By Mary Hladky
A major residential and retail project that would rise in a blighted area on the southwest edge of downtown has Planning and Zoning Board support despite opposition from nearby residents who argue the development is too big and will worsen already clogged traffic on Camino Real.
The planning board voted 4-1 on Nov. 8 to recommend that the Boca Raton City Council approve Camino Square on a 9-acre shopping center site at 171 W. Camino Real, where a Winn-Dixie operated for years before closing in 2010. The Community Appearance Board earlier recommended approval 6-0.
The first phase of the project would include two, eight-story luxury apartment buildings with a total of 350 units and two parking garages on the eastern portion of the site, just west of the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. The second phase on the western portion would have two retail buildings that would be visible from Camino Real and surface parking.
The developer is FCI Residential Corp., a real estate subsidiary of sugar producer Florida Crystals Corp.
After the planning board unanimously rejected the project in January, FCI made numerous changes to its plans.
City staffers acknowledged that the project is much improved, but even so recommended against approval. They want the apartment buildings constructed on the northern portion of the property near existing residential and improvements to internal driveways to make them more pedestrian-friendly.
But the staff’s biggest concern was that the development will worsen already bad traffic congestion on Camino Real.
FCI attorney Ele Zachariades said Camino Square would enhance the city.
“There is one parcel in the downtown that is still blighted,” she said. “We would like to be good neighbors and clean up this area.”
FCI has addressed many of the previous objections and now the project is in full compliance with city rules, she said.
The developer does not want to move the apartments to the northern portion of the site because it makes more sense to build the parking garages along the FEC tracks to act as a sound buffer and the residential buildings west of them. The developer’s traffic consultant said the project would add 565 net daily trips to streets, but would not worsen congestion.
Many residents at the meeting said they welcomed redevelopment of the blighted area. Even so, only two, including a representative of major downtown landowner Investments Limited, spoke in favor of Camino Square.
J. Albert Johnson, president of the 2,400-member Camino Gardens Association, said the city has not kept its promise to upgrade traffic infrastructure.
As a result, the project “will create a nightmare,” he said. “It will create absolute chaos.”
Many other speakers agreed, and a number said the city needs to improve traffic infrastructure before allowing new development in the area.
“We are being overwhelmed by traffic,” said Camino Gardens resident Gertrude Lewis.
When board member Larry Snowden asked whether the city is working to resolve existing traffic problems on Camino Real, city traffic engineer Maria Tejera said there are no plans to do so. He also asked if the developer was willing to decrease the number of rental units to lessen the project’s impact on traffic.
Zachariades said FCI would not. Downtown development ordinances allow FCI to build taller buildings with more units than those proposed, but the developer chose not to do so to avoid creating too much density, she said.
Board member Rick Coffin said Camino Square is a good project, but the developer is at a disadvantage because the city has not addressed traffic issues.
“I am voting in favor of [Camino Square] to put more pressure on the city to live up to their obligations,” he said.
The planning board imposed one condition in granting approval: FCI will have to add a southbound left-turn lane at the intersection of Southwest Third Avenue and West Camino Real to improve road safety and traffic flow.