The Coastal Star

Boca Raton: Virgin Trains offers to limit development to station, garage

Although Virgin Trains officials have set aside for now their plans to develop land around their proposed Boca Raton station, this rendering shows what city-owned land they previously had wanted to lease for a station and parking garage or have the option to purchase for potential development. Rendering provided

By Mary Hladky

To speed up negotiations with the city, Virgin Trains officials have put aside — at least for now — their land development plans that have complicated efforts to reach an agreement to build a Boca Raton station.

Virgin Trains officials said they “significantly scaled back” their July 19 and revised Sept. 17 proposals that included allowing commercial and residential development along with a station and parking garage on city-owned land east and south of the Downtown Library.

Instead, company officials focused their requests solely on construction of a train station and parking garage when they appeared at the Sept. 24 City Council meeting.

Development “was distracting to the primary reason we are here,” said Brian Kronberg, Virgin Trains vice president of development.

The change “makes the process a lot easier,” said Mayor Scott Singer.

After hearing Virgin Trains’ new proposal, council members thanked its officials for outreach to residents and authorized city staff to continue negotiations.

Virgin Trains’ original proposal was “a big ask of the city,” Singer said. “Now we are seeing something that really feels much more like a partnership.”

Officials said they would return to the council in October with more detailed plans and project renderings.

In a schedule they concede is “aggressive,” Virgin Trains officials want to finalize a deal with the city by year’s end so that a station can be open by the end of 2020.

While development plans are tabled for now, Virgin Trains, formerly known as Brightline, could revive them later.

In the revised Sept. 17 proposal, Virgin Trains made significant concessions but also offered details on how it would develop at least half of the 4 city-owned acres it wants to acquire.

Rather than asking the city to donate the land as it did in July, the for-profit rail service wanted an option to buy a portion of the land at fair market value for a Transit Oriented Development.

Plans are not firm, but Jose Gonzalez, executive vice president of Florida East Coast Industries, a subsidiary of Brightline’s parent company, said at the Sept. 24 meeting that they could include office, commercial, retail, residential and a hotel.

“We will build based on what market needs are,” Gonzalez said.

Later in the meeting, though, he indicated willingness to cede the idea. “If the city doesn’t want to do it, it’s fine. Our feelings won’t be hurt,” he said.

The proposed development is in keeping with what Virgin Trains has done in Miami and West Palm Beach. The MiamiCentral project includes two office towers, two apartment towers, stores and restaurants, while West Palm Beach’s project has a 24-story, 290-unit apartment tower and retail space.

The company also has land in Fort Lauderdale that has not yet been developed.

Another change is that Virgin Trains is now willing to lease the train station and parking garage land from the city for a nominal amount.

That would allow the city to take back its land if Virgin Trains abandons rail service. “In the worst case, you take the land back and have 400 parking spaces,” Kronberg said.

The company still wants the city to build an elevated pedestrian walk-over across Dixie and Federal highways that would give Virgin Trains passengers easy access to the downtown. But it now says it will help the city obtain funding, possibly from the state, for the walk-over.

Virgin Trains also still wants the city to build a garage, which it now says will have 400 spaces. And it wants the city to provide temporary parking spaces for Downtown Library and train passengers if the garage is not finished when the train station opens.

But it will pay for the relocation of the Junior League of Boca Raton’s Community Garden, located along the Florida East Coast Railway tracks east of the library at 400 NW Second Ave.

As in the original proposal, Virgin Trains will build a $25 million, one-story train station.

Many Boca Raton residents are thrilled about the prospect of rail service, saying it will induce more corporations to establish headquarters in the city, increase property values, draw visitors and provide an alternative to clogged Interstate 95.

Singer said the response he has heard from most people has been “tremendous.”

Opposition comes primarily from residents of the Library Commons neighborhood immediately north of the train station site, supporters of the Downtown Library and the Community Gardens’ avid gardeners.

Since July, Virgin Trains officials have been working to win over hearts and minds by meeting with these groups and hearing their concerns. They also offered a train ride to members of the Boca Chamber, winning their enthusiastic support for a Boca Raton station.

The train station and parking garage would have cost the library most of its parking lot. Virgin Trains has said it would make spaces available on the first floor of the garage free to library users.

But that didn’t mollify patrons of the heavily used library, which offers more than 1,200 programs each year to children and adults.

So Virgin revamped its plans so that most of the 165 parking spaces would remain. It also will provide 58 dedicated spaces in the parking garage, so that 181 spaces in all will be available for free. The company also will provide 24/7 garage security.

Even so, library supporters worry that train passengers and employees will use the free library parking rather than park in the garage. They remain concerned about safety. And they say access to the library will be more difficult when the garage is built.

Friends of the Boca Raton Library board president Cyndi Bloom said the changes make her group feel “a little bit better.” Even so, the Friends don’t like possible development that will change the character of the area around the library.

Library Commons residents also remain unhappy about the prospect of looking out their windows to the view of a four-story garage. They want the garage moved elsewhere on the city-owned site and the return of an easement that will allow them to shield their neighborhood from both the garage and the station.

“I want to ride the train,” said one resident. “I don’t want to see the train.”

Gonzalez said he would consider if the garage can be located elsewhere but still near the station. Ú

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