By John Pacenti
The Delray Beach City Commission voted last month to hand over the reins of Old School Square to the Downtown Development Authority, but not before some additional drama.
Vice Mayor Adam Frankel complained that at a January DDA meeting on Old School Square, members mocked the city, saying it had no choice but to give the authority control over the city’s cultural center.
“When you state you want to collaborate, you work together and you don’t demean city staff, you don’t demean the city departments and you don’t demean the city. You don’t demean all five of us,” Frankel said.
Frankel, who voted against ending the lease with the nonprofit that ran the historic campus for 30 years, was the lone dissenting vote at the commission’s Feb. 7 meeting to the agreement with the DDA.
“We are negotiating into an agreement with a group that is calling us desperate and that wants us to use millions of dollars in taxpayer dollars — and insulting us on top of it,” Frankel said.
DDA Chairperson Mavis Benson apologized to the commission for disrespectful comments made at the DDA meeting.
“That was not one of our board’s finest moments,” she said. “Our meetings concerning this topic have been robust and they have been full of energy. It has gotten us to where we are today.”
She urged commissioners to move past the rhetoric surrounding the removal of the former operators — the nonprofit Old School Square Center for the Arts, Inc. “We can’t associate ourselves with the past,” she said.
Mayor Shelly Petrolia said that personal feelings had to be put aside — noting how she and commissioners Juli Casale and Shirley Johnson had been personally attacked for the decision over the last year by people taking the side of the nonprofit.
“When you really stop and look at it, we have to do something great here and these are the people to do it,” Petrolia said.
City Attorney Lynn Gelin said an agreement had been made with the DDA where the city did not have to take money from its reserves. The DDA lowered its request from $1.3 million to $1 million.
There is still a matter of the March 14 election, though.
Former Planning & Zoning Board member Rob Long is running against Casale and has said he wants to return Old School Square to the nonprofit. So has Angela Burns, who is running for the seat Johnson is vacating because of term limits.
Petrolia, Casale and Johnson voted to terminate the nonprofit’s lease because of financial reporting concerns and its undertaking of renovations to the Crest Theatre without informing commissioners. Supporters of the nonprofit, such as Friends of Delray, have been very vocal with their criticism.
“We have had to sit up here and take for a full year just a battering,” Petrolia said. “The thing about it is, when you know you are doing something right and you know you can take something and make it better and leave it better, you do it.”
City gets Palm Trail refuge
At its Feb. 21 meeting, commissioners voted 4-1 to take over a preserve near the Intracoastal Waterway from the nonprofit Conservation Florida. The city will agree in perpetuity never to develop on the land.
The nearly 1.5-acre preserve consists of three properties, fronting the Intracoastal and on the north end of Palm Trail. The preserve had a market value of $7 million the last time it was appraised, in March 2021.
Petrolia was the lone dissenter.
“What we are doing here is taking on somebody else’s problem,” Petrolia said.
“I know that area is not ever going to be developed, but we are as a city now going to be assuming all of the problems, the flooding, the things that happen all the time that we get calls about.”
Commissioner Ryan Boylston, though, said that the city doesn’t have many opportunities to acquire land and that he was in favor of taking over the preserve so the city can control it.
Public Works Director Missie Barletto told commissioners that by owning the property, the city could fix the flooding problems and provide something the city does not have: a non-motorized boat launch. “Some place where people can put in kayaks or paddle boards,” she said.
In other news, Delray Beach will be the beneficiary of some $180 million allocated to municipalities for stormwater improvements, including bigger pipes and stronger pumps.
Gov. Ron DeSantis announced in February the most recent Resilient Florida grants. Delray Beach will get $10 million for Marine Way for sea wall, roadway and drainage improvements. Delray Beach will also receive $2.5 million for the Thomas Street stormwater pump station.