By Mary Hladky

    Boca Raton city officials have nearly reached the end of a tumultuous process to better define what developers can and can’t count as open space in downtown projects.
    The City Council, sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency board, approved an open-space policy in July to make sure there was no confusion about what the city requires. The policy pushes developers to include open space that can be easily seen by the public, usually at the front of buildings, and counts as open space such features as landscaped areas, arcades, colonnades and areas under major archways.
    The CRA board then turned the matter over to a city committee for fine-tuning.
    In recommendations made to the board on Dec. 12, the Downtown Boca Raton Advisory Committee called for parking lots to be located at the rear or sides of buildings. No parking would be permitted between the street and a building.
    Pool decks, walkways and plazas would not be counted as open space if they are more than 5 feet above ground level. That means, for example, that roof terraces could not be claimed as open space.
    One recommendation explicitly states that access to open space would be controlled by the property owner, making clear that a condominium could restrict access by the public to its pool deck.
    Advisory committee member and architect Derek Vander Ploeg said the subcommittee still has a bit more work to do. At the top of the list is a “new definition of what defines the public realm,” he said, referring to areas people can see but may or may not be open to the public.
    The definition is needed “to clarify what is private space and what is public space and when do they work together symbiotically,” Vander Ploeg said after the meeting.
    Indeed, even the idea of open space has proved confusing. Saying that residents were using the terms “open space” and “public space” interchangeably, city officials issued a notice last January saying the two are not the same thing and there is no requirement that open space be open to the public.
    CRA board members asked for a few clarifications, but voiced no opposition to any of the recommendations. City staff will now study the recommendations, which could come back for formal CRA board approval this month.
    The city has required developers to include open space in their projects since 1988 and adopted formulas developers must follow. For example, if a building is taller than 75 feet, 40 percent of the land must be open space.
    But downtown development was limited for years, and ground to a halt in the Great Recession. Now that projects are springing out of the ground, open space has become a hot-button issue for downtown activists who don’t want projects that look massive and forbidding.
    Some activists were enraged last year when city officials discovered a 2003 memo of which they were unaware that had been used as a guide by planning staff evaluating proposed projects for their adherence to open-space requirements. Officials said part of the memo was erroneous and could have allowed developers to skimp on open space.
    That prompted an exhaustive four-month review of downtown projects approved since 1988. But rather than include too little open space, the review found, developers had delivered 26.3 percent more than required under city ordinance.
    Even so, city officials wanted to make sure the city’s open-space requirements are clear and unambiguous by clarifying the policy.

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