By Mary Thurwachter
Vocal residents crowded the council chambers for the Aug. 8 Lantana town meeting and got what they asked for — a unanimous vote to deny a proposal to build 231 apartments on the former Kmart property.
The project, called Lantana Village, seemed doomed a month earlier when it came before the council for the first time, even though many who attended a community meeting previously were enthusiastic. Town staff, however, strongly recommended denial at that July 11 meeting, but council members wanted a little more time to mull it over and postponed the vote until Aug. 8.
The development plan presented by the Morgan Group called for the old Kmart building to be razed to make way for five, four-story buildings and entry from Greynolds Circle. Amenities included a dog park, gym, pool, upgraded parking lot and a pocket park on the north end of the site at the northwest corner of Dixie Highway and Hypoluxo Road. The apartments would be fenced in for security reasons.
The proposal included cosmetic improvements for retail portions of the property, including Winn-Dixie and West Marine. Four out-parcels — Bank of America, Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King and a vacant building last occupied by IHOP — were not part of the application.
When Kmart shuttered its store in the 18.6-acre shopping center owned by the Saglo Development Corp. of Miami about two years ago, Saglo tried to find another tenant but came up empty-handed. That’s when the Morgan Group stepped in and proposed transforming about 8 acres of the property into an apartment complex.
Cushla Talbut, an attorney with Greenberg Traurig who was processing the application, said the Morgan Group’s $65 million investment “would provide significant tax revenue increases for the town and revitalize a site that is definitely in need of some love.”
But the town staff — and residents who turned out in force at the August meeting — weren’t feeling the love.
Nicole Dritz, director of development, said the project was not in line with “the spirit or intent of town codes.”
The plan “almost draws an imaginary line around three entirely separate parcels that are otherwise unrelated,” she said, referring to the Winn-Dixie area, the apartments and the Lantana Pizza building. “In fact, it feels this is an attempt to garner those 231 units on a site that only approximately 133 units would be allowed otherwise.”
Residents said the apartment complex would bring more crime and traffic and would benefit developers — not people who live in Lantana. Some vowed to vote council members out of office if they failed to turn down the proposal.
One resident, Stephanie Forman, submitted a petition against the development, collected on change.org and signed by 850 residents.
“Our cozy town does not need to be overrun by overdevelopment of apartments and condos,” Forman said. “We need another business or two, or even revitalization of the shopping center as a whole to help boost our local economy.”
Catherine Skervin, a longtime council watcher, said “a mini-mall would be nice.”
But Chamber of Commerce President Dave Arm, the only resident who spoke in favor of the apartment complex, said Lantana doesn’t need more retail, it needs more housing.
“We paid about $170,000 to the Treasure Coast Planning Council to do a master plan and their economists have told us we need hundreds more housing units,” he said. “Where are we going to put them if we don’t put them on this site? There is no other location. If we don’t do this, if we don’t add any (housing), don’t complain if your rent goes up, because that is the nature of supply and demand.”
The study done through the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council also concluded that the town has too many retail properties, and Arm, who recently sold his gym on Lantana Road after it had been on the market for four years, agreed.
“We didn’t get one single retail tenant to come up and make us a proposal” to buy the gym, Arm said.
“So, when our building was bought by a developer, he realized there is no retail and we convinced him to take a below market rent to keep the place a gym. It does prove there is no retail. Be careful what you wish for, because if this doesn’t go through, you know you’re going to end up with a giant thrift store, or a big box of nothing there, because there is no demand.”
Vice Mayor Pro Tem Lynn “Doc” Moorhouse, who made the motion to deny, said “the biggest thing is this is not a single, cohesive developmental planned project. I don’t care how you trim it or turn it, it’s not. They took the whole 18.6 acres to stuff that development on 8.84 acres fenced in, not walled in — it looks like a little prison to me.”
Talbut said she recognized the interest residents expressed to have more stores in the shopping center, but said “if the demand were there, if there was somebody else who wanted to go there to elevate the tenants as you all want, that would have been one thing. But that’s just not going to happen. What you have there currently is not going to elevate the town and what we’re proposing will.”
If the apartment proposal dies, she said, property owners would seek to fill the old Kmart building with whatever tenant they could find, and past attempts haven’t been fruitful.
But there may be another option. Only days after the Aug. 8 meeting, Dritz met with another developer, one whose portfolio “is impressive in terms of projects I think we’d hope to see there,” she said in an email.
The discussion went well, she said. “We spent time discussing what the property is zoned for, allowable uses, special exception uses, the site plan submittal process, providing a lot of resident feedback that we heard from the previous developer’s submittal, and providing staff’s strong desire for a true redevelopment effort for the entire site.”
She “encouraged the developer to gather the public feedback/input on any future proposals through a public meeting or workshop.”
Dritz said she had not seen a rendering or sketch because this was “a very preliminary conversation,” one reason she did not name the developer.
And she’s waiting to hear from council members regarding their preferences.