When Boynton Beach commissioners approved reduced height limits in January for new buildings downtown, they weren’t so much slamming the brakes on growth as they were gently tapping them.
There already are more people per square mile living in or near downtown Boynton Beach than in either Delray Beach’s or Boca Raton’s downtown — and the city has approved developments in the pipeline that will pack thousands more into the heart of what was once a fishing village.
“I’m concerned about the traffic. We have so much traffic already that even when it’s off season, it still feels like it’s in season,” said Boynton Beach Vice Mayor Thomas Turkin, who proposed the reduced heights last year. “I think Boynton Beach is at a very crucial stage of growth. We’ve already had a bunch of projects approved. Once you start, you can’t go back.”
A breakdown of downtown and near-downtown population figures from 2020 U.S. Census tract data shows Boynton Beach with the highest density of South County’s three largest downtowns, followed by Boca Raton’s and then Delray Beach’s:
Boynton Beach: 6,287 residents per square mile (in 2.1 square miles between Interstate 95 and the Intracoastal Waterway, from the Boynton Canal south to Woolbright Road).
Boca Raton: 5,282 residents per square mile (in 2.5 square miles between the El Rio Canal and the Intracoastal Waterway, from Northeast/Northwest 20th Street south to Camino Real).
Delray Beach: 5,111 residents per square mile (in 1.9 square miles between I-95 and the Intracoastal, from Lake Ida Road/Northeast Fourth Street south to Atlantic Avenue; between Southwest Eighth Avenue and the Intracoastal from Atlantic south to Southeast/Southwest 10th Street; and between Dixie Highway and the Intracoastal from 10th Street south to Linton Boulevard).
All three cities continue to see downtown growth, but Boynton Beach has the densest that is already lined up. Seven approved projects in the downtown area could raise the density there to 9,238 residents per square mile a decade from now.
In just one corridor two blocks north and south of Ocean Avenue, stretching from Seacrest Boulevard to the Intracoastal, five projects with 2,214 more residential units — which could add 5,500 more people, based on the city’s average household size in the 2020 U.S. Census — are in the works.
“You’re doubling that population in less than a mile square area,” said Kristine de Haseth, a former Ocean Ridge mayor and executive director of Florida Coalition for
Preservation, which seeks to promote responsible growth. “You get an increase in population, it puts extreme pressure on aging and failing infrastructure.”
Over the years, similar concerns have been heard in Delray Beach and Boca Raton, as the cities pushed forward with attracting residential, commercial and office developments to create a downtown environment where people can “live, work and play.”
The projects typically are anchored to or near major thoroughfares: Palmetto Park Road in Boca Raton, Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach, Boynton Beach Boulevard/Ocean Avenue in Boynton Beach.
The downtowns are intersected by Florida East Coast Railway tracks, which planners for decades have used to justify increased downtown densities, in part by envisioning a regional commuter rail service that would one day run up and down those tracks. The train system — if ever a reality — would have downtown stops and reduce traffic congestion by connecting coastal cities to each other, allowing people to move in and out of the downtowns without having to use their cars.
As each city’s plans have moved forward, with no train in sight, complaints have followed about traffic and a worsening quality of life. Meanwhile, proponents have touted a new vibrancy and needed economic growth taking hold, with the advantage of concentrating growth where it makes sense, instead of doubling down on an urban sprawl model that has long defined South Florida.
Criticism has come, too, from residents of the barrier island, whose access to the mainland is over bridges that put them into the middle of these downtowns. De Haseth is concerned that the growth across the Intracoastal will hurt communities like hers, some of which rely on fire and emergency rescue services from mainland departments.
Comparing the downtowns
Boca Raton is a step ahead of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach when it comes to transportation options, opening a Brightline train station downtown in December. While it’s not the proposed Coastal Tri-Rail that would link local cities, it does connect Boca Raton’s downtown with Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Aventura and West Palm Beach, and soon with Orlando.
“Brightline is definitely going to have an impact,” said Glenn Gromann, a development consultant. “They are absolutely positively taking trips off the road.”
Boca Raton’s downtown is also seeing strong growth and has more than 1,000 additional residential units already approved, which could add more than 2,250 people to its downtown, based on its average household size. The city also recently approved the proposed 12-story Aletto Square office complex, which won’t add to the city’s population density, but will bring more traffic.
Even with the Boca Raton projects that are on the books, and even though Boca Raton is larger than either Boynton Beach or Delray Beach, Gromann doesn’t see Boca Raton matching the downtown densities of the other two cities in future years.
“What’s different about Delray and Boynton is they still have wide swaths of available property that can be redeveloped,” something not found in downtown Boca Raton, Gromann said. Also, while Boca Raton may allow taller buildings, the overall density is kept down because of the larger size of luxury apartments and condos in demand there, he said.
“The product type is now leaning more to condo,” Gromann said. “It’s the only way you can afford to build the buildings.”
Boynton Beach’s new 85-foot height limit, down from 150-foot and 100-foot maximums in certain sections of the downtown, had some residents looking with envy to Delray Beach and its 54-foot height limit — and an even lower 38-foot maximum along downtown Atlantic Avenue.
“Delray Beach has a very rigid maximum building height,” said Dana Little, urban design director for the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, who has worked over the years with cities in the region to help them develop their master plans and land development regulations. “To the city’s credit, they’ve held that line. They’ve decided that’s who they wanted to be.”
A 2019 master plan the planning council put together for Delray Beach speaks to the importance of having more people living downtown, or in the Central Core District as it is called in the plan.
“Increasing residential density is absolutely crucial to ensure a healthy and lasting life to the Central Core District,” the master plan says. “The residential component will be the element that will make the Central Core District evolve from a high-end leisure area for a few, to a true downtown that serves the needs of the community as a whole.”
Laura Simon, executive director of the Delray Beach Downtown Development Authority, has watched her downtown bloom, with the lower building heights on the avenue in tune with the city’s coastal vibe. “The walkability and walking in the sunshine, it’s just more desirable than a high-rise town,” she said.
Downtown Atlantic Avenue is one of South County’s major attractions, drawing crowds from throughout the region. The two-lane avenue through the historic downtown is constantly backed up and development hasn’t slowed — Atlantic Crossing at Federal Highway was the latest addition with new restaurants, shops and offices opening last year, as well as 85 of an eventual 261 new apartments.
While Delray may have room to grow, the possibilities may be even greater in Boynton Beach, which lags behind the other two in its downtown’s development as a destination spot.
“Boynton is sort of an untouched area as far as vacant land,” Gromann said.
The big buildup in Boynton
That seems about to change. Of five projects approved in the heart of Boynton Beach’s downtown, most include eight-story residential buildings in their plans.
The developments are:
Town Square, along Seacrest Boulevard, 898 residential units.
The Pierce, along the west side of Federal Highway north of Ocean Avenue, 300 units.
One Ocean/Hyperion, along the east side of Federal Highway north of Ocean Avenue, 371 units.
Broadstone, along the east side of Federal south of Ocean Avenue, 274 units.
The Villages of East Ocean, on the west side of the FEC tracks along Ocean Avenue, 371 units.
Turkin said the city has its work cut out, especially making infrastructure improvements to handle the growth. But he doesn’t think it is too much development for the city.
“I am extremely concerned and I do think that we need to focus on preparation for all this development, and I think we are,” said Turkin, whose district includes the heart of the downtown. “My hope is we focus on infrastructure before we get too far ahead of ourselves.”
Paying for infrastructure and keeping up with needed services as the downtown grows is bound to hit Boynton Beach taxpayers harder, because of the city’s lower tax base. Boca Raton has a $34.7 billion property valuation, followed by Delray Beach at $16.4 billion. Boynton Beach’s valuation is only $9.1 billion.
At the turn of the century, Boynton Beach and Delray Beach had similarly sized populations of just over 60,000. Since then, Boynton Beach has shot ahead and has about 16,000 more residents than Delray Beach. According to U.S. Census data and estimates, Boynton Beach has grown 38.2%, to 84,028, since 2000, while Delray Beach’s population is up 14.2%, to 68,742.
All Boynton Beach’s growth is not happening downtown. In 2020, the densest area in Boynton Beach was north of the Boynton Beach Mall, between Congress Avenue and Lawrence Road, up to Miner Road. That square mile section of the city had a density of 8,388 residents per square mile in 2020.
Another area virtually as dense is north of downtown. The 1.2-square-mile section between I-95 and the Intracoastal, from a few blocks north of Gateway Boulevard south to the Boynton Canal, had 8,382 people per square mile as of the 2020 census.
Workforce housing law a concern
While cities have worked to manage growth, there is new uncertainty among them. The worry is from the Live Local Act, which passed the state Legislature this year and was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Officials laud the goal of the law, which is to increase the amount of workforce housing in the state, but they fear developers may be receiving too much latitude and residents might see large, dense residential complexes popping up in unlikely places.
Under the law, if a residential development meets a required percentage of workforce housing units, the project can be built in areas now zoned for commercial, industrial and mixed-use — not just residential. Also, those developments can be built to a height that’s the highest allowed by the city within a mile of the proposed site — picture a Dixie Highway parcel within a mile of an ocean high-rise — and with a density up to the maximum permitted in the city.
“The intention is very sound. We’ve got a workforce housing crisis. We’ve got people living in vans all over the place,” Little said. “But we do have concerns and many of our local governments have concerns.”
Turkin shares those concerns about the Live Local Act, but regarding the downtown’s growth, he thinks Boynton Beach is beginning to take the steps necessary to make sure the increased density works to the city’s benefit.
“Responsible development is good,” Turkin said. “I think we’re going to become one of the greatest things in Palm Beach County.”
THE DATA USED FOR THIS STORY
The Coastal Star collected population density information using the 2020 Census Demographic Data Map Viewer for census tracts in its coverage area. The downtown density numbers presented in the story are an analysis of the census tracts that most closely align with each city’s downtown area.
Boynton Beach and Boca Raton each have online maps of approved projects and the number of residential units they contain. To determine how many additional residents the projects would bring, the units were multiplied by each city’s average household size from the 2020 U.S. Census (2.49 per household in Boynton Beach, 2.25 per household in Boca Raton and in Delray Beach).