The Coastal Star

Boca Raton: Lawsuit, zoning proposals add to city vs. Midtown battle

By Mary Hladky

The battle between the city and Midtown developer Crocker Partners has intensified, with Crocker suing the city in May in an effort to keep its project alive and the city in June asking a judge to toss the lawsuit.
Another dispute arose in June, when Mayor Scott Singer proposed ordinances that would replace county zoning regulations — which remained in effect after the city annexed the Midtown area in 2003 — with city zoning regulations. The change would give the city more control over noisy bars and restaurants.
Singer described the ordinances at a June 11 council workshop as a “glitch bill” that would address residents’ concerns about loud music.
But at a City Council meeting the next day, attorney Henry Handler said the disagreements between Crocker Partners, his client, and the city will “only be exacerbated” by the ordinances. “This will likely lead to disparate piecemeal zoning regulations, which will drive the city and major Midtown landowners further apart and exacerbate existing disputes,” he said.
Public hearings on the ordinances will be held July 24 and Aug. 21 before they could be adopted. The City Council is expected to discuss the litigation in a closed-door session July 24.
The lawsuit, filed May 23, accuses the city of treating Crocker Partners differently from other property owners and not following its normal procedures for project approval.
It seeks to have a judge compel the city to write land development regulations for Midtown. The lawsuit also asks a judge to rule that the council’s delay in adopting ordinances containing those regulations and its Jan. 23 vote to instead develop a “small area plan” for Midtown are illegal and invalid.
The lawsuit aims at rules imposed on Midtown, which Crocker Partners says are unconstitutional and create an impermissible building moratorium.
They include a mandate that a new Tri-Rail station be operational, all street infrastructure be done and improvements to Military Trail finalized before the proposed construction of as many as 2,500 housing units would be approved.
No similar requirements were put in place before the city established regulations for the Northwest planned mobility development in 2015, the lawsuit states. Midtown also is a proposed planned mobility development.
The lawsuit amounts to asking the city “to do its job” by approving the regulations for Midtown that would allow Crocker Partners to submit development plans to the city, said Crocker Partners managing partner Angelo Bianco.
“They were supposed to do this in 2011. We are asking a judge to get them to do it.”
Crocker Partners told the city in April that it planned to sue for $137 million because the approval delays left it unable to redevelop three properties it owns in Midtown: Boca Center, The Plaza and One Town Center.
Bianco said if he wins on the most recent suit, he would abandon plans to seek damages.
“The last thing I want to do is hurt the taxpayer,” he said.
In its June 14 motion to dismiss, the city argues that it is not required by law to enact land development regulations for Midtown and a judge cannot decide the validity of those regulations in ordinances that have not been enacted.
“Plaintiffs are seeking relief in the wrong venues, have brought stale claims, have wholly failed to allege the basis for their claims and are seeking decisions on matters the are not ripe for adjudication,” the city’s motion states.
Crocker Partners originally joined with other landowners in the Midtown area in an ambitious plan to redevelop about 300 acres between Interstate 95 and the Town Center mall. They envisioned a “live, work, play” transit-oriented development where people would live in new residential units and walk or take shuttles to their jobs, shopping and restaurants.
But delays in enacting ordinances that would allow the Midtown project to go forward caused the group to break up, and some are moving ahead with individual redevelopment plans. They include mall owner Simon Property Group, the now-closed Sears building owner Seritage Growth Properties and Glades Plaza owner Trademark Property Co.
Even so, Bianco thinks he can create a smaller version of Midtown, with fewer residential units, on about 80 acres that Crocker Partners controls, provided the city sets parameters for what can be built in that area.
The city has hired two consultants, Community Marine and Water Resource Planning and Larch Design Plus, to help it create a small area plan. The contracts total nearly $50,000.
The city now expects to have a small area plan crafted by no later than December, which would then be formally adopted by the City Council, a city spokeswoman said.
The consultants invited the public May 23 to offer their vision about how Midtown could be redeveloped.
About 120 residents attended the session at the Spanish River Library. They split into groups and came up with general ideas on Midtown’s look.
Each group’s ideas shared similarities, such as low density, low- or mid-rise buildings, pedestrian friendly, lots of green space and improvements to Military Trail.
Residential units would number no more than 1,250, and many people wanted fewer.
Jim Anaston-Karas, principal of Community Marine and Water Resource Planning, said another public session is planned for September.

NOTE: Due to a production error, an earlier version of this story did not appear in the June edition of The Coastal Star.

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