By Mary Hladky
The proposed Midtown development faces significant new obstacles as a result of conditions imposed by both city staff and a city board that would delay the start of construction, reduce the size of the project and possibly torpedo it.
Developer Crocker Partners drafted proposed ordinances that set a framework for how Midtown can be built. But that prompted complaints that the developer had assumed control of a city process, and the City Council ordered staff six months ago take back the reins.
Midtown, to be built between Interstate 95 and the Town Center at Boca Raton, is envisioned as a “live, work, play” transit-oriented development where people will live and walk or take shuttles to their jobs in the area, shopping and restaurants.
As many as 2,500 mostly rental units would be built on nearly 300 acres where no residential exists. A new Tri-Rail station at or near Northwest 19th Street along the CSX railroad tracks would bring people to and from the area.
The proposed ordinances would allow restaurants, bars under certain conditions, hotels, convenience stores and schools. Drive-in restaurants, gas stations, veterinary clinics and outdoor seating or entertainment would require City Council approval.
The city’s redo of the proposed ordinances still allows 2,500 units. But they could not be built until the Tri-Rail station is constructed and operating and Military Trail is redesigned to make it easier to cross and more pedestrian friendly. The tallest buildings in the area now are 145 feet, but the height limit would be reduced to no more than 105 feet.
“We were shocked when we saw that,” Crocker Partners managing partner Angelo Bianco said of the Tri-Rail station requirement.
The city’s Planning and Zoning Board went even further at its Nov. 9 meeting. The board unanimously approved the proposed ordinances, but added conditions that it recommends the City Council adopt.
Board members called for reducing the number of residential units to 600. They want no construction until streets in the area are redesigned, landscaping and other infrastructure work completed, and a shuttle system is operating. Crocker Partners proposed some residential units as small as 500 square feet, but the board recommended a minimum of 700 square feet.
Several board members said the city may need to create a special taxing district for the Midtown area that would pay for roads, landscaping and other improvements.
After Brandon Schaad, director of the city’s department of development services, outlined to planning board members changes city staff made to the proposed ordinances, attorneys representing Crocker Partners said some of the key changes are unconstitutional and violate Florida law.
The Tri-Rail station requirement is “arbitrary and unreasonable and creates an indefinite moratorium [on Midtown construction],” said Deana Falce, a litigator with the Shubin & Bass law firm.
“Private property owners have no control over whether the Tri-Rail station is ever built,” she said.
The requirement for completion of improvements to Military Trail, the main artery through Midtown, leaves the project at the mercy of the city and county, which would jointly plan the work, she said.
The building height requirement is “arbitrary” and will discourage development, Falce said.
An angry Planning and Zoning chair William Fairman chastised the attorneys for not submitting a packet outlining their objections before the meeting. Board member Larry Snowden called the unconstitutionality claim “insulting.”
“We never want to commence legal action unless it is absolutely necessary,” Bianco said after he meeting. “But we need to protect our property rights.”
He expressed hope that Crocker Partners and the city can work together to “find common ground.” But the city restrictions, Bianco said, will “create unreasonable barriers to development.”
Downsizing the project to 600 units is unrealistic for a 300-acre site, he said. “It is such a small number of units, it would not allow us to achieve the minimum necessary to create the integrated, pedestrian-walkable neighborhood we want to develop,” he said.
Midtown should not be dependent on construction of a Tri-Rail station, he said. While he supports mass transit and the station, it “is not necessary for us to achieve … what we want to achieve,” he said.
The South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which operates Tri-Rail, has been considering building a second station in Boca Raton since 2007 and recently launched a new study to evaluate the idea. If SFRTA decides to build one, construction would not begin until 2022.
When Schaad briefed City Council members on the planning board’s decision at their Nov. 13 workshop meeting, Mayor Susan Haynie and council member Scott Singer weren’t certain how to proceed. Council members Robert Weinroth and Andrea O’Rourke said a master plan should be created for the Midtown area, which also would delay construction.
The City Council will consider the ordinances and the planning board’s recommendations again after Schaad completes an analysis.
Two public hearings will be held before final decisions are made.