By Thomas R. Collins
A commercial office district near Interstate 95 and Yamato Road used to be a spot that this city could brag about. An IBM facility was located there, employing 10,000 people at its peak in the late 1980s.
The computer giant’s workforce shrank, and it moved most of its jobs to the Research Triangle in North Carolina, and some to Texas, in 1996.
Since then, the 965 acres — called the “northwest area” — has lost its luster: The once humming area sits largely vacant.
To resurrect it, the city is about to allow a slate of new uses never before allowed there: mainly residential apartments, up to 2,500 of them, but also retail and other kinds of development, with people living near workplaces and services so that — the thinking goes — they’ll be less likely to use their cars and clog roads.
Residents are in favor of redeveloping the sluggish zone, but are worried it’s too much and that little traffic will actually be contained within it.
It’s one of five areas of the city that is being considered for this kind of transformation, called “planned mobility,” but the details will likely vary for each and the northwest area is the first in line. Boynton Beach employed a similar concept with Renaissance Commons, a cluster of apartments and shops off Congress Avenue.
Boca Deputy City Manager George Brown, who’s been overseeing the plans that have been evolving for months, said it would be a much-needed shot in the arm.
“The idea is to have multiple uses in areas that were formerly single-use or limited to a certain number of uses,” he said at a recent discussion at City Hall. “Bring residents closer to the jobs that they have and services of which they avail themselves.”
The cap would be 20 units an acre, which is not an uncommon amount for similar South Florida mixed-use developments — Renaissance Commons has the same cap. Buildings could be 85 feet high, or about eight stories, as long as they don’t go over the cap on units or surpass the amount of square footage the city deems is appropriate for the size of the lot, which is determined by a formula.
Shared parking would be encouraged, more bike racks would be supplied, walking paths would be required and having everything connected would be the main theme, city officials say.
Charles Siemon, a lawyer who represents the landowners in the northwest area, said it’s a long-overdue step. The Research Triangle in North Carolina, considered the hot new spot when IBM moved there from Boca, is already undergoing a master plan change, he noted, while Boca has sat idle ever since IBM moved away.
“It is an area that was the heart of our economic prosperity,” Siemon said. “We’re trying to create a new place that will be competitive in the marketplace.”
Although happy with the proposed plan, he is arguing for more square footage to be allowed on each lot.
Deputy Mayor Susan Haynie said she wants to resolve the “lack of consensus that we have in the community about how much is too much” and wants to make sure existing residents aren’t left “paying the tab” for new services that might be needed.
Indeed, there are some who are not exactly on board with the concept.
Lenore Wachtel, a board member with the Federation of Boca Raton Homeowner Associations, said “it’s a nice idea” but that “some people think this is a gift to the developers.”
“We walk for fun all the time, but if we’re going anywhere, even close, we take our car,” she said.
Elisabeth Hoffman, a resident who lives next to another area being considered as a planned mobility district (East of I-95 between Spanish River Boulevard and Glades Road), said she’s not opposed to it “as a concept,” but figures residents there would still “get in their cars to go to the grocery store” no matter how close it is.
“As an ardent environ-mentalist and futurist, I’m in favor of more public transport use, less vehicular use in terms of less sprawl,” she said. “Those are all things that are high on my natural agenda, but because of the development focus of our current City Council, I find myself quite concerned about how some of this will play out.”
Council will vote on the northwest area planning ordinance at a public hearing on Dec. 11. Ú
—Margie Plunkett contributed to this story. -