A common sense approach to Boca's downtown parking problems

As Boca has grown, so has frustration over traffic and parking. The problem with traffic is that we have too many cars on too few streets. The problem with parking has always been ascribed to the “fact” that too many cars are looking for too few spaces.

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There may not be much than can be done about traffic, other than building fewer buildings that attract cars. But a closer examination of the parking situation in Downtown Boca tells a different story. In fact, a significant amount of parking spaces in Downtown Boca sit empty every day and night, due to Boca’s antiquated development laws and red tape at City Hall.

That’s right. Kimley-Horn, the City’s outside traffic engineers just did a study of five parking garages and a number of surface lots in the Downtown. Regarding that limited study, we are advised that Kimley-Horn found 400 empty parking spaces at 7 PM on a Friday. 

We estimate that there are over 1,500 empty parking spaces in all the parking garages and surface lots in the Downtown. Especially in those new concrete buildings/garages that have been rushed to completion over the past few years. And there are many more empty parking spaces to come with the current building binge.  

Why the surplus? The simple answer is that all of our shiny new buildings are far from full.  They are not renting or selling as their developers had hoped. As a result, their five and six story parking garages sit empty while residents and business customers search in vain for a place on the street or for an expensive valet service.

Another factor is that the City’s required parking ratios assume the peak use of the property, which is often not the case. City Code does not allow the owner of a Downtown parking garage or surface lot to make his empty parking spaces available to the general public or another Downtown property owner in need of parking. This has resulted in unintended consequences.

But imagine this: You are going out to dinner at your favorite restaurant Downtown, or shopping, or you are going to an event in the Downtown. Rather than circling endlessly for a parking space, you pull into the nearest parking garage or surface lot, pay the attendant a nominal charge and are directed to a convenient parking space. 

There must be a way to make this happen. One solution might be a simple amendment to Ordinance No. 4035. The amendment must first allow the Downtown garage and surface lot owners to make their empty spaces available to the general public. Second, the amendment must establish a thorough but quick approval process. No need for the CRA to become involved in each application. The amendment should set forth the standards and let the CRA Executive Director grant the approvals.

The CRA is scheduled to hear the Kimley-Horn Report on Downtown Garages at its April 23 Meeting. It would appear that there are a very large number of Downtown parking spaces that could be made available to the public. The CRA should be able to find a way to make that happen. It would be a nice win-win for Downtown Boca.

It seems like this is a problem in search of a common sense solution.

John C. Gore
President
BocaBeautiful.org

Status Report on Mizner 200—Now called "The Monarch"

There have been significant developments since the City Council gave preliminary approval last August to Elad for construction of a more neighbor-friendly building on SE Mizner Boulevard, next door to Royal Palm Plaza and Townsend Place. It is still three blocks long and 100+ feet high, but the developer agreed to important set backs, green spaces and design improvements. 

Elad, the developer, is now asking the City for major changes which effectively abrogate the deal it made with Investments Limited, BocaBeautiful.org and Townsend Place.  

We have seen this play before: a developer wins approval of a project based on detailed drawings only to come back and ask for significant changes once preliminary approval has been granted. This is how Tower 155 (just up the street at Palmetto) managed to put a 2-acre project on just 1.5 acres. It’s so close to the property line, they can’t even build it without closing off adjacent streets and our Post Office.

Elad is now asking that Boca’s basic downtown construction ordinance, Ordinance 4035, be amended to allow it to build the building higher. More importantly, it is asking to be allowed to build the building in STAGES.

Why is this important to Boca Raton residents?  

First, Elad swore up and down that its project was in full compliance with the metric requirements of Ordinance 4035. Now it wants to change the law to allow measurement of the height of the building from the highest point on the property and special treatment for its rooftop pool “and amenities.” Why didn’t they ask for this back in August when we thought we had a deal?

Second, by asking to build the building in stages, Elad is effectively proposing an entirely new project. They want to build only the north portion of the building first, leaving the now semi-derelict Mizner On The Green townhouses in place until enough Monarch units have been sold to finance the rest of the building. The catch here is that most of the public amenities we demanded for the project are located on the southernportion of the property, the portion that borders Townsend Place. So they get to build a building which looks a lot like The Mark, and the neighbors get nothing—not even a guarantee that Elad will complete the Monarch as originally approved.

This is bait-and-switch Boca style. Why the change of strategy by Elad? Either they were lying to us all along, and/or they are getting cold feet about the economic viability of their massive project.  

We all know they overpaid for the land when they bought Mizner On The Green before the 2008 crash. They have been trying to recoup their investment ever since, starting with their proposal for two 30+ story high rises on the property. Now comes the staged construction gambit, where they get to build part of a building and we get left with the mess if things don’t work out financially. If Elad wants to build something different than what was approved by the CRA last August, they should start the approval process all over again.

As a concerned Boca Raton resident, what can you do about all this? 

First, you should send  a strong letter to the City Council opposing Elad’s proposed changes. You should communicate your personal opposition directly to Council Members:  

Second, you can send a contribution to BocaBeautiful.org to help us carry on the fight.
There are two ways to do this:

  1. On line at www.bocabeautiful.org/donations/ or
  2. By mail to BocaBeautiful
    233 S. Federal Highway, Apt. 721
    Boca Raton, FL 33432

Our financial resources are limited, especially compared to the money that Elad is spending to get its way.

BocaBeautiful.org has two missions in 2018: to save our downtown post office from closing and to prevent the construction of something truly ugly on SE Mizner Boulevard. We need your help to accomplish both.

Taming the Monster on Mizner

While most of you were away…

Under pressure from Boca Raton’s City Council/Community Redevelopment Agency and from advocacy groups such as BocaBeautiful.org and Boca Watch, the developer of the mammoth Mizner 200 project in downtown Boca agreed to correct the design and reduce the visual impact of the building. The corrections are intended to bring Mizner 200 into compliance with Ordinance No. 4035 and to address many, but not all, of the concerns of the building’s neighbors. The corrected Mizner 200 will remain the biggest building in downtown Boca. But the corrected Mizner 200 will have greater separation from the buildings next door, a more “Mizneresque” design, and a variable roof line that will offer vistas and views where there once was only steel and concrete.

At the August Community Redevelopment Agency Meeting, the developer’s corrections were met with cautionary approval from the project’s two major neighbors: Investments Limited, which owns the Royal Palm Plaza, and the Townsend Place Condominium. Their approval was conditioned on the developer actually following through on what has been promised. Too many times in the past we have seen developers promise one thing (look at the pretty pictures) and then deliver something else. Not this time. We will be watching carefully.

The approval saga of Mizner 200 offers several important lessons for future development projects in Boca:

The first is that it is far better to inform, work with, and win the approval of your neighbors before approaching Boca’s City Council/Community Redevelopment Agency for approval. The developer of Mizner 200 tried to ram through a flawed design that did not even comply with the basics of Ordinance No. 4035 and wasted a staggering amount of everybody’s time and money.   

Only when the City Council/Community Redevelopment Agency put its foot down and refused to approve Mizner 200 as presented did the developer belatedly realize its error. The City Council/Community Redevelopment Agency has the discretionary authority to approve or disapprove the design aesthetics of downtown construction projects. 

What is or is not “Mizneresqe” is in the eyes of our elected officials. Just because the metric requirements of Ordinance No. 4035 are met does not mean the design requirements have been met. Just because the City Staff, City Boards and the City’s Urban Consultant have approved a project does not mean the City Council/Community Redevelopment Agency will.

Second, our elected officials have learned that public outrage over traffic and density in downtown Boca has become a political liability. Those running for office in March of 2018 will be measured on their willingness to disapprove projects that will only increase congestion.  Those who have looked with favor on almost every development project, no matter how egregious, will face tough opposition for the first time.

Third, we have learned that educational and advocacy efforts by non-profit groups such as BocaBeautiful.org and Boca Watch can produce salutary results. The amount of time and money invested by concerned citizens can pay quality-of-life dividends.

Fourth, the developer of Mizner 200 waged a dishonest public relations campaign, filled with gross misinformation, in local papers and blogs. The developer hired a high power litigating attorney to threaten the City with a law suit if Mizner 200 as presented was not approved.  These efforts failed in the end. One hopes that in the future, developers will not resort to these heavy-handed tactics.

Fifth, our City Staff, City Boards and Downtown Consultant (The Mellgren Planning Group) need to reflect on their enthusiastic support of Mizner 200 as originally presented. The City Council and the Community Redevelopment Agency took the needed time and extra effort to listen carefully to both sides and then apply Ordinance No. 4035 according to its clear terms.  How did the City Staff, the Community Appearance Board, the Planning and Zoning Board, and the Downtown Consultant get it so wrong?

Finally, we have seen that the battle for Boca’s future is far from over. Massive new development projects, such as for Boca’s Midtown, are on the drawing boards. Barring another recession, developers will press to cram more and more units into the new “urbanized” Boca.  The problems that the excesses of the last eight years have brought us—no places to park, terrible traffic, and concrete canyons where there used to be sunlight and sky—will only get worse.  We need to continue to fight for sensible development in Boca. We need our elected City Officials, City Staff and City Boards to follow the Code. We need to elect City Officials who will protect and improve our quality of life.

This is the mission of BocaBeautiful.org. With your continued financial support, we are confident that we can continue to be a positive force for change in Boca.

John C. Gore
President
BocaBeautiful.org

Opposition to Mizner 200 and building suggestions

Over the past few years individuals and groups have opposed the development of Mizner 200 as it has been planned. We invite you to read the analysis and opinions from two well known sources who have communicated their concerns to the City of Boca Raton and furthermore have issued basic recommendations that could be implemented in order to improve the development issues presented.

Want to see what the proposed design changes look like? Click to enlarge the corresponding drawings of design suggestions. Download the redesign drawings here (pdf).

Analysis from Jorge Camejo AICP

Download PDF Analysis from Jorge Camejo AICP >
Retired from the City of Boca Raton after 28 years, having served as Executive Director of the CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency) and Development Services Director, among other capacities, Mr Camejo provides a complete analysis of the development of Mizner 200 along with a list of recommendations and simple measures that can be taken to reduce the visual and physical impact of the proposed project. From a widening of the building separations at the center driveway, to providing additional architectural breaks along Mizner Boulevard and the south property line.

Analysis from Investments Limited by Robert A. Eisen

Download PDF Analysis from Investments Limited >
In this report Investments Limited (IL) expresses its position regarding the IDA Approval of Mizner 200, focusing on the fact that IL has consistently questioned the absence of horizontal and vertical breaks and separations in the building mass of EL-AD's Mizner 200 along Mizner Boulevard. Horizontal and vertical breaks and separations in building mass are significant Architectural Guidelines serving to harmonize and equalize the relationship of Downtown buildings especially for the few large parcels in Downtown, affording the side benefit of sharing views and vistas throughout.

The challenges faced by Boca Raton today are a symptom of the city's success. East Boca Raton has become a desirable residential market and the CRA should take appropriate measures to ensure that future projects will add value and not detract from the desirability currently enjoyed by Downtown Boca Raton.

What's wrong with Boca Raton?

Boca Raton, once our oasis of calm sophistication has become  an undistinguished jungle of enormous concrete buildings. Here are the top 3 things you can do right now to help.

When my wife and I moved here in 2003, downtown Boca was a very different place. It was an oasis of calm sophistication. But look at our downtown now. Enormous city-block square concrete buildings, many of them of undistinguished architectural design (i.e. ugly), block out the sun and sky. When it comes to having a view, beggar thy neighbor, rather than do unto others, seems to be the rule. This is our “urban center” utopia, brought to you over the years by Mayors and City Councils who never met a development (or developer) they didn’t like.

So let’s say you are one of the thousands of residents who are unhappy with what you see?  What can you do about it? Well, you can start attending the meetings of the City Council and the other quasi-judiciary panels like the Community Appearance Board and the Planning and Zoning Board that rule over matters developmental in Boca. At each of these you will be given time (five minutes or two minutes) to express your concerns. You might have to wait two hours, depending on the agenda, but you will get your chance—eventually. And when you do get up to make your little contribution, why is it that the people you are talking to seem so disinterested or condescending? Why does it have to be a confrontation rather than a conversation? Why isn’t our government more resident friendly?

The good news is that some of our government leaders are listening—and you can bet they will be listening carefully as the March 2017 City Council elections draw near. Next March, there is an outside chance that the City Council, which makes all these development, zoning, traffic and parking decisions, could be completely transformed. Out with the pro-development majority, in with a resident-friendly majority. Three out of five seats are up in March, in an off-year local election that usually attracts about 8000 out of 70,000+ eligible voters. You do the math. A dedicated get-out-the-vote effort can swing the results.

In the meantime, here are three common sense suggestions for those in City Hall who really want to reconnect with the voters who put them there:

  1. Try solving some existing problems before you create any new ones. You don’t need statistics to know that downtown Boca has been transformed. Just look around, or try and drive around. We need creative solutions to our traffic problems and parking problems. Solutions that go beyond “walking is good for you” or “just stand by the curb until a Chamber of Commerce jitney comes by.” We need solutions that involve cars and what to do about them. Most importantly, do not approve any more massive construction projects in the square mile downtown until you have had time to assess the impact of what you have already approved. No more new buildings until the ones under construction are fully occupied and functioning.
  2. Take some simple steps to make citizen participation in Boca’s government proceedings easier and more productive. Putting it bluntly, the meeting notification process stinks.  Either you send out incomprehensible blue written notices to the locals announcing life-altering massive projects, or you put up yellow signs with one-inch type that are useless to anyone who doesn’t make a special trip to read them, or you put something on line at the last possible moment. Surprise! As for the agendas of these important meetings, only the insiders seem to know in advance. There should be greater advance public notice of meetings and earlier publication of agenda items.
  3. The format of City Council meetings could also be vastly improved. The current “public comment” period of 5 minutes for each speaker is archaic and inefficient. Petitioners such as big developers are given ample time for slick Power Point presentations. Organized citizens groups such as BocaBeautiful.org or Boca Watch should be given the same opportunity. It would save the Council from having to hear 8-10 people say the same thing, with varying degrees of clarity or passion. Or how about when people get mad enough that 100 show up, each demanding their five minutes of angst? That’s over 8 hours of public comment. Our City Council meetings should not be an endurance test.  They should be a constructive discourse. 

If we don’t work together in a more cooperative and constructive manner, we will never solve the problems that Boca now faces.

Three years ago, when I made my first appearance before the City Council as President of BocaBeautiful.org, I warned that Boca’s building binge was out of control, that there was insufficient thought given to the effects that all this new construction would have on traffic, parking and infrastructure, and that the anger among Boca’s citizenry was real and growing.  Where are we today? There are still enormous downtown building projects awaiting government approval. Traffic and parking are worse than ever. And public anger continues to grow.

It is not too late for our City Council to do something about it. To solve problems before creating new ones. To make citizen input easier and more welcome. We need to say “enough is enough” before there is nothing left of the Boca we knew and loved.   

John C. Gore
President
BocaBeautiful.org

An OPEN Discussion about “OPEN space” in ord. 4035

The revelation at a December 7, 2015 CRA meeting that for twelve years developers have been planning and constructing buildings in probable violation of the 40% open space requirements under the law, was more of a shock than a surprise.  A shock because of the blatant nature of the abuse; but not a surprise, because we have grown accustomed to seeing developers game the system to their economic advantage.

So we have questions that we think the CRA should urgently address:

BOCA RATON, VIA MIZNER, THE FIRST OF THREE MAMMOTH NEW BUILDINGS IN DOWNTOWN BOCA.NOVEMBER 15, 2015.


BOCA RATON, VIA MIZNER, THE FIRST OF THREE MAMMOTH NEW BUILDINGS IN DOWNTOWN BOCA.NOVEMBER 15, 2015.

First, was the crafting and use of the 7/28/03 Administrative Memorandum a case of incompetence, corruption, or both?

The language in the Ordinance requiring 40% open space is clear. It was included as part of a compromise which was approved by referendum in 1992. Developers admit that they helped craft the Ordinance. Did they also help city staff craft the Administrative Memorandum which according to the City Attorney “is inconsistent with the language of 4035,” which is a nice way of saying “violates the law”. Who wrote the memo and why? Was the modification to the open space guidelines in 4035 ever subject to Council discussion or debate? Why did no one notice the “inconsistency” until now?  How did this happen?

Second, how many buildings constructed under 4035 guidelines are in violation of those guidelines? The Mark? The Hyatt? Palmetto Promenade?  Via Mizner Phase I? How many pending development applications are also in violation of those guidelines?   

Presumably, the City has a way of finding out. Or is nobody paying attention? Is there no oversight? No enforcement?  We’re not just talking about the color of paint here.

Third, what are you going to do to correct the situation? 

You have a number of options, and you don’t need a developer-packed “workshop” to figure it out. You could take the historic pro-developer route and rewrite the 4035 Ordinance to provide amnesty to all illegal buildings and legal cover for projects going forward. Messrs. Gromann and Siemon will no doubt have lots of other ideas how 4035 can be “improved,” once opened to amendment. In other words, you can just sigh and say “never mind” and pretend this never happened.

Or you could enforce the law. You could grant amnesty to completed buildings under 4035—even though legally you don’t have to—but require that all yet-to-be-built projects strictly comport to the language in 4035. As your City Attorney pointedly remarked in your December 7th meeting “no one is ever allowed to rely on an error of law.” If a project is authorized under 4035 it must comply with the provisions of 4035. This is a legal matter, not a question of policy.

Most importantly, this oversight (or scandal) should not be an opportunity for the development lobby to try and get included in the Ordinance what they were unable to achieve when the original 4035 compromise was drafted, or what they tried to accomplish illegally through the now-exposed Administrative Memo of 7/28/03 and subsequent modifications.

This whole affair is an embarrassment to the City of Boca Raton. It is very likely to result in lengthy and expensive litigation, no matter what you decide to do. Having dropped the ball, it would be heartening to see you pick it up and run in a direction that pleases the residents who elected you. March 2017 is just over a year away. 


City of Boca Eases Height Rules

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BOCA EASES HEIGHT RULES
Sun Sentinel, 1/14/15

TALL BUILDINGS MAY BE ALLOWED ON SMALLER LOTS IN BOCA’S DOWNTOWN
Sun Sentinel, 1/10/15

DEVELOPER OF PROPOSED 30-STORY CONDO APPEALS TO BOCA RESIDENTS
Sun Sentinel, 12/23/14

Next time you are driving, walking or jogging through “downtown” Boca, take a look.  New construction is everywhere—from Camino Real to Palmetto Park Road.  Not only are these new projects BIG, but most of them exceed Boca’s historic 100-foot height ordinance.  As a result, by exception, the village of Boca Raton is being transformed right before our eyes.  And the results are far from exceptional. 

IT IS TIME FOR THE RESIDENTS OF BOCA TO TELL OUR CITY COUNCIL, OUR CITY “PLANNERS” AND OUR CITY MANAGER THAT ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.  IT’S TIME FOR A PAUSE IN BOCA’S BUILDING BINGE.

We are not anti-development. We are in favor of development that comports with Boca’s downtown master plan and history. We do not want the condo canyons of West Palm Beach or Ft. Lauderdale here. 

We are BocaBeautiful.org, a volunteer organization, endorsed by Bocawatch and Build a Better Boca, whose purpose is to inform and educate regarding issues of importance to the citizens of Boca Raton. If you share our concerns about out of control high rise development in downtown Boca-- and all that it will bring-- join us. 

THERE ARE MORE THAN ENOUGH 10+ STORY BUILDINGS ALREADY UNDER CONSTRUCTION IN DOWNTOWN BOCA.  WE DO NOT NEED ANY MORE. 

HELP US MAKE THAT POINT. 

Download our registration form to join Bocabeautiful.org and make a donation toward preserving a more beautiful Boca!

BocaBeautiful.org is a non-profit corporation that supports development consistent with Boca’s history and architectural heritage.