Neighbors’ resistance grows as Tri-Rail faces funding deadline
By Mary Hladky
Four years after Crocker Partners began conceiving a massive development project east of the Town Center at Boca Raton mall, the developer is now moving ahead to transform the concept into reality.
Crocker envisions Midtown as a “live, work, play” project that includes 2,500 rental units on nearly 300 acres where no residential now exists. Residents would walk out of their apartments and down the street to their jobs at one of the many office buildings or retail centers in the area. After work, they could head over to nearby restaurants or watering holes.
Many, theoretically, might not even need cars. People could travel to and from the area on Tri-Rail, provided the commuter rail builds a new station at Northwest 19th Street. Shuttles would transport them to their places of employment or to shopping and dining.
Such “transit-oriented development” is a fast-growing trend across the country as cities hope to revitalize urban and suburban centers while also reducing traffic gridlock and energy use. Midtown would be the first such development in Boca Raton.
“Let’s make this into a vibrant neighborhood. Let’s bring in residential, the missing link,” Crocker Partners managing partner Angelo Bianco said at a Dec. 22 Planning and Zoning Board meeting. “… We need to do this.”
Midtown would lie south of Glades Road between the CSX railroad tracks and Butts Road, with the Town Center mall immediately to the west. Crocker owns three office buildings and the Boca Center retail-office center within the area or on its periphery.
No artist renderings show what Midtown would look like. In fact, no plans have yet been drawn and nothing has been submitted to the city.
Rather, Crocker, a longtime developer whose projects include iconic Mizner Park, is starting from scratch. The project first needs a new city ordinance to allow “planned mobility development” in two existing zoning districts. The ordinance also would create a transit-oriented development sub-area that would allow higher densities and less space set aside for parking.
The city cleared the way for this to happen when it added a planned mobility development designation to its comprehensive plan in 2010 and has since implemented that designation in an area in the city’s northwest section.
Crocker presented its proposed ordinance, and two other related ordinances, at the December board meeting.
Board members generally liked the concept, but were overwhelmed by the scope of the project and Crocker’s need to get their approval quickly.
“It’s like trying to drink from a fire hose,” said board member Kerry Koen.
Many of their questions centered on how much Midtown would increase traffic in the area and whether Crocker had included an adequate amount of parking for the rental units.
They asked Crocker to return Jan. 19 with more information, but at that meeting, the developer asked for a delay until Feb. 9 so officials could try to overcome strong objections that cropped up from neighboring homeowner associations after they voiced enthusiastic support for the project on Dec. 22.
“We are totally against it,” said one Paradise Palms homeowner at the Jan. 19 meeting. “The size and nature of this project at our back door is unacceptable to us.”
Newly unhappy neighbors are just one of the hurdles facing Crocker.
Chief among them is getting Tri-Rail to build a proposed new “kiss and ride” station — one with no parking lot — that Crocker says is essential to the success of Midtown. Without it, Midtown as now envisioned will not happen.
Tri-Rail supports the idea, and urged the city in April to approve the transit-oriented development designation to ensure there is enough demand for the station.
But pressure mounted to turn the talk into action when Tri-Rail said the proposed ordinances must be approved by March 17 in order for it to commit additional funding for the station. Tri-Rail and the Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization have allocated $1.5 million for planning and design this year and an additional $17 million in 2018 for the next phase of the project, said MPO Executive Director Nick Uhren.
Tri-Rail also needs Crocker to agree to convey land the developer owns for the station. As of late January, that had not happened.
To meet the deadline, the city will have to move fast.
The P&Z board would need to make a recommendation to the council, two hearings would need to be held, and the council would then make a final decision. But the delay in the P&Z board meeting date, and resulting delay in two public hearings, may make it impossible to meet Tri-Rail’s schedule.
Michael Marshall, a shareholder with the GrayRobinson law firm that represents Crocker, said after the Jan. 19 meeting that he remains hopeful about getting city approvals in time.
“Funding for the station has to be in place,” he said. “Without the station, this entire concept doesn’t work.”
The proposed ordinances have yet to spell out who besides Crocker can build the residential units. Representatives of other major landowners in the area, including the Simon Property Group that owns most of the mall, told P&Z members in December they want to build some of the residential units.
Details about shuttles also need to be nailed down. Crocker runs a shuttle to the Yamato Road Tri-Rail station, but it is now expected that other major landowners would also commit funding for a shuttle system.
If the ordinances are approved, it would still be some time before Crocker submits plans to the city.
About 8,300 people commute to the Midtown area to work each day, according to Crocker. The developer believes there will be plenty of demand from people who would love the option of living near where they work and plans to set rental prices affordable to many of the workers.
The ordinances would permit multifamily dwellings, retail, offices, restaurants, hotels and recreation and cultural facilities. The amount of commercial development in the area would not increase, but existing commercial would be redeveloped.
Residential density allowed in the proposed transit oriented development is a maximum of 20 units per acre, but Crocker says it will build half that amount. Building heights will not exceed 85 feet because of limits imposed by its proximity to the Boca Raton Airport.
Parking would be limited to 1.5 spaces per rental unit, a number that assumes not all renters will have cars and will walk or use shuttles to get to work or go shopping.
A traffic study commissioned by Crocker concluded that the 2,500 apartments would not increase traffic volume on nearby streets, provided the Tri-Rail station is built and shuttles are operating.
P&Z board members liked the concept of a transit-oriented development.
“I feel this area is ready for the concept of the zoning,” said Board Chair William Fairman.
But board members were not convinced that the new residential would not overload streets, that residents will actually use the shuttles as much as predicted or that enough parking will be provided.
P&Z Secretary Rick Coffin expressed the strongest doubts.
“I just don’t see putting 2,500 units in that area. I don’t believe the retail employees can afford the rental or condo rates,” he said. “I absolutely cannot live with 1.5 parking spaces. We are not New York City. … People are going to have their cars."