Delray Beach may include Sazio Express and some other old buildings along Atlantic Avenue east of the Intracoastal in a future historic district, one separate from a district now in the works on the avenue west of the waterway. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Atlantic Avenue ideas bet on value of designated districts
By Larry Barszewski
A century-old home was demolished in Boca Raton’s downtown this year. Some downtown Boynton Beach office buildings of the same era face a similar fate in the not-too-distant future. But a move is afoot to save what remains from the past along downtown Delray Beach’s history-laden Atlantic Avenue.
Boynton Beach’s downtown still has its historically designated Boynton School and Old Boynton High School. And Boca Raton’s has its 1927 Historic Town Hall that recently completed a $3.5 million renovation. Yet preservationists say those isolated buildings should be part of something bigger — historic districts that give a true taste of each city’s history.
“Walking into a historic district, you feel like you’re walking into a different place and time,” says Claudia Willis, a member of Delray Beach’s Historic Preservation Board.
That’s a feel Delray Beach wants. It has its own downtown landmarks — the Old School Square buildings and the Colony Hotel, for instance — but it also sees a larger history worth preserving. Proponents of a proposed Atlantic Avenue Historic District, which would run from Swinton Avenue to the Intracoastal Waterway, say the district would protect more than 40 other historic buildings there and maintain the character that tourists, residents and visitors find so appealing.
“It’s a climate. It’s a vibe — the feeling that if you go to downtown Delray, it’s authentic. It’s not Disney-like,” says John Miller, also a member of the city’s preservation board, whose ancestors first settled in the city in 1903. “Not everything is homogenous. Everything is a little quirky and I think people look for that.”
There hasn’t been a new historic district created in South Palm Beach County in more than 20 years, and Delray Beach and Boca Raton are the only South County cities with such districts. Preservationists say they’re racing against time as new developments threaten the past on behalf of the future.
Susan Gillis, curator for the Boca Raton Historical Society, knows how difficult preservation can be. She has watched what little is left of her city’s small historic downtown disappear to development.
“We’ve had this burst since 2016, with all these new, very tall buildings,” Gillis says. “It’s just like Fort Lauderdale. It has changed so dramatically in 20 years. I can’t believe it.”
History’s economic benefits
When talk of a new historic district surfaces, many affected owners fear a loss of control over what they can do with their properties. They dread increased restrictions and see only obstacles to any potential future renovations.
However, proponents of historic districts say there’s a case to be made for them, one that makes economic sense for communities and property owners.
“Historic districts can become centers of heritage tourism that help spur economic vitality,” according to the Atlantic Avenue Historic Resources Survey, prepared for Delray Beach by R.J. Heisenbottle Architects in December. “Historic districts have proven to retain more stable and higher property values than surrounding neighborhoods that are not protected, even in the face of harsh economic downturns.”
Delray Beach and Boynton Beach also offer property tax breaks to owners who improve historically designated properties — a 10-year waiver of city and county property taxes on the increased assessed value brought about by their renovations. If a district is on the National Register of Historic Places — such as the Old School Square and Marina districts in Delray Beach — owners of investment properties deemed historical can deduct 20% of their renovation costs from their federal tax payments.
It also can be easier for historic properties to get variances from the city for items such as setback distances for their renovation work.
For the Atlantic Avenue district, the city is considering additional incentives, such as the possibility of matching grants for some improvement and repair costs — or transfer of development rights that would allow more intense development elsewhere for an owner keeping to a smaller scale downtown.
In Gulf Stream and Briny
In the small communities that dot South County’s barrier islands, the emphasis is less on preserving history than it is on using other tools to protect a feel and atmosphere consistent with the community histories.
In Gulf Stream, it took an act of the state Legislature back in 1992 to turn a stretch of State Road A1A into a State Historic Scenic Highway, protecting the canopy of Australian pines that has defined the town since the 1920s.
Soon after the designation, the town also beefed up its architectural reviews, concerned that it would be overrun by mega-mansions that would destroy the town’s character.
“We don’t have historic districts. We have districts that have a historic look, but it’s for the whole town, from one end to the other,” says Bob Ganger of Gulf Stream, a past vice chairman of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County and head of the local Florida Coalition for Preservation. “We are establishing a basis in the town for it remaining more like when it started than what it might become.”
Next door to Gulf Stream, the town of Briny Breezes stands out for its unique character — a coastal community of mobile homes that developed from Northerners setting up vacation trailers on a one-time strawberry farm in the 1930s.
Gillis says a district could help Briny Breezes protect its way of life and preserve elements of its history.
“I think Briny Breezes should be a historic district,” Gillis says, “and then I’m going to retire there. It’s so novel.”
Susan Brannen, president of the mobile home park’s corporate board, doesn’t know if her town should be a historic district — or how such a designation would affect the town — but says it is unique.
Ganger says the mobile homes in Briny Breezes may not survive climate change or the pressures of development, but he hopes there will be ways to preserve the character that makes it so different from other nearby towns. His coalition would like to see the trailers gradually give way to small homes that are better protected from rising seas and hurricanes.
“You could redesign Briny with smaller homes,” Ganger says. “We’ve been working with Briny to maintain what the folks who live there want, though we’re well aware that a developer will come along someday with an offer that will be difficult to turn down.”
Delray and Boca districts
Even if Delray Beach approves the Atlantic Avenue district, it’s up to the individual property owners whether to apply for historical designation for their contributing properties.
Lack of owner support doomed Boynton Beach’s 2016 attempt to create a historic district on Northwest First Avenue between Northwest Third Street and Northwest Second Street, a block south of Boynton Beach Boulevard.
Delray Beach currently has five historic districts within its borders:
• Old School Square, including the restored Delray Beach Elementary School at Swinton and Atlantic avenues.
• Marina, on the south side of Atlantic Avenue east of Federal Highway.
• Nassau Park on the barrier island to the south of the Sandoway Discovery Center.
• Del-Ida, on the east side of Swinton north of Lake Ida Road.
• West Settlers, around Northwest Fifth Avenue, in the city’s historically Black section.
Boca Raton has two historic districts:
• Old Floresta, a grouping of Addison Mizner-designed homes from the 1920s and ’30s to the north of Palmetto Park Road around Northwest Ninth Avenue.
• Pearl City, the city’s first historically Black neighborhood, south of Glades Road between Federal and Dixie highways.
Self-preservation can be a goal of historic designation in areas that aren’t architecturally significant, as in Pearl City.
“The reason those neighbors wanted to become a district is because they felt threatened by the outside world,” Gillis says; they feared the community’s prime property along Federal Highway would be taken up by developers. “It’s the history of the site itself, rather than architectural significance, that makes that district important.”
Losses and struggles
Preservationists in March lost a battle in Boca Raton, when developers demolished the Cramer House, a 1925 Mediterranean Revival structure on East Boca Raton Road.
In Boynton Beach, the former Oyer-family buildings on Ocean Avenue, built nearly a century ago, are to be demolished as part of a Community Redevelopment Agency project to create a mixed-use development. Hurricane Alley Raw Bar and Restaurant, currently located in one of the buildings, will be moved to the north along Boynton Beach Boulevard.
“We struggle along,” says Barbara Ready, chair of Boynton Beach’s Historic Resources Preservation Board. “We’ve lost so many historic things that were demolished willy-nilly.”
The city actually has a “Historical Cottage District,” a community on the west side of Federal Highway south of Woolbright Road. However, it’s just a name the residents got the city to approve for their community of older homes — many from the 1940s and 1950s — more than 20 years ago. They hoped having “historical” in the community’s name would boost property values, even if the homes aren’t designated or architecturally significant.
The city also continues to see homeowners who want their individual homes designated.
The preservation board has oval plaques in the works — “a badge of honor,” Ready says — to place on locally designated houses. Ready hopes the city will pay for an update to the historical resources survey done in 1995. So much has been lost since then, while other buildings may need to be added, she says.
“Commitment is the key word,” Ready says. “Unfortunately, in Boynton it took a lot, lot longer to get any kind of commitment, and even then, it’s a half-hearted commitment.”