The Coastal Star

Boca Raton: City tells frustrated developer of Midtown plan to keep plugging

By Mary Hladky

    Years after the Midtown “live, work, play” development was conceived, the project is at an impasse without any of the city approvals needed to move forward.
    Angelo Bianco, managing partner of developer Crocker Partners, tried to change that at a June 12 City Council workshop, as he pressed to have the city’s Planning and Zoning Board consider on July 20 proposed ordinances that set a framework for how the project can be built.
    “Being kept in a state of limbo is not fair,” Bianco said. He later added, “We just can’t not move forward. At some point, you are taking away our rights as landowners.”
    But council members urged Bianco to continue working with city staff to finalize ordinances both he and staff can support. If so, staff will recommend that the planning board and City Council approve the ordinances.
    Council member Robert Weinroth counseled Bianco not to resist more talks and negotiation with city staff.
    “I know you are frustrated,” he said. “Don’t make a mistake by forcing this.”
    The Midtown project, located between Interstate 95 and Town Center at Boca Raton, envisions a place where people will live and walk or take shuttles to their jobs in the area, shopping and restaurants.
    As many as 2,500 mostly rental units would be built on nearly 300 acres where no residential now exists. A Tri-Rail station would be built at Northwest 19th Street to bring people to and from the area.
    City officials like the concept, which is similar to transit-oriented developments springing up across the country designed to reduce traffic and energy use. But the devil is in the details.
    The city annexed the area in 2003 and the original county zoning has remained in place. Crocker Partners and its development partners want new zoning ordinances that would regulate a “planned mobility development” as well as a “transit-oriented development” that would allow higher densities and less space set aside for parking.
    City officials want to make sure the ordinances are crafted to safeguard city interests and avoid unintended consequences.
    City staff and the developers have been working on that and changes have been made. But from the perspective of the developers, the process has been painfully slow, costing them time and money.
    Meanwhile, questions have been raised about whether too much residential would be built, if adequate parking space has been included and if Midtown would further clog area roads.
    Another complication is that the proposed ordinances are just the start of the process. If they are approved, the developers will design the project and then submit plans to the city for approval.
    As a result, the planning board and council have no idea what Midtown will look like. Examples presented by the developers of what they have built elsewhere have created confusion, prompting the developers to explain repeatedly that these are conceptual ideas only, and not what is intended for Midtown.
    As the impasse continued, the council in May called for a “reset” on Midtown, with the city taking a stronger hand to speed up the process. But the city and the developer did not discuss specific points of disagreement at the June 12 meeting.
    Bianco said he thinks the proposed zoning ordinances are ready for presentation to the planning board.
    Deputy City Manager George Brown disagreed. He suggested additional changes that Bianco said he was hearing about for the first time.
    “This is treating us in an unfair manner that does not have precedent with other developers …,” Bianco said. “We just need to move it along.”
    One sticking point is the proposed Tri-Rail station, which Crocker Partners initially said was crucial to the project. The developer wanted the ordinances approved by March so funding for the station was not jeopardized. That deadline, set by Tri-Rail, has passed, but some funding agreed to earlier remains available.
    An April report by Brown says previous versions of one of the ordinances drafted by the developer states that the Tri-Rail station would be “planned, funded and committed to” by Tri-Rail. The city wants the station to be “planned, funded and under construction.”
    The report also says the proposed ordinance states the train station is not required until 1,300 rental units have been approved for development. At that point, up to 1,200 more units could be built if the train station is “committed to.”
    “As proposed, the applicant’s ordinance may result in 2,500 units without a train station,” the report states.
    City staff questions if Midtown qualifies as a transit-oriented development if no station is built, the report said.
    The developer commissioned a traffic survey for the area, which states there will be no additional traffic generated by renters if 1,300 units are built, as long as shuttles are operating.
    The traffic survey was updated on April 25 and May 11, but Brown said in a June 5 memo to the council that staff has not reviewed the updates. That memo also said staff has not reviewed proposed changes to the ordinance the developer submitted on April 27 and May 15.
    Parking also remains a sticking point. Crocker Partners had proposed less parking than required elsewhere based on the idea that renters and others coming to shop and dine would use Tri-Rail and the shuttles.
    Crocker Partners has since increased the amount of parking, but city staff still questions whether it will be enough to meet demand.  One-bedroom units would have one space, two-bedroom units 1.5 spaces, and three-bedroom units would have two spaces.

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