Boca Raton: Council tasks city staff with devising rules for Midtown development

By Mary Hladky

Key decisions on how to proceed with the proposed Midtown development have been pushed well into the future.

City Council members on Jan. 23 postponed a vote on ordinances that set a framework for how Midtown could be built.

Instead, they voted 4-1, with Mayor Susan Haynie dissenting, to have staff develop a “small area plan” for the Midtown area between Interstate 95 and the Town Center at Boca Raton, where the developer proposes a “live, work, play” transit-oriented development that would include 2,500 residential units where none now exists.

One problem, however, was that council members and the developer had no idea what a small area plan is. The idea had been advocated by council member Andrea O’Rourke after Midtown neighbors objected to the project, largely out of fears that Midtown would put a lot more traffic on already overcrowded streets. But she was unable to explain specifically what she was seeking.     Council members tossed into city Development Services Director Brandon Schaad’s lap the task of determining what a small area plan would encompass.

What became clear when Schaad presented his report at the Feb. 12 Community Redevelopment Agency meeting was that creating the plan will delay decisions on how Midtown can proceed until July at the earliest, and probably later than that.

Schaad’s proposed schedule would include public hearings in March and April to allow city residents to weigh in, analysis that would be completed in May, recommendations in June and a final report in July.

Schaad described the timeline as “aggressive.”

“We are not guaranteeing this is done in July,” said City Manager Leif Ahnell, adding that the city might need to hire a consultant to help.

Topics that would be considered include the mix of residential, retail and office, design of streets, ideas for a redesign of Military Trail, assessment of right-of-way needs, new infrastructure such as water and sewer lines and roads and how they would be paid for, and other matters such as open space, parking and allowable building heights.

Much of that, however, already has been done by the developer and city staff as the ordinances were developed.

“I am thrilled we are doing this, and I wish we had done this a year ago,” O’Rourke said.

Angelo Bianco, managing partner of developer Crocker Partners, declined to comment after the meeting.

But the delays increase the possibility of litigation. Attorneys representing Crocker Partners contended in November that some key changes city staff made earlier to the proposed ordinances were illegal or unconstitutional.

Bianco has long signaled that he and other property owners in the Midtown area have waited long enough for the city to create the rules by which they can develop the area.

The project has bedeviled city officials from the start. Crocker Partners drafted the proposed ordinances. But that prompted complaints that the developer had assumed control of a city process, and the City Council ordered staff last summer to take back the reins.

That caused delays as staff reworked the ordinances. The revised versions, which were tweaked again after the city’s Planning and Zoning Board offered recommendations, shocked the developer.

Landowners still could build 2,500 units, as originally proposed. But they could not be built until a new Tri-Rail station is operating in the heart of the project and until all street infrastructure is built, power lines buried and landscaping completed. Building heights were reduced to 105 feet from 145. 

One reason for the disconnect on Midtown is that city officials have not seen renderings of what the area redevelopment would look like. That’s because they don’t exist.

Crocker Partners wanted the ordinances in place so they know what will be permitted before they spend $1 million or more on site plans.

Bianco has tried in vain to reassure council members that once the site plans are created, they will have the opportunity to approve or disapprove them.

“We will come to you with a plan,” he said in January. “We need to know before we spend the time and money that we are doing something that is not wasteful. We need the rules. … In all other redevelopments, you get a set of rules first. Then you get a plan.” 

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