By Mary Hladky
Frustrated that the city has not enacted land-use regulations that would allow its Midtown project to be built, Crocker Partners has told the city it plans to file a lawsuit seeking $137 million.
The April 10 notice of claim for compensation said that Crocker Partners is seeking the money because it is unable to redevelop three properties it owns in Midtown — Boca Center, The Plaza and One Town Center.
“The city has pushed us into a position where we have to sue,” said Crocker Partners managing partner Angelo Bianco. “If the city wants to take away our property rights, they can pay for them.”
Crocker teamed up with other landowners in the area three years ago to propose a massive redevelopment of 300 acres located between Interstate 95 and the Town Center mall. They envisioned a “live, work, play” transit-oriented development where people would live in up to 2,500 new residential units and walk or take shuttles to their jobs, shopping and restaurants.
That concept is dead, Bianco said. Other landowners are moving ahead with their individual plans.
“We are no longer coordinating our redevelopment plans because they don’t exist anymore,” he said. “People are breaking off and doing their own thing now.”
Attorneys representing Town Center mall owner Simon Property Group and Sears building owner Seritage Growth Properties asked the City Council on Feb. 26 to “bifurcate” their properties from the Midtown plans, citing concerns that the now-closed Sears would sit vacant until the city enacts zoning changes and land-use regulations.
Council members supported their request.
Attorney Bonnie Miskel, who represents Simon, also indicated she would be coming forward with requests for zoning changes for the mall that are more modest than those sought for Midtown. Simon had wanted to build some of the Midtown residential units.
Seritage, which owns a parking lot near the Sears building, is now planning to transform the property into an open-air shopping and entertainment complex.
Michael Marshall, who represents Glades Plaza owner Trademark Property Co., made a similar request at the April 23 City Council workshop meeting.
Trademark “cannot afford to wait any longer” to start redevelopment of its property, Marshall said. Delays in approvals for new land-use regulations have put Trademark’s investors “in a risk position that is simply intolerable.”
“We simply don’t have the flexibility and resources to await the small-area plan and the adoption of any regulations that may follow,” Marshall said.
Trademark expects to spend $40 million on the first phase of Glades Plaza redevelopment, including $5 million on the improvement of the Northwest 19th Street corridor using existing zoning.
The company intends to front retail along 19th Street and add wide sidewalks, safe crosswalks, decorative pavers and outdoor lighting, Marshall said.
City officials told Marshall that Trademark can file redevelopment plans with the city under current zoning rules.
According to an email sent to city officials, Cypress Realty, which owns the Strikes bowling center, asked city officials to meet to discuss “our options on how to proceed.” A representative of Cypress Realty did not respond to a call from The Coastal Star about its plans.
If these and other landowners followed Crocker’s lead and pursued litigation against the city, total claims could exceed $400 million, Bianco said.
But those heading in their own direction may have no interest in doing so, since they will have to work with the city to get approval for their new plans.
The grenade that blew up Midtown was lobbed on Jan. 23, when City Council members 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 Midtown, an idea proposed by council member Andrea O’Rourke.
They left it to Development Services Director Brandon Schaad to determine what, exactly, such a plan was and how to create it.
On Feb. 12, Schaad said the plan would not be completed until July at the earliest, and more probably later in the year.
That was the final straw for Bianco, who had spent $300 million buying back Crocker-developed properties in the area that Crocker had sold and at least $1 million on Midtown planning.
“It became obvious this was a ploy to create a [building] moratorium and take away our property owners’ rights,” he said. “At that point, we had no other choice and had to introduce litigation. That is a real shame.”
Crocker signaled the possibility of litigation in November.
The city, Crocker and other landowners had been working together to develop land-use regulations and zoning for Midtown. But the city seized control of the process last summer, and the ordinances were revised substantially.
They required that a new Tri-Rail station be built and operational and all street infrastructure, bike pathways, sidewalks and landscaping be completed before any residential units would be approved. The current maximum building height limit of 145 feet was reduced to 105 feet.
Attorneys for Crocker told the Planning and Zoning Board that the requirements are unconstitutional and violate Florida law. The South Florida Regional Transportation Authority is considering a new Tri-Rail station, but Crocker has no control over whether it will be built. The Tri-Rail and infrastructure mandates created an impermissible and indefinite building moratorium, they said.
Crocker filed its notice under the state’s Bert J. Harris Jr. Private Property Rights Protection Act, which gives the city and developer 150 days to reach a settlement. If that doesn’t happen, Crocker could file a claim for compensation in circuit court.
As of late April, the city had not commented on Crocker’s legal action, saying only that it is under review.