown Road has been vacant.

Tuesday night, however, the Delray Beach City Commission approved a rezoning of the property that could allow a mixed-use project on the site. The applicant is CDS Holdings, which—among other things—owned the land that is becoming Atlantic Crossing. TransAmerica Life Insurance still owns the Office Depot property.

The project would have 1,009 residential units, 70,000 square feet of office space, 80,000 square feet of restaurants and 250,000 square feet of retail. The planning and zoning board had unanimously recommended approval of the rezoning. Though the application came in July, the developer and city officials began talking early this year.

I will have more about this project next week.

Schools update

(Photo by Randy Schultz)

At its Tuesday night regular meeting, the Boca Raton City Council approved a lease that will allow the Palm Beach County School to use 12 acres next to Don Estridge Middle as a temporary home for students at Verde and Addison Mizner elementary schools.

Verde students and staff will go first during rebuilding and expanding of their campus near Town Center Mall. Addison Mizner’s population will follow. The city and district hope that the land adjoining Estridge then will become a new elementary school, but the Florida Board of Education is withholding approval.

It will take some finesse regarding utilities and traffic to make the temporary site work, but Assistant City Manager Mike Woika said all parties are satisfied with the plan. The lease will run for five years. If the state approves the new school, the city would donate the land.

Airport traffic

donald trump
Air Force One parked at Palm Beach International Airport. (Photo by Joel Tanen)

With President Donald Trump resuming his winter visits to Palm Beach, activity will pick up at the Boca Raton Airport’s new customs facility.

Executive Director Clara Bennett said the facility averaged just three flights a day during the summer, “Which is what we expected.” Two flights a day came through in September, and the average was back to three per day in October and early November.

Then Trump arrived, disrupting the usual air traffic patterns, and the customs facility averaged 11 flights a day.

Lawsuits update

I have written about the lawsuits against Boca Raton involving Midtown and the former Hidden Valley golf course. Developments in those cases must be occurring.

On Tuesday night, City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser notified the city council that she soon will be scheduled executive sessions on all three lawsuits. City attorneys must give notice of such meetings and the topics even if the public isn’t allowed to attend.

Justice served?

Prosecutors made an outrageously lenient plea deal with the man who killed an Uber driver in Delray Beach two years ago.

This week, based on the terms of that deal, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Laura Johnson sentenced Roger Wittenberns to two years of house arrest and 10 years of probation on a charge of DUI manslaughter. Florida law calls for a minimum mandatory sentence of at least four years and up to 15 years.

Based on court records, Wittenberns had a blood alcohol level almost twice the legal limit when he crashed into J. Gerald Smith on Federal Highway at Northeast First Street. Records show that Wittenberns and his girlfriend had been drinking in downtown Delray Beach that mid-September afternoon.

Reportedly, discrepancies in the blood alcohol tests might have hampered prosecutors. Still, plenty of similar cases in this area have resulted in the maximum sentence. Wittenberns has money. Even after the fatal crash, he mostly will have his freedom.

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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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