By Jane Smith
Fed up with sloppy contracts and having to beg for taxpayer dollars, the Delray Beach City Commission will soon consider taking over its Community Redevelopment Agency board.
The final straw was the building naming policy the CRA board approved in late April.
On May 2, interim City Manager Neal deJesus asked city commissioners whether they wanted two naming policies in the city.
“That’s an arrogant power grab,” said Mayor Cary Glickstein. “That board serves at the pleasure of the City Commission. I’m not interested in two separate policies.”
The mayor asked the city attorney about what options are available.
“There’s the nuclear option,” said Max Lohman, city attorney. “The CRA operates as an autonomous board. … The City Commission can sit as the CRA board.” Many other Palm Beach County cities have joint CRA/City Commissions, including Boynton Beach and Boca Raton, the city attorney said.
Lohman will bring a resolution to the May 16 meeting for city commissioners to debate dissolving the current CRA board and replacing it with the City Commission.
“The ‘nuclear option’ is troubling to me and the West Atlantic community,” CRA Board Chairman Reggie Cox said on May 6. He apologized for not phoning sooner. His family was dealing with a medical emergency, he said.
“Why didn’t anyone ask me to roll it back?” Cox said. He did not attend the late April CRA board meeting when the policy was approved. The CRA staff would have worked with city staff to come up with one naming policy for the city, he said.
“There’s more here than what’s being stated,” Cox said. “It’s all about who controls the resources.”
The CRA covers 20 percent of the city, from the interstate to the ocean along Atlantic Avenue where property values are the highest.
“I never supported" taking over the CRA board, said City Commissioner Shelly Petrolia. "I figured more people involved, more diverse input.” But after four years of having to explain to constituents about the inability to use city tax dollars as the commissioners see fit, Petrolia said she’s ready to discuss disbanding the CRA board.
She talked about the lingering iPic contract that still has not closed.
“We don’t know what’s happening on the back side, after we approved the front side,” she said, referring to the extra $400,000 iPic was able to secure from the CRA after a tri-party agreement was approved in November.
The theater company won a CRA bid in December 2013 to pay $3.6 million for a tract of land between Southeast Fourth and Fifth avenues. In recent months, the city has been blamed twice for the developer’s failure to close, forcing the city attorney to spend staff time explaining why the developer was at fault.
The iPic developer also did not have its construction bonds ready, as required in the purchase agreement, Lohman said.
“We submit our requests to the CRA and the board determines what they will do,” deJesus said. “They are a separate entity. We can’t command them.”
Vice Mayor Jim Chard said, “We are the poorer cousins to the CRA. I’m willing to consider it.”
"They want to dissolve an award-winning board," Cox said, referring to the 2015 award from the Florida Redevelopment Association for Creative Organizational Development and Funding for the Fairfield Inn & Suites.
Commissioner Mitch Katz lauded the CRA for helping to create a lively downtown.
“I defended the CRA, they got us to where we are,” he said. But now, he’s ready to consider disbanding the CRA because of recent actions, including the “corporate welfare” to iPic.
Deputy Vice Mayor Shirley Johnson who lives in the Northwest neighborhood that is part of the CRA said, “Millions have been spent over the past 30 years east of Swinton,” the city’s historical divide between upper-income white residents on the east and the lower-income minority residents who live west of Swinton.
Residents in the Northwest and Southwest neighborhoods, recently dubbed The Set, have waited more than 30 years to get little more than an alley paved, Johnson said. “They are disgusted,” she said. “Just be prepared” for talk about a power grab by the commission.
The CRA is posed for success in The Set, Cox said. The agency has a good working relationship with the West Atlantic Redevelopment Coalition, is trying to get a Publix grocery store in the area and has a proposal in process to redo the Uptown-Downtown project.
The mayor also said he was concerned about how the CRA takeover would be perceived by residents in the West Atlantic neighborhoods.
“Perception is the reality,” he said. “I also look at the results. Over 30 years, there has been one development go in on West Atlantic … the hotel.”
Cox said the hotel was not the only development for the West Atlantic area. He pointed to the mixed-use Atlantic Grove and the public buildings of the library, the courthouse and the tennis center.
If the city commissioners have a problem, it's with themselves," Cox said. "They appoint the CRA board members and approve the CRA plan."