By Mary Thurwachter
The cluster of yellow, blue and pink Key West-style cottages on the north side of Ocean Avenue between Oak Street and Lake Drive has been part of downtown Lantana’s landscape for decades.
Today, many of the 12 buildings are in various states of disrepair and only one — a bungalow at 201 E. Ocean Ave. — is inhabited. It is home to Oceano Kitchen, a small but widely acclaimed restaurant with a big following.
Everyone talks about bringing in new businesses downtown, but that’s not likely to happen any time soon because of challenges faced by the town, the property owners and the businesses that would like to locate there, according to Nicole Dritz, Lantana’s development services director.
Dritz brought members of the Town Council together in late May for a workshop to address the downtown issues.
The property owners, the sister-and-brother team of Marsha Stocker and Steven Handelsman, want to rent out the buildings to businesses. Their parents, Burt and Lovey Handelsman, previously owned the cottages, which are on four contiguous property parcels.
Although potential businesses have made inquiries, Dritz said the cottages must be brought up to code — and have site plans approved if they have been vacant for more than six months — before the businesses can receive the business tax receipts needed to operate. Some of the buildings have been unoccupied since 2004.
Dritz said the inquiries include those from a jet-ski rental company, a doggie daycare and an artist village.
“One developer wanted to take all four parcels and do a unity of title so we would treat it as one, and do a very Key West-style boutique resort,” she said.
Jeremy Bearman, owner of Oceano Kitchen, had hoped to rent the former Mario’s Italian restaurant building at 225 E. Ocean Ave. to expand his business, but was unable to reach a lease agreement with the owners. He had planned to spend $500,000 for extensive renovations on the building.
Dritz said the town staff had been working with the property owners and that some improvements have been made, but “they are still not in compliance in terms of what we issued the code violations on.”
She said: “The code fines are getting up there and we have told them, ‘Listen, if you want a break on those code fines, show us what you’re going to do, get an application in, give us something to go on.’”
The owners have been fined $250 a day per parcel and those fines have surpassed $300,000, according to Dritz. None of the fines has been paid to date.
The owners prefer not to sell, Dritz said. “They would like to keep the structures as is and get tenants to rent those. They aren’t completely taking off the table working with a developer, maybe doing some kind of land lease where they lease the land and the developer comes and builds something on it.”
In an email reply to questions from The Coastal Star, Stocker said, “We are trying to work out a resolution so that these units can be rented. If we cannot come to a satisfactory resolution we will need to re-evaluate our options.”
‘Frustrating for everybody’
The empty cottages on Ocean Avenue have been a concern to the Chamber of Commerce for years.
“It’s frustrating for everybody — for us at the Chamber, for the town and for the residents. That little street could be so awesome,” said Dave Arm.
“As president of the Chamber, I’ve said I’d love to see that become a mini–Atlantic Avenue or a mini–Lake Avenue, where you could go have a drink in one place, have dinner in another, have dessert in another and go stop at a little boutique or something.
“Stroll Ocean Avenue. And right now, you’ve got a gap in there. That’s a damn shame. It’s frustrating and there just doesn’t seem to be a solution. Until the owners decide to play ball, I can’t see anything happening.”
Parking also has been problematic for downtown businesses. In 2019, to help the businesses, the town decreased its downtown parking requirement from 25 spaces per 1,000 square feet of gross floor area to 12 spaces. And last September, when Bearman came to the town seeking relief from the requirements that called for 49 spaces for the Mario’s site, he was granted a variance reducing the number to 18.
There are different ways to deal with parking, Town Attorney Max Lohman told the council at the workshop.
“Municipalities that have the constraint parking challenges similar to ours draw a box, they pick a zone, they change the parking requirements in that zone. Many of you have said you’ve never had a problem parking. ... Which would lead me to think that maybe, under the circumstances, the parking requirements are too strict in that area. And then, it would be something we could look at to potentially change,” he said.
“Then again ... if those vacant parcels ever become occupied, there’s a chance you might have a parking problem. But honestly, having a parking problem is a good problem to have. If you don’t have a parking problem, people aren’t coming. So, if you get a parking problem, we will figure it out.”
Lohman said it’s almost better to relax the regulations and then address the problem when it comes.
He said the town could better utilize the parking lot at Sportsman’s Park at night.
“You could potentially monetize that,” Lohman said. “Those large boat trailer parking spots could easily be chopped up into two or three.”
Another idea, he said, would be for the town to hire a valet service to benefit all the Ocean Avenue restaurants. “You could assess them (the businesses) the cost of it so they would be specifically benefiting from it. I’m not saying that’s the right solution, but I’m saying there are other solutions.”
Others suggestions are to add more parking spaces at Lyman Kayak Park or at the tennis courts at the recreation center.
Dritz asked the council to weigh in on how to proceed.
“Do you wish for us to continue to capture those site plans like we are, or do you wish to see vacancies filled quickly, keeping those existing buildings with existing spec conditions in play, so that would require a code change to just basically eliminate the need for compliance?”
By consensus, council members agreed to continue enforcing the zoning laws that require site plans, landscape plans and signage. They want to keep the six-month vacancy requirements and will review special exception uses for each zoning district. And they are open to further loosening parking requirements.
“I like what you’re doing,” council member Lynn (Doc) Moorhouse told Dritz. “A lot of those places look like crap to me. I live next door to this. They’re falling down.”
Mayor Robert Hagerty said he wanted to stay the course. “I like the site plans. I like working the way you’re doing it. The problem I’ve got is if we leave those houses ... the same way that they are, they are decrepit. People could be injured.”