By Mary Hladky
A long-awaited report on whether downtown building projects are in compliance with the city’s open-space requirements is now scheduled to be delivered at the April 11 Community Redevelopment Agency meeting.
City Manager Leif Ahnell launched an examination of 74 downtown projects approved since 1988 after the discovery late last year of a 2003 memo used to guide planning staff on what developers can and cannot count as open space in their projects.
Ahnell and City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser say the memo misinterprets a 1988 city ordinance that sets out open-space requirements. As a result, developers may have been able to skirt the rules on open space intended to create attractive downtown projects.
Ahnell has given no hint about what the report will say, even though CRA chairman Scott Singer has repeatedly asked him at meetings for an update.
BocaBeautiful.org, which wants limitations on downtown development, wasn’t content to wait.
President John Gore said the group hired Ames International Architecture of Delray Beach to evaluate three projects: the massive Via Mizner mixed-use complex, the Tower One Fifty Five condominium and the Palmetto Promenade mixed-use development, formerly known as Archstone.
“We knew that would take forever,” Gore said of the city evaluation.
The conclusion? “There was no violation” of the open-space requirements, although Via Mizner, which will include apartments, condos and a Mandarin Oriental hotel, just barely met them, according to Ames International.
But that doesn’t mean all is well, Gore said.
Ames International also found that “clearly there are a number of buildings that are in violation of the architectural design provisions,” he said.
While Gore said that doesn’t necessarily mean they violate the “letter of the law,” they fall short of the “spirit of the law” that new projects should be harmonious with Boca Raton’s signature Addison Mizner architectural style.
“There is no way Via Mizner Phase 1 comports with the Mizner style,” Gore said. “If the City Council had been enforcing the spirit of the law and architectural guidelines, they would never have allowed that building to be built.”
Gore exempts from his critique Tower One Fifty Five, saying the design is acceptable. The two others are “ugly boxes.”
So, BocaBeautiful.org will continue urging the City Council to prevent downtown overdevelopment and “to approve development that is consistent with the architecture and history of Boca Raton,” he said.
Gore and other downtown activists say the city went overboard in analyzing buildings constructed since 1988.
“We are not worried about something built 15 years ago,” he said. “What we are concerned about is development going on right now.”
The open-space requirements are contained in Ordinance 4035.
For example, if a building is taller than 75 feet, 40 percent of the land must be open space. At least 65 percent of the required open space must be uncovered from the ground to the sky. The remainder can be in covered areas such as colonnades or areas under balconies.
But Downtown Manager Ruby Childers told the City Council on Jan. 11 that the 2003 memo incorrectly allows developers to count certain features as open space, such as areas under archways. Over time, the list has been expanded to include upper-story balconies, pool decks and more. It also incorrectly states that open-space language in the ordinance was adopted as a guideline, not a requirement, she said.
Since the memo was unearthed, the approval process for downtown development projects has ground nearly to a halt as the city conducts the open-space evaluation. Ú