By Larry Barszewski
Boynton Beach residents and business owners prefer to see restaurants and retail stores built on a prime downtown site owned by the Community Redevelopment Agency, a recent survey says.
Far fewer think apartments or condominiums belong on the land on the west side of Federal Highway between Ocean Avenue and Boynton Beach Boulevard.
Those sentiments conflict with proposals made last year by private developers pushing their own visions for the 2.6-acre property to the north of Hurricane Alley Raw Bar and Restaurant.
Four of the six unsolicited proposals received by the CRA featured residential components of between 220 and 243 units on its property, purchased for $3 million in 2018. Those proposals also contained a mix of other uses, including commercial, retail, office, a parking garage and open space.
City commissioners have high hopes for the property they’re getting set to market to would-be developers. While they requested the survey, they are not wed to all its findings. The commission, acting as the CRA board, plans to solicit new proposals from developers in April.
“I fundamentally believe that the project will be more successful with residential because it will be more economically viable and it will bring more traffic — foot traffic — to the downtown,” Commissioner Justin Katz said during the CRA board’s March 9 meeting. “It’s good for business. It’s good for safety. You know, more regular people walking around the streets keeps people who are up to no good away. So, I just, I think that it needs to be mixed use.”
Commissioners are not only concerned about what’s included in a future development, but how it looks. Vice Mayor Ty Penserga said he would give extra consideration for innovative architectural features such as rooftop restaurants and bars. Commissioner Christina Romelus is also seeking a “wow” factor.
“I want to incentivize whoever will be coming in here to, one, not give us a mediocre product but to give us the best of the best product, because I think this is, again, like the entrance to the eastern side of the downtown,” Romelus said. “I want this to be a destination location.”
Katz said any development needs to expand the alley behind Hurricane Alley, turning it into a wider plaza and walkway that would also have outdoor café seating.
“To me, that is a plaza that could draw people,” Katz said. “The space needs to be bigger than what developers might want to make it.”
Commissioners decided in December not to go with any of the unsolicited proposals received until they — with community input — developed their own ideas for the site’s future. As part of that effort, the CRA conducted an online survey from February into March that received 507 responses.
The survey results show:
• When given multiple options for elements they would like to see in a future development, 78% of respondents included restaurants, 70% included retail, 39% included office space and only 32% selected either condominiums, apartments or both. And 12% favored none of the choices.
• Less than half — 49% — were interested in a hotel on the site and 53% were OK with either a grocery store or corporate headquarters there.
• The most desired elements were public parking (81%) and larger-than-required open spaces (80%). Some 53% said they wouldn’t mind paying to park there for special events or during high-traffic times.
• If residential units are built on the site, only 28% favored having a mix of units that would be affordable to a range of income levels.
• There was support for tying transportation uses to the site, with 72% in favor of it having mass transit, rail or ride-sharing amenities. Those could include a bus or train station, or spots for Uber pickups and drop-offs and for bicycles. Commissioners hope to secure a Brightline passenger train station at or near the site.
After reviewing the survey results, commissioners had different perspectives on the best uses of the land. While Romelus supported a residential element and didn’t want a hotel on the property, Commissioner Woodrow Hay was just the opposite.
Hay said a hotel made sense because of the site’s proximity to Interstate 95. He thought it would attract people attending events as far away as Delray Beach and Boca Raton because “there are never enough hotels.” Hay also said there are plenty of other areas for residential development in the city instead of downtown.
Mayor Steven Grant said he was fine with not having residential and instead focusing on the restaurant, retail and office components that scored higher on the survey.
The CRA staff is going through the commission’s comments to put together a request for proposals that the commission is expected to vote on in April.
What ends up being built may be more heavily influenced by what developers say is financially feasible. Even when a project is selected for the 115 N. Federal Highway site, that’s not a guarantee of what’s to come.
Commissioners don’t have to look any farther than across Federal Highway from the property, where a vacant lot sits where a major mixed-use residential development — Ocean One Boynton — received site plan approval in 2017. Its developer now says the original plan “is not economically feasible” and, along with a venture partner, is “considering other alternatives” to move forward, according to Bonnie Miskel, an attorney for the developer.
For the 115 N. Federal Highway project on the west side of Federal, Grant would like to see some missing adjacent parcels included in the development. He is most eager about having the Boardwalk Italian Ice & Creamery site in the final project because of its frontage on Federal Highway.
The Boardwalk property is owned by Davis Camalier, who happens to be the developer of the stalled Ocean One project. That was also on the March 9 CRA agenda, seeking a time extension on its commitment to begin construction of a tree-lined public plaza on its property.
Camalier doesn’t want to spend money building a plaza — designed to run along Boynton Beach Boulevard east of Federal Highway — that may have to be ripped up and relocated depending on how the development plan changes.
Camalier offered to pay the city $10,000 to receive an extension on the plaza’s construction, although commissioners in February said they wanted a $20,000 payment for a six-month extension. Grant said he was concerned going with the higher dollar amount might create bad blood that would make negotiations more difficult to acquire Camalier’s Boardwalk property.
In the end, commissioners stuck with asking for $20,000 to approve a six-month extension to Sept. 16. They requested Camalier respond to the offer before the CRA board’s April meeting. Ú