By Mary Hladky

A cultural group has scaled back its ambitious proposal to build a performing arts complex on city-owned land east of the Spanish River Library and instead wants to locate it on two city-owned parcels next to the Mizner Park amphitheater.

The idea quickly garnered “conceptual support” from City Council members on Aug. 26, although the resolution they unanimously approved makes clear the city is not committing itself to anything yet.

That support was what Andrea Virgin, who leads the group of cultural organizations that want to build a “cultural destination,” sought.

“What we need now is for the (Community Redevelopment Agency) and the council to stand with us,” she said. “It is simply a request to walk with us, imagine with us, be with us.”

The group last October proposed a complex on 21 acres that would include four performing arts buildings, which would house a main theater with up to 1,200 seats, music complex, music recital hall, dance complex and a black box/flex theater totaling 162,000 square feet on lakeside land beside the library.

That project, which could have cost as much as $140 million, also potentially envisioned a 240-room hotel and convention center, restaurants and other retail and parking garage.

City council members were gobsmacked by the proposal, which Deputy Mayor Jeremy Rodgers called “very, very compelling.”

But while lauding the idea, council members were cautious. They wanted assurances that the cultural community would provide enough financial support so the project would not become a financial burden for the city.

Mayor Scott Singer said the growing city needed the land for other purposes, and Rodgers questioned if a land donation was in the city’s best interest.

Since then, the nonprofit Boca Raton Arts District Exploratory Corporation has turned its attention to Mizner Park but has not discarded its original vision.

Virgin, principal of Boca Raton-based Virgin Design, said that while the original complex would have been on 21 acres, the cultural buildings would take up 5 acres. The Mizner Park site is 4 acres.

Her group still plans to build all of the planned venues with the possible exception of the black box/flex theater, but a taller building would be needed to accommodate them.

The project in Mizner Park would cost less, but Virgin said a cost estimate has not been finalized.

By locating in Mizner Park, the group can take advantage of the “complementary” Boca Raton Museum of Art and the amphitheater as well as nearby restaurants, retail and a potential Virgin Trains station.

The group wants to “reinvigorate” the amphitheater, adding a weather covering, improved seating and valet parking.

Brookfield Property Partners, Mizner Park’s landlord, supports the proposal, she said.

Asked by Rodgers whether the city would continue to operate the amphitheater, Virgin said her group wants to meet with city staff to determine the best course of action.

Virgin said Boca Raton’s cultural community supports the project and is financially able to contribute to its creation.

Donors have contributed $525,000 so far, nearly meeting the group’s goal of raising $600,000 to $700,000 for planning, she said.

Marleen Forkas, a longtime Boca Raton philanthropist and supporter of the cultural arts, was among arts boosters who attended the meeting and urged the council’s support.

“Everyone who supports the arts should support this project,” she said after the meeting.

Organizations behind the project include Boca Ballet Theatre, the museum of art, the Festival of the Arts Boca, Symphonia chamber orchestra, Harid Conservatory, Youth Orchestra of Palm Beach County, Boca Raton Theatre Group and Florida Atlantic and Lynn universities.

Many stage productions are at borrowed school and FAU auditoriums because Boca Raton lacks a performing arts center.

Although no firm plans exist yet, council members, sitting as CRA commissioners, liked the idea of a Mizner Park location.

“It was the original vision of Mizner Park for it to be a cultural center,” said Andrea O’Rourke, a proponent of the arts.

“I think you are on the right path,” Singer said. While not committing the city to the project yet, “we want to put the wind behind your sail.”

Virgin said she would return to the council in six to 12 months with a full business plan that includes cost figures and project renderings. Ú

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