By Jane Smith
Boynton Beach will finally get a real downtown.
City commissioners in mid-March unanimously approved spending $118.3 million to redevelop 16.5 acres to create a walkable Town Square where people can live, work and play.
The new downtown area includes the essentials for city living: library and City Hall combined in a new City Center, the historic high school renovated to be a cultural center, a new fire station, two parking garages with 465 public spaces and a park with an amphitheater.
Private developers will construct two buildings to house 705 apartments, 13,800 square feet of restaurants and 15,000 square feet of office/retail space. They also will build a hotel with 125 rooms, and additional ground-floor retail will serve as the gateway into Town Square.
The Town Square project will be bordered by Boynton Beach Boulevard on the north, Northeast/Southeast First Street on the east, Southeast Second Avenue on the south and Seacrest Boulevard on the west. The police headquarters will be built on city-owned land on High Ridge Road, near the city’s Emergency Operations Center.
“We’re excited about the project,” said Assistant City Manager Colin Groff, who is in charge of Town Square. “We think it will be transformational for the city.”
City leaders have talked about the need for a downtown for at least 20 years, Groff said.
After the vote, City Manager Lori LaVerriere thanked the mayor and commissioners “for putting a lot of faith and trust in staff. It will be a wonderful and successful project. Staff has been working on it for 21/2 years.”
Some residents have mixed feelings about the project.
“I’m in favor of the project other than the eight-story buildings,” said Harry Woodworth, former president of the Inlet Communities Association.
Barbara Ready, who chairs the city’s Historic Resources Preservation Board, said, “I’m thrilled beyond belief that the high school is being saved. It’s a beautiful building that once was the heart and soul of the city.”
She and others held rallies to save the high school in 2015 when then-Mayor Jerry Taylor wanted to see it demolished.
Ready is not thrilled about the density in Town Square. She said an eight-story apartment building sits too close to the nationally historic Schoolhouse Children’s Museum. “It’s not compatible with the two-story Children’s Museum,” she said.
Former City Commissioner Mike Fitzpatrick bemoaned the smaller size of the Kids Kingdom playground. “It’s been moved and reduced by two-thirds,” Fitzpatrick said.
The playground needs to be at least 7,000 square feet, said longtime resident Susan Oyer. She sits on the city’s Planning and Development Board, whose members want to make sure the playground has a usable size.
“I don’t think the city gave developers everything they wanted, maybe about 95 percent,” Oyer said. She also talked about the eight-story apartment buildings as incompatible with one-story houses and apartments across two-lane Northeast First Street and Southeast Second Avenue.
Even so, she said, “There’s a lot for residents to like,” such as the renovated high school and the park with an amphitheater.
Town Square has an ambitious schedule: bonds issued in June, library and City Hall demolished in July, high school renovation complete in November, an energy plant to fuel the project finished in February, the south garage and Fire Station No. 1 complete in July 2019 and the City Center, housing the library and City Hall, finished in September 2019.
The city will own the land under the public buildings. It will sell the land for the apartment buildings, the hotel and the two garages.
The bulk of Boynton Beach’s share of the project will come from the sale of $76.1 million in bonds issued by a company called CFP Boynton Beach Town Square LLC. That partnership is run by the nonprofit Community Facility Partners, based in Minnesota.
Boynton Beach will lease the land to CFP in a complex agreement.
The city will use money from its general fund and a financial commitment from its Community Redevelopment Agency to make the annual payments. Depending on the interest rates, the annual payments will be between $4.4 million and $5.1 million, said Tim Howard, assistant city manager for finance.
The bonds will be paid off in 25 years, Howard said. At that time, the land and buildings will revert to the city.
Boynton Beach will use a variety of sources to pay the remaining $42.2 million, Howard said. Those sources include the city and utility budgets, the CRA taxing district, federal tax credits for the high school, land sales to private developers at an average price of $1.25 million per acre, and $3 million from the proceeds of the penny sales tax.
The plan to use penny sales tax money drew a response from Taylor. He sits on the committee that oversees how Boynton Beach spends those tax dollars. “The money should be used on existing roads and sidewalks, not on new projects such as the high school,” he told commissioners.
But LaVerriere insisted it was OK to use the sales tax to help pay for the high school renovation. That seemed to appease Commissioner Mack McCray, whose vote was needed to make the commission’s support of Town Square unanimous.
Fitzpatrick also questioned the wisdom of selling some of the land to the developers. “What if in the future, 25 or more years, when another City Commission needs that land?” he said. He wanted to see long-term land leases. He had sent the commission a lengthy email in August on the issue.
“That structure wasn’t offered,” Groff said. The developers insisted no one would be willing to lend money for a private project when they didn’t own the land. “In Mizner Park, Boca Raton financed the deal,” he said.
Woodworth said the project should be done in phases, eliminating the need to rent temporary space for the library, City Hall and police headquarters.
Groff, though, said the developers need to hit this market while it’s still hot. The apartment buildings will be built at the same time as the combination library and City Hall on Ocean Avenue.
During demolition and construction, the library will be housed in two locations: a temporary 5,000-square-foot branch on the west side of Seacrest just south of Boynton Beach Boulevard, and a larger location in Quantum Park on High Ridge Road, south of Gateway Boulevard. The temporary location for City Hall will also be Quantum Park, Groff said.
He expects to bring leases for commissioners to sign at the April 17 meeting.
“We have a good schedule that can be met,” Groff said, “and I think our guaranteed costs are accurate.”
At the end of the meeting, LaVerriere said to the public, “I hope you feel good about it. Town Square will transform our city.”