If not, what next?
Related story: Workshop set to evaluate Palmetto Park, Northeast Fifth intersection
By Steve Plunkett
City leaders are waiting to see whether Hillstone Restaurant Group will reopen negotiations on putting a restaurant on the Wildflower site or be replaced by a more eager rival.
Hillstone, which already operates the Houston’s Restaurant west of Interstate 95 in the city, withdrew its proposal to develop a second one at the city-owned parcel on the Intracoastal on Oct. 22, citing a demand from Boca Raton for what it said amounted to “several millions more” in rent.
“I’ve been in business,” Councilman Scott Singer said at a workshop the following Monday. “Sometimes when you get a letter saying we’re no longer negotiating, the next thing that happens is negotiations continue.”
Councilman Michael Mullaugh agreed.
“If there is no response (from us) and that was just a negotiating ploy, we’ll hear from them. If they’re serious, (then it’s) goodbye,” Mullaugh said. “If there is some other restaurateur around Boca who is interested, they can’t possibly not know how to get to City Hall. They can find us, they can make a proposal.”
“It sounds like a soft RFP just went out,” Councilman Jeremy Rodgers added. “People know where to find us if they want to submit something. I think we’re always willing to listen.”
In the meantime, the council asked its staff to determine how much it would cost to make the site, on the northwest side of the Palmetto Park Road bridge, more like a park.
“I’m literally looking at minimal — just so it’s accessible and not gated off, I would say, the bare minimum to open it up so people can throw down a picnic blanket or sit there while we decide what we’re going to use it for long-term,” Rodgers said.
City Manager Leif Ahnell suggested pricing the removal of a wall on the north side of the 2.3-acre parcel, which the city bought in 2009 for $7.5 million.
Hillstone’s letter ending negotiations on the site stunned city officials.
Deputy Mayor Robert Weinroth said Boca Raton bought the land so everyone could have access to the Intracoastal waterfront.
“I think we were moving in that direction and I’m a little disheartened by what occurred,” he said.
In his letter, Glenn Viers, vice president of Hillstone Restaurant Group, explained that the restaurant business “is one of very narrow margins.”
The rent the city sought, combined with escalating property taxes, “would stretch Hillstone beyond reasonably acceptable financial limits,” Viers wrote.
His company had proposed building a $10 million Houston’s restaurant on the site, once home to the raucous Wildflower bar and restaurant. Neighbors of the site fear a restaurant there will overload Northeast Fifth Avenue with traffic and illegally parked cars.
Ahnell said Hillstone originally proposed paying $500,000 a year in base rent with a 5 percent increase every five years and 5 percent of any profits over $10 million going to offset property taxes. The city countered with a plan under which Hillstone would pay the same base rent but with a 2 percent increase every year, he said.
Hillstone then suggested it pay $600,000 in annual rent but be given a $250,000 offset for property taxes, he said.
“They effectively said to us, a reduction in the original proposal to $350,000,” Ahnell said. “We said to them, ‘Why don’t you come in and meet with us face to face and see what we can work out,’ and that was met with the letter we received.”
Mullaugh said Hillstone’s withdrawal was no cause for alarm.
“I don’t see that we actually need to do anything,” he said. “We just have to keep open to other people who are coming along.”
Weinroth agreed. “The decision by Hillstone should not be setting the decision for us that OK, let’s just abandon the idea of this becoming a place where we see something better than either grass and food trucks or a condominium,” he said.
The council also asked Ahnell to find a consultant to devise a comprehensive waterfront plan and to work up costs on moving the city’s barge from Silver Palm Park to make room for another boat launch.
Members also want to know the price of putting floating docks at the Wildflower site.