The Mission of Bocabeautiful.org for 2018

Infrastructure should not be an afterthought. You don’t need a degree in urban planning or a million dollar traffic study to know that the roads in our City of Boca Raton are overcrowded. Or that our parking facilities are overcrowded. Or that our schools are overcrowded, and that our hospitals are next.

What now? The urbanization of our once quiet residential village by the sea is well underway. Just look around, or try and drive around Boca. The mammoth development projects approved by our City Council in the past eight years have altered our lifestyles as much as our skyline. And if developers have their way, there is much more to come—uptown, downtown, and midtown.

Those who care about Boca’s future clearly need a better game plan for 2018. The key word here is “plan.” We need to ensure that additional development in our city is conditioned on adequate infrastructure being in place: roads, parking, schools, hospitals, water treatment, and emergency services.

You don’t need a degree in urban planning or a million dollar traffic study to know that our roads are overcrowded. Or that our parking facilities are overcrowded. Or that our schools are overcrowded, and that our hospitals are next. All that additional concrete means that our streets and garages flood more frequently. We have built and built, and more and more people are coming. It won’t be long until our emergency services will struggle to cope with Boca’s population boom. We’ll need more police, more firefighters, more fire houses—just like right now we need more teachers and classrooms.

And still there is NO PLAN for coping with all this. Infrastructure should not be an afterthought, it should be an integral part of City Council decision-making regarding development. If we allow this to be built, are we certain that it will not put further stress on our resources and our residents?

So that is the first plank in BocaBeautiful’s 2018 platform: Produce a comprehensive city-wide development plan for Boca Raton before approving any more major development projects. Back in the 1990s, the last time we tried this, it involved a dialogue with the public, the employ of an outside urban planning consultant, traffic engineers, and city government staff who were responsive to the suggestions of the citizenry. After the mistakes of the last eight years, it is critical that the development of any comprehensive city-wide development plan for Boca be an open and inclusive process. And it must focus on infrastructure, as well as density and design elements. We should think about rewriting Ordinance 4035 and making it apply city-wide; we should also think about incorporating elements from the 2010 Downtown Pattern Book into law.

BocaBeautiful’s second objective for 2018 is to find a more creative way to make developers part of the solution to our City’s problems. For openers, the City Council and Community Redevelopment Agency should demand proof that developers have sought the approval of those in the neighborhood of any multi-story, multi-unit construction project. There needs to be good faith negotiation before a project goes before the CAB, P&Z and the CRA for consideration. Even better would be for the City Council to pass an Ordinance requiring a Community Impact Statement prior to approval of major development projects in Boca Raton. Such an assessment would be required from any major project developer seeking City Council approval and would include impact on traffic, parking, core infrastructure capacity, demands on city services, schools, etc. The developer could also include benefits such as jobs, increased tax revenues, scenic enhancement, etc. Most importantly, the developer’s creative team could provide suggestions as to how they or the City might address any quality of life concerns raised by the assessment. Why not get developers involved in helping solve the problems they create?

The developer’s Community Assessment would be reviewed by City staff, outside consultants and the City Council itself as part of the CAB, P&Z, CRA and City Council approval process for new development proposals. The residents of Boca Raton could weigh in with their comments and suggestions. It might mean additional work (and creativity) for the developer, but it would address the concerns of residents and save the City and its taxpayers money in the long run. It could also save a developer time and money by addressing concerns before a project faces a contentious up-or-down vote in the CRA or Council or a disputed development ends up in court. If done honestly and in good faith, such a process could result in a more beautiful and livable Boca Raton. It could help dig us out of the high-rise hole in which we find ourselves.

BocaBeautiful’s final objective for 2018 is to work to elect a more resident-friendly City Council. While we are not a PAC and do not make political contributions or sponsor campaign ads, BocaBeautiful can provide Boca residents information on which candidates up for election in March of 2018 share our views about Boca’s future. Our Mayor, contrary to what she said during the campaign last spring, has decided to run for Palm Beach County Commissioner. Councilman Scott Singer is anxious to take her place. Jeremy Rodgers, who has a mixed record on development issues, is up for reelection. Robert Weinroth, who is the most unabashed supporter of development on the Council, is facing opposition for the first time as he seeks reelection. The bottom line: big changes could be coming to City Hall and these could be good news for Boca’s future.

This is both a positive and an ambitious agenda. As always, it is contingent on the financial support of those who care as much about Boca’s future as we do. Give us that support and we will put it to work for a better Boca.

John C. Gore
President
BocaBeautiful.org

 

Boca Raton Development Updates

We need your donations. The future of Boca is in your hands!

Dear supporter of Bocabeautiful.org,
As we begin our 2018 campaign, our coffers are in dire need of replentishment. Over the past three years, we have raised and spent over $135,000 in our efforts to block ugly new buildings in Boca Raton and to educate our city council. We have made progress, but as you will see below, there is much more to be done. Please support our efforts with your generous contribution:

CREDIT CARD
Credit card contribution right here at Bocabeautiful.org 

CHECK PAYABLE TO:
Bocabeautiful.org
Mail to J.C. Gore
233 S. Federal Highway,
Apartment 721.
Boca Raton, FL 33432. 

The future of Bocabeautiful.org and of Boca Raton is in your hands. Without your financial support we could not do what we do. Thank you so much!

Snowbirds returning to our fair city are in for some surprises—some good and some not so good. 

The first should come as no surprise to anyone: traffic is terrible in Boca and getting worse.  Most “urban centers” have rush hours; most major cities like New York have horrible traffic jams to and from their beaches; most have parking problems. Welcome to the developers’ urban vision for Boca Raton. Welcome to what happens when you build buildings without considering the infrastructure necessary to support such rapid development. 

We have seen plenty of development over the last eight years, but no credible studies on the impact of that development.  As they approved project after project, often with many variances, City Council officials were content to rely on 30-year old planning assumptions. Only now are they scrambling to address Boca’s traffic mess, proposing things like a $48 million dollar one way system for Federal and Dixie Highways, or $ millions for “mass transit” that most people will find less convenient than their cars.

You may feel relieved not to see, like in winters past, multiple new concrete blocks darkening Boca’s skyline, other than Tower 155 (a very large building slowly rising on a very small parcel of land) and 327 Royal Palm Way, nine stories of concrete and glass (mostly concrete) which will cannibalize the views of residents in the recently-constructed Promenade building on Palmetto. But the construction respite will be short-lived. Demolition will soon begin for Via Mizner Phases II and III that will result in two more mammoth structures along Federal Highway between Camino and SE Mizner. Just look at the (mostly vacant) concrete block at the corner of Camino and Federal and multiply that times three. In August the City Council gave preliminary approval to the three-block long Mizner 200 project. The good news here is that 1) the developer agreed to significant design modifications and 2) they appear in no rush to build the thing. 

But what is really surprising is the number of major development projects still in the planning stage. If all of these are completed, they will transform the nature of our entire city. 

Here’s what’s in the Boca Raton “progress” pipeline:

  1. A new midtown “urban village” near Boca’s Town Center Mall, with up to 2500 new apartments, restaurants and shops. Traffic would be reduced by providing parking for only 1000 cars. Really?
  2. The complete redevelopment of the historic Royal Palm Place shopping plaza (home of the Saturday farmers’ market) with four 14-story apartment buildings, townhomes, retail space and new parking facilities.  Planning permission is currently being sought to build two of the towers.
  3. Three nine-story condos at 475 E. Royal Palm, overlooking East Palmetto Park Road and the Boca Resort golf course.
  4. A nine-story assisted living facility at 375 E. Royal Palm, between 327 (currently under construction) and the proposed 475 Royal Palm condos.
  5. A seven-story condo on the corner of Palmetto and A1A (already approved).
  6. A nine-story 50,000 square foot office building at 26 SE 3rd Street, just off Federal.
  7. Camino Square residential and retail on the old Winn Dixie site at 171 W. Camino: two eight-story apartment buildings plus 35,000 sq. feet of commercial development on nine acres, with no road improvements planned.
  8. Ongoing development in NW Boca.
  9. Redevelopment of the NW 20th Street corridor.
  10. University Village, a proposed development off of Spanish River Road with a single entry and exit point.

And who knows how many more projects are percolating in the developers’ fertile minds? Just look around. There are plenty of single story properties in Boca that are potential targets for redevelopment. 

Boca’s urban cheerleaders tout these projects as representing progress, a booming economy and the inherent attractiveness of our City. But these proposed developments should raise red flags, for the simple reason that they ignore the demands they will put on our roads; our emergency services; our water, sewer and storm drain capacity; and our schools. 

You don’t have to be Malthus to understand that if you increase the population of Boca Raton by thousands of residents, you will be placing demands on our infrastructure.  We will need better roads, more fire stations, increased emergency services, better healthcare facilities, better storm drainage, and enhanced water treatment facilities. We already need to do something about Boca’s overcrowded schools.  We will need to be better prepared for natural disasters such as Hurricane Irma. And we will need to find affordable housing for our new policemen, firemen, healthcare providers, service industry employees, schoolteachers, etc.  Where will they live? In Pompano?

Putting it kindly, the building boom in Boca of the past eight years is the result of an arrogant and myopic attitude on the part of our elected officials:  “Build it, they will come, and we will address any adverse consequences later.”  

Why not address the consequences of over-development in Boca Raton first? 

Many years ago, when our City fathers actually engaged in an attempt at urban planning and drafted Ordinance 4035, specific infrastructure improvements (nine pages of them) were required before downtown development could proceed.  While the speed and scope of development in Boca may no longer make such a proscriptive process feasible, there are other ways to insure that infrastructure concerns are a prerequisite to any development decisions. 

The simplest—and most obvious—would be to impose a moratorium on major new development projects until the City has certified that our infrastructure is adequate to handle the impact to our community. The politics of Boca is changing, but it has not changed enough to support an approach that the developers and their lawyers would consider draconian.  We may get to that point, but not yet.

A more practical solution would be a better consultation process prior to the approval of any major new development project. 

The 1969 Federal Environmental Policy Act is a good example.  It requires the preparation of a comprehensive environmental impact statement prior to the initiation of any major project requiring Federal government approval.  How about a Community Impact Statement prior to approval of major development projects in Boca Raton? Such an assessment could be required from any developer seeking City Council approval and would include impact on traffic, parking, core infrastructure capacity, demands on city services, schools, etc. The developer could also include benefits such as jobs, increased tax revenues, scenic enhancement, etc. Most importantly, the developer’s creative team could provide suggestions as to how they or the City might address any quality of life concerns raised by the assessment. Why not get developers involved in helping solve the problems they create? 

The developer’s Community Assessment would be reviewed by City staff, outside consultants and the City Council itself as part of the CAB, P&Z, CRA and City Council approval process for new development proposals. The residents of Boca Raton could weigh in with their comments and suggestions. While not necessarily putting the cart before the horse (as in Ordinance 4035) such a process would at least force the consideration of the cart and the horse contemporaneously.  It might mean additional work (and creativity) for the developer, but it would address the concerns of residents and save the City and its taxpayers money in the long run. It could also save a developer time and money by addressing concerns before a project faces a contentious up-or-down vote in the CRA or Council. If done honestly and in good faith, such a process could result in a more beautiful and livable Boca Raton. It could help dig us out of the high-rise hole in which we find ourselves.

Now that would be progress.

John C. Gore
President
Boca Beautiful.org

Paradise Lost or Paradigm Found?

This is a tale of two developers and the future of Boca Raton. 

The first is—or was—involved in a controversial project on Boca’s barrier island. But at the request of City leaders and staff, developer Ramon Llorens agreed to work directly with nearby residents to find a project that would be acceptable to all. The result, a 70-unit condominium called Ocean Palm on the SW corner of Palmetto Park Road and A1A, stands as a model for future development in Boca.

Instead of his originally proposed ten story, 200 room hotel and 70 condominiums project, the developer has agreed to build a six story condominium-only building. There are generous setbacks on all four sides of the building, and every attempt will be made to protect adjacent neighbors from increased traffic flow. Most importantly, the revised project is compatible in style and scale to the other buildings in the neighborhood. 

As a result of the developer’s willingness to talk to affected residents first, the rancor and controversy surrounding his project has evaporated, resulting in a win-win for all involved.

Contrast this with the behavior of developer El-Ad and their proposed ten story, three block long condominium project on SE Mizner Boulevard in the heart of Boca’s “downtown,” where the low-rise Mizner on the Green is now located. 

Dubbed “the Monster on Mizner” by local residents, the 384-unit condo building, called 200 Mizner, is the largest ever attempted in the area governed by Boca’s basic development law: Ordinance 4035. It is significantly larger than the three block long Palmetto Promenade rental building that now dwarfs the north side of Palmetto Park Road between Mizner Boulevard and the Intracoastal bridge. Both in scale and style it is indeed a monster.

El-Ad has been trying to redevelop the Mizner on the Green site for over three years now. It has proposed project after project that to date have been rejected because 1) they required significant zoning variances, e.g. 30 stories instead of ten; or 2) because the proposed building failed to meet other metric or style requirements contained in Ordinance 4035.   

Why has the El-Ad Mizner Boulevard project been mired in controversy and been stalled for over three years and counting? First, because the developer is politically tone deaf. El-Ad assumed that because other developers had received all sorts of variances from Boca’s formerly compliant City Council, it would receive the same treatment. It was international and rich and powerful. But the politics of development has changed in Boca. City officials are now wary of resident backlash, should they bend Boca’s development laws to suit an individual developer or project. “My way or the highway” lobbying is actually counter-productive.

But El-Ad’s biggest mistake has been its refusal to meet with and win approval of its neighbors.  Various stakeholders such as residents of nearby condominiums, powerful landowners who have commercial interests in nearby properties such as Royal Palm Plaza, and various resident advocacy groups such as BocaBeautiful.org and BocaWatch have not been part of the process.  They have not been consulted. They have been insulted.

From day one, El-Ad has attempted to play the insider game, trying to advance its latest version of 200 Mizner at each stage of the approval process, making alterations only sufficient to win support of the group whose approval it needs. Their backchannel approach has been evident in their pleadings before the Community Appearance Board. A necessary precursor to achieve ultimate approval by the City Council, the CAB is supposed to be the arbiter of style and taste in Boca. What has been El-Ad’s strategy? To meet privately with each CAB member and receive suggestions how they might best make cosmetic changes in order to win CAB approval.   

As a result, concerned residents have to attend the CAB meetings to get a glimpse of the latest version of 200 Mizner. They then get two minutes each to comment on something which they are seeing for the first time, but which definitely affects their quality of life and property values.  Then, once El-Ad wins over the CAB, they use that approval as leverage with the next review board:  Planning and Zoning. And so on, up the chain, until the Monster on Mizner is before the City Council itself. The system is anything but resident-friendly. No wonder that overdevelopment has become such a hot political issue in Boca Raton.

The twisted tale of 200 Mizner took an interesting turn earlier this year, when BocaBeautiful.org asked the City Council to have Boca’s newly-hired downtown consultant take a look at the project.  The Council agreed, and since then the Mellgren Group has reviewed the project and on March 17th delivered a draft report to city officials that concluded that the current iteration of 200 Mizner “does not fully satisfy the design standards included in Ordinance 4035.”  It is nice to have professional confirmation of what nearby residents have been complaining about all along.

El-Ad’s response? Again, the insider game. According to pro-development reporter Randy Shultz, El-Ad has been meeting privately with the Mellgren Group in an effort to convince them that they are wrong. According to Shultz’s source at City Hall, El-Ad has enjoyed some success in its backchannel effort. It is interesting (and depressing) that the first word that any of us get of either Mellgren’s disapproval or the private efforts to reverse it comes from Shultz via some unnamed City Hall official. Certainly from El-Ad’s point of view, the headline Mizner 200 Fails, then Passes is better than Mizner 200 Fails. That’s how development politics in Boca used to work. Fix it before it stinks.   

But as the Ocean Palm project shows, there is clearly a better way to fix things. Sit down with all of the affected parties and work out a compromise.  It is a lesson that El-Ad may eventually learn, as it spends the next three years in a futile effort to build something in Boca’s downtown that almost nobody wants. 

John C. Gore
President
BocaBeautiful.org

2015, a very bad year for the City of Boca Raton

Boca-Raton-Sunset-Palmetto-Park-Road.jpg

The year was a major disappointment as the City of Boca Raton continues to be overbuilt while the City Council ignores the concerns of its citizens.

For those of us who have been arguing that Boca Raton is being cavalierly and callously overbuilt, 2015 was a major disappointment. As the year draws to a close, our City Council and its developer-dominated advisory boards continue to ignore citizens’ concerns over the building binge in Boca, with vote after vote supporting more and more development. 

Examples of building binge in Boca Raton:

  • Approval of two more mammoth Via Mizner buildings, one of which MAY house a Mandarin Oriental Hotel.  Promised by the developer, but no guarantee. For sure we will get two more concrete leviathans. Who the tenants will be is by no means certain. Ask yourself, why would Mandarin Oriental choose to operate a five-star hotel with no beach or golf course access smack on Federal Highway? So guests can walk to Publix?
  • Approval of an additional 500,000 square feet of development just north of FAU, bringing the total to 1.5 million square feet, with NO ASSURANCE of what will be built there and NO IDEA where the traffic will go, other than on to Spanish River Boulevard.
  • A zoning variance for a private developer to build a four-story mega-mansion on a pristine section of Boca’s beach because the developer threatened to sue if denied a variance. Some things are worth fighting for.

We need different outcomes in 2016. Specifically:

  • A moratorium on new construction in the downtown area until we can assess the impact of what is now being built.
  • Creation of a creative traffic plan for downtown Boca, before traffic becomes such a mess that it negatively impacts both commerce and residents.
  • Immediate establishment of an oversight and enforcement mechanism to ensure that developers adhere to the designs that were approved by the CRA and the Council. No more bait and switch!

As activist organizations such as BocaBeautiful.org and Boca Watch seek citizen support for our 2016 campaign, we are increasingly being told that what we are doing is too little, too late. True, while we were sleeping, the developers and their allies in government have succeeded in transforming downtown Boca into a new “urban center.”  The look and feel of our village has been irretrievably altered.

The question now is what can be done to protect our quality of life in this new “urban” environment, as well as in the rest of Boca. Can we hold developers to their promises, ensuring that the buildings under construction are attractive and pedestrian friendly? Can we somehow keep 6000+ additional cars from clogging our downtown streets? Can we hold in check runaway development in other parts of our city? Or at least plan for it better?

If we cannot convince our elected officials of the wisdom of our approach in 2016, we promise to work hard to bring new thinking to City Hall in the elections of 2017. The battle for Boca is far from over.