By Mary Hladky
Suspense was high as residents jammed the City Council chambers on April 8 to find out whether elected officials would approve or deny a developer’s plans to build 346 luxury apartments and retail buildings on the southwest edge of the downtown.
The proposal by FCI Residential Corp., a subsidiary of sugar producer Florida Crystals Corp., to redevelop a blighted 9.1-acre shopping center site at 171 W. Camino Real is the latest in a long string of downtown development projects that have generated complaints that too many have been approved.
At the same time, the City Council’s decisions against a luxury assisted living facility downtown and the 300-acre Midtown redevelopment near the Town Center mall have mired Boca Raton in costly litigation.
FCI attorney Ele Zachariades made it plain that the city could land in legal hot water again if the council voted against Camino Square, as she ran down a list of reasons why the project complied with the downtown development ordinance and of deal sweeteners volunteered by the developer and landowner.
Mayor Scott Singer and Deputy Mayor Jeremy Rodgers acknowledged that the city could lose a legal challenge if Camino Square were not approved.
Litigation “doesn’t scare me,” Singer said. “It is a factor to consider.”
In the end, council members, sitting as Community Redevelopment Agency commissioners, approved the project by a 3-2 vote, with Singer, Rodgers and Andy Thomson voting in favor.
Andrea O’Rourke and Monica Mayotte, who opposed intense downtown development in their campaigns for office, voted against.
Noting that the developer and landowner have acknowledged residents’ concerns about traffic congestion by agreeing to spend $2 million to reduce delays at the intersection of Camino Real and South Dixie Highway, Thomson said the deal was too good to pass up.
“They are not required to do that,” he said. “To me, that is incredible. We cannot not take advantage of that.”
FCI has made “significant improvements” to its original plans and “the amount of give [by FCI] here is sizable,” Rodgers said.
“I understand this project will be a catalyst for improvement in the area,” Mayotte said. “I just wish it wasn’t as dense.”
“I am here to stand by our vision of downtown,” O’Rourke said.
The project will include two eight-story apartment buildings and two parking garages on the eastern portion of the site, just west of the Florida East Coast Railway tracks, and two retail buildings and surface parking on the western portion.
All will be completed at the same time and the roadwork will be done before tenants move in, Zachariades said.
Nearby residents want to see redevelopment of the derelict shopping center where a Winn-Dixie closed in 2010. But most opposed FCI’s plans.
While some said the residential component is too big, their main concern is that Camino Square will worsen traffic tie-ups that they say have worsened since Virgin Trains USA, formerly called Brightline, launched service on the FEC tracks last year.
J. Albert Johnson, the immediate past president of the 2,000-member Camino Gardens Association, said he does not believe FCI’s traffic surveys showing a significant decrease in delays under street reconfigurations proposed by the developer.
His association’s board, concerned about the “dangerous” Camino Real/Dixie intersection, voted unanimously to have him “oppose this project any way I could,” he told council members.
“The problem is not with the development itself, but the abject failure of the city of Boca Raton to provide for the infrastructure to accommodate development in downtown Boca Raton,” he said after the meeting.
But Johnson did not fault the council for approving Camino Square, saying the project met the requirements of the downtown development ordinance and FCI had made significant concessions.
“If they did not vote the way they did, a lawsuit was sure to follow,” he said.
The project has a troubled history with the city. The Planning and Zoning Board unanimously rejected it and city staff also opposed it last year.
Since then, FCI made numerous changes and city staffers acknowledged that the project is much improved. Even so, they wanted the developer to make more changes and feared that Camino Square would worsen traffic congestion.
Late last year, the Community Appearance Board unanimously recommended approval, and the planning board agreed in a 4-1 vote. City staff also recommended approval in January, but the council members delayed a decision until their questions about the project were answered.
But in an unusual development, city staffers offered no recommendation in advance of the April 8 meeting. Instead, they offered “discussion” points that raised concerns about the project and appeared to give the council sufficient reasons to reject it.
Development Services Director Brandon Schaad also emailed Zachariades in February with a long list of possible project changes, which the developer largely rejected.
But FCI offered to pay for road improvements on Camino Real, including an additional left turn lane and a new right turn lane onto Dixie, that will cost $1.6 million, along with changes to the intersection at Southwest Third Avenue costing $400,000. The developer will seek reimbursement from Palm Beach County.
The city canceled plans to improve the Camino/Dixie intersection in 2015 on grounds that they were no longer needed because new downtown residential units generated less traffic than office buildings.
FCI also added a pocket park along Camino Real that it will maintain, and agreed to contribute $100,000 for sculptures in the park and to convert eight of the apartments into four “live-work” units that would add some retail to the two residential buildings.