By Mary Hladky
Crocker Partners has curtailed its contentious legal battle with the city, dropping two lawsuits that sought to compel city officials to allow it to redevelop Midtown.
But Crocker Partners continues to pursue litigation that seeks $137.6 million in damages the developer and landowner claims it has sustained because Boca Raton illegally prevented the redevelopment.
By dismissing the two lawsuits, Crocker Partners has signaled that it is giving up its long-held ambition to transform the 300-acre Midtown, located east of the Town Center mall, into a $1 billion live-work-play area with as many as 2,500 residential units near offices, restaurants and shopping.
“After trying to work with City Council for four years, revitalizing Midtown is off the table — a tremendous missed opportunity for the city and the community,” Angelo Bianco, Crocker Partners’ managing partner, said in a statement issued three days after his company informed the court on Oct. 18 that it was dismissing the lawsuits.
“We are pleased that the Crocker entities have voluntarily dismissed two of their three pending Midtown lawsuits,” city spokeswoman Chrissy Gibson said in an email.
In an interview, Bianco said that after recovering the damages, he will be ready to move on and sell his company’s 67 acres in Midtown.
“We will focus all our attention on the (lawsuit) I feel most confident about,” he said. “When we win, we will get paid for the damages we suffered. At least my investors will get the money the city has taken from them.”
Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Howard Coates Jr.’s July 19 dismissal of Crocker Partners’ damages case played no role in his decision, Bianco said. Crocker Partners has since appealed the ruling to the 4th District Court of Appeal.
Rather, he said he recently reassessed the situation and determined that even if he won the lawsuits, Midtown redevelopment as he envisioned it would not happen.
Crocker Partners had sold its holdings in Midtown but reacquired them five years ago with an eye toward redeveloping an area in need of revitalization.
Bianco then teamed up with other landowners in the area, assembling 300 acres for the Midtown project.
But protracted negotiations with the city led nowhere, and the council has yet to decide whether to allow residential development in Midtown.
Even after a pivotal 2018 City Council vote that did not resolve the issue, Bianco said he still thought it would be possible to create a smaller version of the original project.
But other landowners drifted away, pursuing other plans for their properties. Bianco said Glades Plaza is under contract for sale and landowner Cypress Realty of Florida has put its property up for sale.
An official with Glades Plaza owner Trademark Property Co. declined comment, and Cypress Realty principal Nader Salour did not respond to an email.
“I realized the consortium of property owners is gone,” Bianco said. “It is all breaking apart. Why was I trying to get the relief I asked for (from the courts) when there is not going to be any Midtown development? It would be a waste of time and money.”
Crocker Partners is a longtime developer whose projects include iconic Mizner Park. Its holdings in Midtown include Boca Center, The Plaza and One Town Center — properties that Bianco said eventually would be sold.
The death knell for Midtown sounded on Jan. 23, 2018, when City Council members indefinitely postponed a vote on proposed land development regulations that would have allowed residential development in Midtown if certain conditions were met.
Instead, the council voted to have city staff develop a “small area plan” for Midtown, a decision that kicked final decisions at least a year down the road and badly frustrated Crocker Partners and other landowners.
The council eventually passed what city officials say are land development regulations on Jan. 8. They address improvements to streets, lighting, parking and landscaping, as well as building heights, setbacks and facades, but not residential development.
Crocker Partners’ now-dismissed first lawsuit asked a judge to compel the city to write land development regulations, which the city had said is now moot because it has done so.
The second, a Bert Harris Act case now on appeal, seeks the $137.6 million in damages on grounds the delay in enacting regulations created an impermissible building moratorium that took away Crocker Partners’ property rights.
In a July 19 ruling, Judge Coates sided with Boca Raton and against all of Crocker Partners’ legal arguments.
His order states that the Bert Harris Act provides compensation to property owners who lose existing or vested zoning rights, but not to property owners who do not receive new development rights. It also states that Crocker Partners retained the ability to build commercial, retail and office, as was allowed before and after the City Council passed new development regulations for Midtown.
The now-dismissed third lawsuit, filed March 27, claimed the city made misleading statements in public documents and violated the state’s Sunshine Law to prevent residential development in Midtown.
It also made the explosive allegation that city officials, including two or more unidentified City Council members, acted in secret to thwart Crocker Partners’ plans for Midtown.
In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, city officials said Crocker Partners had made “scandalous” but unsupported allegations which “distract from the fact that Plaintiffs have not stated (and cannot state) a claim for a Sunshine Law violation.”