The Coastal Star

Boynton Beach: Commission agrees to save old high school

Developer pledges $4.5 million;

city gives itself 90 days to raise $1.5 million share

A multi-year proposal that starts with rehabilitating the old high school (bright pink) has long-term plans

including relocating the city hall and fire station. Other proposed elements include a cluster of townhouses and parking garages.

The proposal restores the facade of the school.

Renderings provided by REG Architects

By Jane Smith

    Boynton Beach City Commissioners fell under the spell cast by preservation architect Rick Gonzalez and his plans to restore the historic Boynton Beach High School.
    On Feb. 2, they voted to proceed with the $6 million project provided financing can be worked out in 90 days. The deal calls for the city to invest $1.5 million.
    Jeff Hardin, president of Stuart-based Straticon Construction, committed to investing $4.5 million. Straticon also will be the general contractor for the restoration.
    “I believe in preservation,” Mayor Jerry Taylor said. “I have to be able to look the taxpayer in the eye and say this was a good deal.”
    Hardin explained the financial end that called for the development team to investigate tax credits for historic properties and how the deal would have to be structured.
    “The building has to be in private hands,” he said.
    Their attorneys will look into whether the deal can be a long-term lease with the city receiving the building at the end of 20 years, or possibly have a buyout in 10 years. The city would have to pay $300,000 annually with a 3 percent annual increase.
    On the city side, staff will have to identify money sources and also look at the buildings where the uses would be combined into the old high school, such as the Civic Center and the Arts Center.
    Once their fate is known, that could clear up what can happen to the rest of the 17-acre area that the city wants to be redeveloped into a town square. Taylor talked about developers asking about the Civic Center and predicted several proposals would come in once the high school’s fate was certain.
    The upcoming city election also played a role in the commission’s willingness to agree at this point and not offend any voters. The mayor’s seat is up, with Taylor facing Commissioner David Merker. He and Taylor were all for unity on the commission.
    “Let’s be together on this,” Merker said.
    Commissioner Mike Fitzpatrick, who is up for re-election, said the $300,000 annual payments and the increases could be a deal-breaker if the city was forced to raise its property tax rate. But he was willing to go along with the project as long as the finances can be worked out.
    Taylor said that the commission would support going forward to investigate whether the high school can be saved, hoping to reduce the number of public speakers. Only 10 residents spoke on the topic at the meeting.
    Boynton Beach native Emilie Little, whose mother is the late Ruth Jones and the previous owner of the nearby Little House Restaurant, became choked up when she started to speak.
    “All of our Boynton family is here. We have fought for this, and fought for this,” she said as she looked at the chamber walls with photos of her uncles hanging on them. “Not just this generation, but generations before us.”
    Other speakers asked for a requirement that Boynton Beach residents be hired in the construction, a contingency clause so that the city would not be harmed if the development team failed to perform and that possible tenants include the Arts Garage in Delray Beach and a private school in Boca Raton that needs to find space.
    Allan Hendricks, of the Community Caring Center, said his group needs space and that could open grant possibilities.
“With your political will, the process will open up,” he said.
    Gonzalez wants to turn the vacant school into a community arts and civic center. He gave a preview of his presentation in December to the Save Boynton High group. His presentation was well-received. The group was formed in August after the City Commission, which owns the school building, voted to demolish the nearly 90-year-old structure listed on the city’s historic inventory.
    He wants to create “a nucleus for the community” by combining the uses in the Civic Center, Madsen Center (Stage Left Theater) and the Arts Center.
    His vision includes:
    • Two retail outlets at both corners on the front of the building that faces Ocean Avenue. A small coffee shop would be perfect, he said.
    • The first floor would contain the children’s art and after-school programs; cheerleading, dance and karate programs; youth leadership separate from the teens group; and a space for community theater with a small stage in the rear.
    • On the second floor in the building’s front, the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency would have offices there. Behind it, would be art gallery space. The gymnatorium would become a community center. It would host commission meetings, weddings and other celebrations that need 300 seats and include a “green room” for preparations. It could also host films and lectures and other cultural events that need 700 seats.
    • He also wants to widen the staircases, redo the restrooms and make them wheelchair-accessible, install an elevator and create a catering kitchen.
    To stabilize the building would cost an estimated $525,000 to $600,000, Gonzalez said. He hopes to open the renovated building by Christmas 2017.
    A potential snag remains in the lawsuit filed by architect Juan Contin in 2013 against the city when it didn’t go forward with his plans to reuse the old high school as an events center. Judge Gregory Keyser ruled for the city on Jan. 15 when he dismissed Contin’s complaint, but he gave Contin 30 days to file an amended complaint. Contin said he would do that.
    The city attorney advised that open lawsuit would not affect what the commission was doing.
    Boynton Beach High School was added to the city’s list of historic places in February 2013. It was designed by prominent school architect William Manly King, who used features from the Mediterranean Revival and Art Deco styles, according to the Boynton Beach Historical Society.
    Barbara Ready, who chairs the city’s Historic Resources Preservation Board, was happy with what she saw at the commission meeting.
    “It saved the building – for today,” said Ready, also a co-organizer of the Save Boynton High group.
    At the start of the meeting, Vice Mayor Joe Casello noted the day was Groundhog Day and also talked about the movie of the same name where the lead actor relives the day over and over.
    “I think it is an appropriate day for the old high school discussion,” he said.

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