The Lansing Melbourne Group proposal shows glass enclosures and an outdoor garden.
By Angie Francalancia
After 20 years of debating the fate of Boynton Beach’s Old High School, city leaders now are in a hurry to see it transformed into an events destination.
Boynton Beach City Commissioners voted 5-0 to negotiate over the next 120 days with Lansing Melbourne Group, who propose converting the 1920s-era building into an events destination under the renouned hand of Palm Beach party planner Bruce Sutka.
And members of the audience applauded — not so much in favoring the proposal over the second one before the city, but to celebrate that the city finally was moving forward with a plan.
“We’re very, very eager and excited,” Commissioner Marlene Ross said as the commission voted. “Let’s move forward.”
“Finally,” one man shouted from the audience.
“This school means everything to my heritage,” said resident Emily Little. “It’s about time we did something.”
Lansing Melbourne is expected to begin working immediately with city leaders to bring its “30,000 feet vision” to reality, with a solid financing plan and an architectural renovation plan that will add space to the old building, but won’t jeopardize getting it on the historical register and qualifying for tax credits.
“The modifications to the building could take it out of the historical category,” said Mayor Woodrow Hay, who, along with Commissioner Bill Orlove initially supported the alternate proposal that would have converted the school into the home of the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History.
But Orlove’s motion to negotiate with New Urban Communities that proposed the museum, along with 10 buildings of rental apartments, failed on a 2-3 vote. Orlove then moved to have the staff work with Lansing Melbourne to solidify its proposal. They’ll report to the commission monthly in anticipation of having a final deal ready in 120 days.
While Commissioner Steve Holzman said he thought they could execute a deal faster, Lansing Melbourne’s Peter Flotz said they’d need the entire 120 days to secure a loan commitment. Part of the hurry is because new federal tax credits, which were part of both projects’ proposed financing structure, are expected to be extremely limited and were not renewed for 2013, city officials advised.
Althought Lansing Melbourne had obtained what it called a soft commitment of bank financing, a firm financial commitment is what would be needed to ensure a deal, said CRA Director Vivian Brooks.
“I don’t know if we’ll have a hard commitment in that time frame,” Flotz said. “But if, in 120 days you don’t like what we’ve done, kiss us goodbye. You’ve got somebody else just waiting for us to fail.”
Both proposals require the city to give away the building. Both ask that the city forfeit for several years the potential tax revenue the project would generate. And both include commercial or residential components designed to generate dollars that would offset renovating the old school that’s been sitting unused for about 20 years. Past studies have estimated the cost of renovating the building, last used as an elementary school in the late 1990s, at more than $5 million.
“We’re trying to skin a very big cat here,” CRA Executive Director Vivian Brooks said. “To make money, there has to be an offset.”
Lansing’s plan is to have restaurants and events generating the dollars and traffic. The group proposes expanding the Old School’s area with two “glass cubes” and including a glass ceiling above the second floor auditorium space for a spectacular event venue.
It’s similar to a plan the group used recently on a project in Sarasota, architect Juan Contin told the commission. It allows the building to be expanded while maintaining its historical integrity, Flotz said.
“When the Louvre was remodeled, this is exactly what they did,” Flotz said. “They put a glass cube entry way.” But he added, “We don’t have their budget.”
The concept would provide an event venue needed in a market where, according to Sutka, other spaces already are booked. The team’s proposal also includes space for four “boutique” restaurants, and envisions spaces to accommodate small retail, a green market, and community programs. A private outdoor garden would provide an extension of the event space.
They envision community classes inside the building, as well as major events that turn Ocean Avenue into the city’s “entertainment district.”
“Bruce Sutka bringing event after event after event is what will make it happen,” Flotz said.
The team estimates bringing an average of 150 jobs each year to Boynton Beach.
Lansing’s proposal had heavy support from several residents, including Voncile Smith, president of the Boynton Beach Historical Society and Barbara Ready, who said the proposal reflects what every community gathering said Boynton wanted — a place for the community to use.
Supporters of Lansing’s proposal also said they believed the second concept would make the city liable for too much money. While Lansing has asked for the tax value of the renovated school for about 10 years — estimated to total about $750,000, New Urban’s proposal would need Boynton Beach to guarantee rent shortfalls estimated to be about $318,000 annually for about the same period.
The second proposal, a collaboration of New Urban Communities with the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History, would leave the Old School building as it is, converting it into about 9,000 square feet of exhibit space. But it would change much of the city blocks that now house the school, library and City Hall buildings. The plan included building 84 rentals to introduce live/work spaces into downtown.