By Mary Hladky
City staffers have issued their long-awaited “small area plan” for Midtown that makes no recommendation on the most important issue for the 300-acre area — whether residential development should be allowed.
Development Services Director Brandon Schaad presented the staff’s proposed plan, 11 months in the making, to residents on Dec. 4. The Boca Raton City Council is expected to consider it later this month.
Schaad did not mention residential development during his 45-minute presentation at the Spanish River Library. Asked about it by a resident, Schaad said, “We are not recommending any residential.”
After the meeting, Schaad said staff did not make a recommendation because City Council members have not yet reached a consensus on whether they want residential development in Midtown.
Midtown landowners, including Crocker Partners and Cypress Realty of Florida, joined forces about four years ago in an ambitious plan to redevelop the large tract located west of Interstate 95 and east of the Town Center mall, where no residential development is allowed.
They envisioned a “live, work, play” transit-oriented development where people would live in as many as 2,500 residential units and walk or take shuttles to their jobs, shopping and restaurants.
The landowners and city staff worked jointly on land development regulations that would allow such a project until, at the behest of the City Council, staff took the reins.
The redevelopment plan died one year ago when council members postponed a vote on regulations that staff recommended. They voted instead to have staff develop a small area plan for Midtown, an idea proposed by council member Andrea O’Rourke.
Crocker Partners and Cypress Realty, frustrated by the delays, have sued the city for not adopting land development regulations and stifling their ability to redevelop their properties.
Cypress Realty principal Nader Salour said he had expected the small area plan would determine how many residential units could be built and allowable building heights, among other things. Instead, the plan concentrates on beautifying the area.
“That is disappointing and just seems to be a delaying tactic,” he said.
“Council is looking for guidance from staff. Staff is looking to council for guidance. And neither side is forthcoming with a recommendation, so we keep having this circular discussion,” he said. “I am baffled by what they are trying to achieve.”
The Dec. 4 meeting “is a clear indication of the city’s intent to frustrate and delay property owners’ rights,” said Crocker Partners managing partner Angelo Bianco.
The meeting was sparsely attended, but the few residents who spoke up thanked city staff for its efforts on the plan and voiced no objections.
“Overall, I think you are doing a great job,” said Jack McWalter.
The plan calls for gradual improvements over five years to streets, street lighting, landscaping and parking. It aims to reduce traffic congestion, improve street walkability and create places where the public can gather for special events.
It devotes considerable attention to Military Trail, adding landscaped medians, trees, wider sidewalks and better crosswalks, while also improving safety.
The improvements could be paid for by creating a special taxing district, with property owners in the area paying the increased taxes. The City Council will make the final decision on a taxing district.
“Under the terms and conditions laid out, all the landowners would be taxed simply to beautify or improve certain streets with no added incentive, namely residential or anything else,” Salour said. “I can’t imagine anyone would be in support of it. We certainly would not.”
While the plan would improve Midtown, it is not a blueprint for what the area can become. The city still must adopt land development regulations that will spell out to developers and landowners what they can build in Midtown. Staff is working on those.
“The elephant in the room is still density,” resident Bill DeAngelis said at the meeting.
Crocker Partners, which owns 67 acres, sued the city in October, seeking $137.6 million in damages on grounds that the delay in approving land development regulations created an impermissible building moratorium that took away its property rights.
Crocker filed a separate legal action in May, seeking to have a judge compel the city to write land development regulations.
Cypress Realty also sued in October, citing the lack of land development regulations and saying the city has been “stonewalling” its efforts to redevelop its 10.2 acres. It is asking the court to require the city to process its August development application.