By Mary Hladky
The legal battle is over for Crocker Partners’ ambitious plan to redevelop Midtown into a $1 billion live-work-play area where people would have lived in up to 1,274 residential units and walked or taken shuttles to their jobs, shopping and restaurants.
The state’s 4th District Court of Appeal on Feb. 3 upheld a lower court ruling that Crocker Partners is not entitled to $137.6 million in damages it claimed it was owed because the city illegally prevented the redevelopment.
City zoning allows commercial, office and retail development in the 300-acre area located east of the Town Center mall, but not residential.
Crocker Partners and other landowners contended that they reasonably expected to be able to build residential units because of changes to the city’s comprehensive plan in 2010 that allowed the City Council to permit residential projects in Midtown.
But the City Council never made a decision to do so despite a lengthy persuasion effort led by Crocker Partners.
Crocker Partners sued in 2018 under the Bert Harris Act, which is intended to protect the rights of property owners when a government restricts or limits their private property rights.
Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Howard Coates Jr. threw out the suit in 2019, holding that the Bert Harris Act provides compensation to property owners who lose existing or vested zoning rights but not to property owners who do not receive new development rights.
The 4th DCA agreed, saying that the Bert Harris Act protects against governmental action, but not inaction that maintained existing zoning.
Shortly after Coates’ ruling, Crocker Partners dropped a previous lawsuit that sought to compel the city to allow residential development and a third suit that claimed the city made misleading statements in public documents and violated the state’s Sunshine Law to prevent residential development.
The company opted only to continue its effort to seek damages. That decision clearly signaled that Crocker Partners was abandoning its revitalization push.
But by then, the Midtown project was already dead. Other landowners who had joined with Crocker Partners drifted away, pursuing other plans for their properties.
Angelo Bianco, Crocker Partners’ managing partner, said at the time that it would be a waste of time and money to pursue legal action when it was clear that Midtown was not going to happen.
“The city killed Midtown several years ago. It was unfortunate we were not compensated for our losses, but we have moved on to other projects,” a Crocker Partners spokesperson said about the 4th DCA ruling.
Chief among those projects is the Boca Raton Innovation Campus at the former IBM campus, where the first personal computer was made.
Crocker Partners acquired the 1.7-million-square-foot office building, the largest in the state, in 2018 with a vision of transforming it into a science and technology hub.
City spokeswoman Chrissy Gibson described the ruling as “very favorable” for the city.
“The court also reaffirmed, clarified and improved the state of the law for local governments throughout Florida by embracing the city’s position that property owners cannot state a claim under the Harris Act based on their development expectations, “ she said. Ú