By Jane Smith
Hudson Holdings promoted its massive Midtown Delray project one last time prior to its City Commission review.
Before the March 6 Delray Beach meeting, two young women stood before the entrance of City Hall, holding baskets full of hand-held signs: APPROVE MIDTOWN YES!
More than six hours later, the 7-acre mixed-use project at the southwest corner of Swinton and Atlantic avenues received a conditional approval by a 4-1 vote.
“We’re obviously happy,” said Steven Michael, a principal in Hudson Holdings. “We are ready to move forward quickly with the design changes.”
He plans to submit design changes for the proposed building on Atlantic Avenue in the second week of April. Then, according to Tim Stillings, the city’s planning and zoning director, planning staff will take about four weeks to review the changes and get them onto a commission agenda.
“Practically speaking, the approvals they received are largely meaningless without approval of the main buildings,” then-Mayor Cary Glickstein said in an email. “I think it will be a great addition to the area, assuming it ever gets out of the ground.”
Midtown Delray was reviewed initially by the city’s Historic Preservation Board. The development houses some of the city’s oldest structures: Cathcart House and Sundy House, built in 1902, and the Rectory, built in 1912.
The board turned down the project twice last year. Members considered most of the new buildings too massive compared with the one- and two-story historic structures. The board also didn’t like that the historic homes would be moved closer to the street to allow the entire block to be stripped of its lush landscaping and a big hole dug for an underground parking garage.
The historic homes then would be moved a second time with better foundations and handicap access. They would sit on top of the garage in a faux park setting.
“This project is the antithesis of historic preservation,” said John Miller, historic board chairman, after the commission meeting. “There were many paths this project could have taken but the developer was out to maximize return from the beginning — which is their prerogative.
“But our boards and commission also have an obligation to protect our historic districts by allowing only appropriate infill which is sensitive and complementary to our historic districts … which in my opinion, they failed to do.”
Hudson Holdings agreed to 18 conditions, including paying $139,800 to the Delray Beach Tree Trust Fund to compensate for removing hundreds of trees; giving $100,000 grants to historic districts in Frog Alley and The Set, the new name for the northwest and southwest neighborhoods; creating a jobs program for residents of The Set; and putting up a $1 million bond that guarantees construction will start within two years.
For the project to work, the city will abandon an alley in the first block of Swinton. “How much is an alley worth?” asked JoAnn Peart, president of the Delray Beach Historic Preservation Trust, during public comment. “It’s got to be at least $1 million.”
Later, she said the city’s comprehensive plan specifically addresses not abandoning alleys in the historic district. Midtown Delray sits in the southern half of the Old School Square Historic District. The Midtown vote made an exception to the plan.
Peart was among 35 speakers who talked about the project.
Fifteen were for it, including Sophia Trionfo, who lives one block from Midtown Delray. She said it was a good project and asked commissioners to “throw us a bone” in the southwest neighborhoods.
“What about the remaining 60,000 residents who live in the city and the generations to come?” asked board chairman Miller, raising the question of whether the city was wiping out its history.
Then-Commissioner Shelly Petrolia cast the lone vote against the project.
“It flies in the face of what we should be protecting,” she said. “They would scrape the ground, move the homes, dig a big hole and then move them back and on top of concrete. They [the homes] wouldn’t be in a natural setting.”
Petrolia, who was elected mayor March 13, said she is not against development in that area or in The Set. She would like to see “South Swinton be redeveloped like North Swinton where historic homes are reused as offices and restaurants, surrounded by grass and trees.”
Midtown Delray is a joint venture between Hudson Holdings and its investor, Rick Marshall.
The development was scheduled to be reviewed by the commission in early February. But Hudson Holdings made last-minute changes the staff hadn’t seen. This included altering Building 9, on Southwest First Avenue, to be split into two buildings and Building 8, on Southwest First Street, to be broken into three buildings.
Even with those changes, the project’s main building, with four floors, on Atlantic Avenue was seen as massive by many in early March.
Then-Vice Mayor Jim Chard suggested removing the fourth floor so that the main building would be only three stories.
“I was all prepared to vote against it,” Chard said. “But then the developer discussed the change with his team and they agreed to make the change.”
Glickstein also wanted the back of the building redesigned to make it more aesthetically pleasing because it faced the historic structures. “Right now, it looks like a Motel 6 from behind,” Glickstein said.
Then-Commissioner Mitch Katz, who made the suggestion of requiring a $1 million bond, said, “If not this project, then what?”
Peart’s group issued this statement in late March: “We are encouraged by Mayor Glickstein’s insistence that they modify the façade of the building [facing Atlantic] that is so inconsistent with the historic district.”
After considering their options, the Historic Preservation Trust members decided not to sue the city to stop Midtown Delray.
“It’s so much better than in the beginning when the developer proposed moving the historic homes across Swinton to create a historic village,” Peart said after the meeting. “I have mixed emotions.”