By Steve Plunkett
Along with choosing a new president of the United States, Boca Raton voters in November will be asked to decide the fate of the city-owned Wildflower property.
The City Council decided to give voters the chance to choose “Yes” or “No” on Nov. 8 whether they agree with a statement: “City-owned land adjacent to the Intracoastal Waterway shall only be used for public recreation, public boating access, public streets and city stormwater uses only.”
A petition drive to possibly overrule the City Council’s intentions to lease the property to the Hillstone Restaurant Group gathered 2,068 signatures, double the 1,030 required. However, their submission came too late to get the question on the Aug. 30 primary election ballot, City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser said.
The City Council was scheduled to vote July 26 on a land-use change, rezoning the parcel, a conditional use and a 20-year lease to the restaurant group. But after the petition drive’s success, Hillstone requested at the council’s June 14 meeting that consideration of the lease be postponed until Nov. 22 and the conditional use until Dec. 13.
Mayor Susan Haynie, at her State of the City speech a week earlier, said “the people get to speak” on the future of Wildflower.
“I certainly don’t support the City Council going around and trying to quickly approve this and get it underway when the people have stood up and want to speak,” Haynie said.
Boca Raton bought the 2.3-acre parcel on the north side of Palmetto Park Road in 2009 for $7.5 million so residents could have access to the Intracoastal waterfront. It then decided to lease the land, the former site of the Wildflower nightclub, to a restaurateur.
The proposed lease would have Hillstone pay the city $600,000 a year for five years, with the payments rising every five years to nearly $700,000 annually in years 16 through 20. The city would pay all property taxes and could get added rent if gross sales exceed targets.
Progress on the restaurant plan did not stop entirely. The city’s Planning and Zoning Board approved the site plan for Hillstone on June 9. And the council introduced ordinances to change the site’s land-use classification and zoning at its June 14 meeting.
Jack Fox, president of the Beach Condominium Association of Boca Raton and Highland Beach, which has 9,000 residents in the city, said the group’s officers met earlier that day to take a stance.
“The Beach Condominium Association supports having a waterfront restaurant with dockage for transient boats on the Wildflower location,” Fox said. “The $7.5 million property has sat dormant for nearly a decade … it needs to give us a return on our investment. We shouldn’t allow this kind of thing to happen.”
A restaurant would also convert an eyesore into a spot with eye appeal and provide boaters a nearby destination, Fox said.
Jackie Reeves, who sits on the board of directors of the Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce, also supported leasing the land to a restaurant.
“As a resident and businesswoman, I am exasperated that it actually has not been turned into a revenue-producing property. It has been sidelined for so many years,” she said.
Stephanie Dimartino, a graduate student, opposed the referendum.
“I live at the Mark, and I want more walkable dining opportunities downtown,” she said. “This would be a gold mine for 120 new jobs, especially those at Lynn University and Florida Atlantic University majoring in hospitality and business.”
But Andrea O’Rourke, president of the nearby Golden Triangle Homeowner Association, urged council members to consider the site as an opportunity for “place-making” rather than a site for a restaurant.
“I have not been to any cities that have a downtown on the waterfront that isn’t utilized in some way as a place-making experience,” she said. “I don’t come back from Chicago or New York City with pictures of the restaurants that I’ve eaten at.”
By Steve Plunkett