By Jane Smith
Midtown Delray received its second City Commission approval in mid-May, which the developers needed to proceed with the massive project.
Now, the Delray Beach planning director will ensure the development team, led by Hudson Holdings, follows the four conditions set in March. The mixed-use complex was approved then, subject to the approval of design changes of three buildings.
“We’re very excited,” said Steve Michael, head of Hudson Holdings. “The project meets everyone’s needs, reflected in the unanimous decision.”
The $140 million Midtown sits at the southwest corner of Swinton and Atlantic avenues, the gateway to the Northwest/Southwest neighborhoods. It will add offices, restaurants, shops, renovated historic houses, residential inns and an underground parking garage on 7 acres.
The complex also is part of the new nationally designated Old School Square Historic District.
In 2014, the southern side received a commercial overlay before Hudson Holdings and investor Rick Marshall bought the two Swinton Avenue blocks.
By the end of the year, Midtown will begin preparing the main block for the underground garage, Michael said.
At the May meeting, commissioners were limited to approving only the design style of three new buildings — the main building on Atlantic Avenue and two side buildings on Swinton Avenue.
Mayor Shelly Petrolia, who voted against the project in March, asked former Mayor Cary Glickstein to review the developer’s new sketches and computer drawings prior to the May 15 commission meeting. “He was adamant and emphatic that the drawings be more detailed,” she said.
In March, while still mayor, Glickstein asked for the team’s historic architect Rick Gonzalez to reduce the height of the Atlantic Avenue building to three stories and to make the buildings more aesthetically pleasing. Another Midtown architect, John Szerdi, created computer drawings from the sketches.
Glickstein appreciated that Petrolia reached out to him. Also in attendance were Petrolia, city senior planner Scott Pape, Michael, Midtown’s lead attorney Neil Schiller, Gonzalez and Szerdi.
“When I asked to see Rick’s design sketches, staff and I saw substantive differences between the sketches and the [computer] drawings submitted to staff,” Glickstein said. “Specifically, the [computer] drawings omitted important, authentic design features that made the buildings far more interesting.”
The changes agreed to include adding more balconies, using softer white paint colors to differentiate the three architectural styles on the Atlantic Avenue building and other revisions.
On May 23, Michael and Szerdi said the changes were made and they were trying to schedule a meeting with the city planning staff.
The revised drawings seem to give Midtown Delray slightly more space, but Schiller and city Planning Director Tim Stillings said that’s not necessarily true.
“Midtown’s site plan has not been certified,” Stillings said in a May 22 email. “There are some inconsistencies with the numbers represented, which need to be reconciled before the site plan will be certified.”
Concerns about historic elements
Even with the changes, Petrolia and new Commissioner Bill Bathurst had a hard time approving them.
“I was up on the dais and looking out to historic preservationists in the audience,” Petrolia said after the May 15 meeting. “But we were not approving the project, just the changes in the architecture of the three new buildings.”
Bathurst sat on the city’s Historic Preservation Board when it twice turned down Midtown Delray last year.
“How much do we have to compromise to have our historic structures renovated?” Bathurst asked at the May 15 meeting.
“We’re at odds with ourselves,” he said. “We have rules for the historic district and rules for the commercial overlay. In a historic district with contributing structures, visual compatibility standards should apply. But they don’t in this project.”
The new Swinton Avenue buildings sit to the north of some of the city’s most historic houses: the 1902 Cathcart House and the 1912 Rectory, which leases space to the Yaxche Tearoom. The 1902 home of the city’s first mayor, John Sundy, is in the next block.
New buildings in a historic district can have only one architectural style, according to city rules, John Miller said in December when Midtown Delray made its second appearance at the city’s Historic Preservation Board. Miller chairs that board.
But Midtown’s main new building on Atlantic has three styles: Mediterranean Revival, Anglo-Caribbean and Art Deco, allowed under rules for the commercial overlay.
“We need to take our historic districts seriously,” Bathurst said on May 15, “and decide what we want as a city.”
Plus, he said, “They are taking out 200 trees.”
Deputy Vice Mayor Shirley Johnson, who voted for the project in March, said, “The developer has bent over backwards and is meeting the city’s rules.” She likes that Midtown Delray has promised to hire local people for construction and other jobs.
In March, Midtown Delray agreed to four main conditions:
• Secure site plan approval that includes two alleys abandoned by the city.
• Establish a $100,000 historic preservation grant for Frog Alley, West Settlers and Old School Square Historic District prior to receiving its first building permit.
• Post a $1 million bond to guarantee vertical construction within two years on the main block.
• Create a jobs program prior to receiving its first building permit. The program includes requiring subcontractors to hire Delray Beach workers for bids, provide mentorship opportunities, provide bonding assistance to small local companies and establish job fairs for the Northwest/Southwest areas. The city manager must approve the program before it begins.
Hudson exits two other projects
Hudson Holdings walked away in April from the historic Gulfstream Hotel in Lake Worth and the Linton Towers office complex in Delray Beach. The new owner is a former partner in both projects, CDS International Realty. Vitamin kingpin Carl DeSantis and his chief assistant Bill Milmoe own CDS.
The two parties traded lawsuits in the past six months in state court and then in federal court when CDS filed a racketeering lawsuit against Hudson Holdings. The agreement settles the lawsuits.
Both parties were pleased with the outcome, according to an April 19 release on PRNewswire.
The Gulfstream renovation approvals expire in September 2019, according to Lake Worth staff.
Schiller, who represents Midtown Delray, expects it to be a catalyst project.
“It will inspire thoughtful, walkable development not just in that area,” he said at the May 15 meeting, “but throughout the city.”