The pause that refreshes

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As the City of Boca grows and grows, The City Council should be asking developers, “Before you build this building, how do you suggest we handle the additional traffic it will generate?”

Dealing with traffic and parking first would actually open the path to more graceful and resident-friendly development in the future. 

Here’s a novel idea for our City Council as they contemplate their agenda for the next two years: Why not take a slight pause in approval of major new construction projects until we have a plan in place for solving Boca’s traffic and parking problems, particularly in our downtown?

Not a moratorium, but a pause, to give our city leaders a chance to put in place some creative ideas for congestion relief. A pause would also give them time to measure the impact of all of the buildings currently under construction or not fully occupied. We won’t fully realize that impact until the snowbirds return next November. The increase in traffic could be dramatic, particularly on Dixie, Federal, and Palmetto and in all those adjacent neighborhoods, as frustrated drivers look for alternative routes.

This is not only good planning, it is good politics. Why pour more gasoline on the fire when Boca residents are already unhappy about overdevelopment? Why add to the problem and approve more massive construction projects like 200 Mizner during the summer when many residents are out of town?

Developers will not like the idea of a pause—time is money, after all. But a pause to get our infrastructure right and make Boca more habitable is better than outright rejection. Dealing with traffic and parking first would actually open the path to more graceful and resident-friendly development in the future. And to make the pause as brief as possible, developers could devote their considerable resources to coming up with creative solutions to Boca’s congestion and parking problems. The City Council should be asking, “Before you build this building, how do you suggest we handle the additional traffic it will generate?” The more creative minds working on this, the better. The quicker and smarter the solutions, the better for all of us.

It’s a win-win. And it’s common sense.

Norman Waxman
Vice President
BocaBeautiful.org

Everything you need to know about ORDINANCE 4035 in 5 minutes

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Boca Raton’s elected and appointed officials are scrambling to explain how so many of the existing and planned buildings in Downtown Boca appear to run afoul of our City’s basic development ordinance.

Perhaps it’s a scandal. We shall see. But giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, it might well be because almost nobody has paid much attention to the 65-page law. After all, it was passed over 20 years ago. So for those who haven’t the time or the inclination, here’s everything you need to know to monitor the upcoming Boca downtown development debate:

Ordinance 4035 is the law.

First, Ordinance 4035 is not guidance. It is the law. It is proscriptive, not suggestive.  Throughout its 65 pages, the words “shall” and “must” appear over and over. The word “guidance” never appears, although the word “guide” is used in the one section relating to architectural design, where the authors attempted to give developers some leeway to modify Mizner’s original designs. But the intent of that section is crystal clear: that all development in Downtown Boca should be harmonious with what is already there. Mizner Park is new, but it does not look out of place. Nor does it change the architectural look and feel of the Downtown.

Ordinance 4035 is written in plain English and it's easy to understand.

Second, Ordinance 4035 is not complex. It is lengthy, not because it is complicated, but because it is incredibly detailed. There are six pages of clear definitions, including ground-to-sky open space. Five pages of development review procedures. Six pages on parking.  Almost nine pages of landscaping do’s and don’ts, including the size and kind of trees you can and cannot plant. Four pages on architectural design, some suggestive, but others quite specific, such as “no more than 40% of the perimeter of a building’s materials shall be composed of glass.” And there are six pages of specific road improvements that must be completed before Downtown development is allowed to proceed. All of these pages are written in plain, unambiguous English. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. A fifth grader could understand the language in Ordinance 4035.

Why do you think the authors of this document in 1992 went to such lengths to include such detail? Probably because they did not feel that developers would get it right if left to their own devices. They understood that profit is a powerful motivator. The temptation to cram every possible square foot of marketable space on each Downtown lot would prove irresistible. And they were right. Ordinance 4035 is not a trusting document. Its authors did their best to protect Boca’s future. If they fell short, it was not for lack of trying.

Ordinance 4035 is a visionary document.

Finally, Ordinance 4035 is also a visionary document. Just look at the section on energy and infrastructure. The authors understood that more development in the Downtown—more people, more cars—was going to stress the few roads that service the area. Therefore, they required as many road improvements as they could imagine PRIOR to letting development proceed. Think about that. They improved the roads before they allowed the buildings. By comparison, the Interim Development Guidelines approved the buildings but said nothing about the roads or traffic. The mantra of the IDG was “Build it and they will come.”  But the corollary might have been “Build it and they will have no way to move around.” 

Boca last took a comprehensive look at its traffic needs in 1992. They should undertake a comprehensive traffic study now, before they allow Downtown Boca to get any bigger. That is one of the most important lessons one can learn from reading Ordinance 4035. 

The unpleasant truth about traffic in Boca Raton

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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.

In a recent article, the Sun Sentinel explored the pros and cons of Boca’s “new look.”  Numerous members of the City Council were interviewed, as were various development advocates, but although the headline touted “citizen concerns,” not one ordinary citizen or citizens’ group such as Boca Watch or BocaBeautiful.org was quoted. Nor was there a single word about traffic. Not one word.

A $50,000 “traffic study” by Boca’s City Council has focused on the problems with one intersection, at Fifth and Palmetto, site of the enormously popular Trattoria Romana and the enormously controversial Wildflower development. We learned that in preparation for its conclusions, the well-paid consultants counted cars in the month of September, which is like recording snowfall in July. A similar study of the gridlocked intersection at 5th Avenue and Federal Highway was conducted when the main destination there (Florida’s largest Publix) was closed for renovation. Even if they come up with a brilliant solution for Fifth and Palmetto, that will fix only a tiny piece of the problem.

 

The root of Boca’s coming traffic congestion crisis is this: too many residential and commercial units are being crammed into the one square mile “downtown” where there are only five main roads. 

The new plans for Royal Palm Place alone call for a 3000 car garage. If all the apartments, offices, retail establishments and hotels are completed, we estimate that there will be an additional ten thousand cars in and around the downtown area by 2018. And that’s just the people who live and work and want to park there.

The developers and their allies tell us that the infrastructure studies done over 20 years ago anticipated all of this, and that we have nothing to worry about. If you are experiencing slower commutes on Glades, Dixie, Federal, Palmetto or Camino, it is not because of the new residents of the downtown (they haven’t arrived yet), but because of the increased traffic caused by people passing through Boca. That’s people travelling from Delray to Pompano or Deerfield and back. Their solution? Maybe we need to build a bypass around Boca’s downtown! The Boca Beltway! 

You’ll also hear lots of talk about how we don’t need to worry about cars because we are building a “pedestrian friendly” downtown. The assumption that people are joyously going to walk everywhere ignores both Boca’s demographics and the laws of human behavior. If everyone’s going to be on foot, why are the developers building all all those parking spaces? To be used as auto storage units? Are people going to travel to and from the grocery store on trolleys or segways? And what about the people who come from out of the area to service all of our new downtown residents? Or the visitors who come and stay in all the new hotels? Perhaps downtown Boca will become the aerobic capital of the world.

There’s a much simpler solution to Boca’s coming traffic mess: 

Let’s pause new construction in the downtown—especially the massive Via Mizner Phases II and III—until we have done an area-wide traffic study, counting traffic in peak periods like February, and come up with a comprehensive plan to cope with the cars of the additional residents, commuters and tourists who will flock to Boca’s new urban mecca. Let’s put the horse before the cart for a change, or more specifically, lets make sure we have the roads before the cars arrive.

That’s what the Boca development debate should be all about. Not the paint job on the Mark or the number of Mizner turrets a developer can put on a concrete pile.

John C. Gore
President
BocaBeautiful.org