By Sallie James
An ambitious “transit-oriented” development that would place as many as 2,500 rental units near Interstate 95 and the airport stalled last month after city officials and angry neighbors posed a slew of questions about roads, traffic and density.
After hours of discussion, Boca Raton City Council members Jan. 23 voted to postpone action indefinitely on proposed land development regulations for Midtown, citing unresolved concerns.
The plan won’t move forward until at least two rounds of public input, likely starting in February.
“The residents in this community care about our future, our legacy,” said council member Andrea O’Rourke. “The way I see it, it looks like a hodgepodge and I don’t want a hodgepodge.”
Resident Tim Day implored the council to reject the proposed land development regulations, saying Midtown as planned would destroy the character of the city by adding so many rentals.
“I believe this plan is the linchpin in converting the suburban bedroom community known as Boca Raton into urban sprawl and all of the attendant problems — the overcrowded schools, the massive traffic jams, the burden on services and the overall diminution of the quality of life,” Day said.
Midtown, proposed by Crocker Partners to be built between I-95 and the Town Center at Boca Raton, is envisioned as a “live, work, play” transit-oriented development where people will live and walk or take shuttles to their jobs in the area, shopping and restaurants.
Several council members wondered if infrastructure for the project should be completed first, or if the developer should be allowed to proceed on a section-by-section basis. Who would pay for the infrastructure and how rights of way would be obtained were also questions that went unanswered.
Council members repeatedly said they needed more specific plans for the sprawling project in order to move forward.
“I have been saying all along a plan has to come first to have a vision. You plan something first,” O’Rourke said. She insisted the developer should present a master plan for the project, saying it would serve as the basis for local zoning ordinances. “We are trying to put the cart before the horse. We need the plan first. The master plan is the guide for our land use, for our future zoning.”
O’Rourke said she received more than 60 emails from residents concerned about Midtown’s potential effect on the area. Many concerns focused on gridlock on nearby Military Trail, a lack of adequate right of way, access roads and turn lanes.
“This is a conversation we need to have rather than talk about the details,” O’Rourke said. “We don’t know how any of this is going to happen other than we want to put 2,500 residential units there. We don’t have a picture of anything else.”
Council member Scott Singer wondered what the developer would offer if the city scrapped a requirement that construction wait until a proposed Tri-Rail station be built in the area. He didn’t get a clear answer.
“If the train station is no longer a requirement, what are the offsetting changes?” Singer asked.
Clara Bennett, executive director of the Boca Raton Airport Authority, voiced concerns about adding so much residential density near the airport, which continues to get busier. The airport has 150 to 200 flights a day, with some planes flying as low as 250 feet on approach, Bennett said.
She requested consideration of a navigation easement because of Midtown’s proximity to the airport.
Mayor Susan Haynie said the request was premature because the city doesn’t know yet where the Midtown buildings will be situated or how tall they will be. Crocker Partners would like permission for a maximum height of 145 feet.
Haynie said the number of proposed rentals may need to be pared down, but disagreed with arguments that the project was not presented in adequate detail.
“I do believe what you’ve shown us here tonight is a good representation of a cohesive, visionary development that will encourage walkability … so I think we have the vision. The comprehensive plan has set the vision for planned mobile,” Haynie said.
Crocker managing partner Angelo Bianco also disputed claims that the city didn’t have enough detail to proceed.
“We are going to be working with staff and you to come up with master plans that work well and site plans that will work well, but it will be evolving over the next 10 years,” Bianco said. Features like setbacks, sidewalks, trees, bike lanes and multimodal reserve lanes would all be addressed, he said.
O’Rourke said the scope of the project requires extra scrutiny.
“The developers were looking to come in and get the zoning changed and get vested rights to build,” O’Rourke said after the meeting. “I felt we had to do planning. This is a major part of our city. It will impact the downtown, it will impact the beach.
“How do we address redeveloping this area? How are we going to look at traffic and pedestrian safety and the road improvements? We can’t just go and approve units without having an overall plan. All of these things were not looked at.”