The Coastal Star

Boca Raton: City faces clashing visions of viable downtown

Live Work Play: Second of a three-part series looking at the downtowns of  Delray Beach, Boca Raton and Boynton Beach

Derek Vander Ploeg (right), architect for Mizner Park, walks across the plaza. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star


By Tim Pallesen

Boca Raton had no downtown through most of its history.

Now a downtown is growing rapidly — and city officials aren’t sure where the new growth will lead.

Boca Raton has given zoning approval for 1,700 apartments to be built.

“We don’t have a lot of history with the magnitude of residential that’s coming into the downtown right now,” John Hixenbaugh, the city planning and zoning director, admits. “Because there have been so many projects approved at one time, we don’t know what the cumulative impact is going to be.”

City leaders herald the new residential construction as the missing component for the downtown to evolve into an exciting place where young professionals live, work and play.

“A pedestrian-friendly downtown is our mantra,” Mayor Susan Whelchel said. “We have put millions into making our downtown look inviting, but a pedestrian-friendly downtown does not happen unless we have pedestrians living down there.”

Residents who own nearby single-family homes are worried about who their new neighbors will be. Banks are lending money only for developers to build rental housing, according to city leaders and developers.

“This leads to transient residents who are not vested in the community,” said Andrea O’Rourke, president of the Golden Triangle Homeowner’s Association.

Developers believe the rental market is strong enough to fill all 1,700 downtown apartments. But local economist Ann Witte disputes that, saying a glut of empty apartment towers might become subsidized government housing.

“That certainly would change the tenor of our community,” Witte warned.

The uncertainty over Boca Raton ’s future downtown is partly because Boca, unlike Delray Beach, never had a historical east-west business street like East Atlantic Avenue.

“We’re not Delray,” Whelchel explained. “Their homegrown downtown was a home run with its road to the beach. Boca Raton didn’t have that.”

Andrea O’Rourke, president of the Golden Triangle Homeowners Association,
stands on land where a 378-unit apartment is planned on Palmetto Park Road.
Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

 Boca Raton tried to correct that omission with a 1989 downtown master plan that picked East Palmetto Park Road to be that east-west boulevard.

The new city center extends from Mizner Park south to Royal Palm Plaza and from the Intracoastal Waterway west to the FEC railroad tracks.

Mizner Park was the award-winning mix of entertainment, shops, residences and office space that got the new downtown development rolling.

“But Mizner Park was only meant to be the beginning of development as an example of how to do it,” recalled Derek Vander Ploeg, the project’s local architect. “It has been difficult to do again for various reasons through the years.”

To make the downtown attractive to developers, the city spent $7 million four years ago for underground utilities and landscaping to beautify Palmetto Park Road and nearby streets.

The city also hired Urban Design Associations to tweak the downtown master plan.

“We began to realize that pedestrians who live there are looking for certain things,” Whelchel said. “We still have a way to go on retail. The council wanted to see action items to go with the words live, work and play.”

Several developers were ready to build downtown condos projects when the construction industry collapsed five years ago.

Now construction is resuming for apartments. Boca Raton has approved more than triple the number of downtown apartments that Delray Beach has. Boca’s buildings will be much higher with many more apartments per acre. The maximum building height in Delray Beach is five floors. But the height in Boca Raton  is generally nine or 10 floors with 15 floors possible under the city’s interim design guidelines. The extra floors allow Boca Raton to double the density.Developers say apartments will be a larger boost to the city’s year-round economy than condos, which often are only winter residences.

“We have lagged behind in our production of housing that’s occupied year-round,” developer attorney Charlie Siemon said. “Businesses have had feast or famine. The winter was robust and the summer was slim pickings.”

“To sustain the downtown, we have to have people who are here all the time to support the shops and restaurants,” Hixenbaugh agreed.

Advocates for downtown development hope to attract 63,000 commuters who drive into Boca Raton to work, according to the Census Bureau. “Living downtown would be a huge savings for them,” Vander Ploeg said.

Lord & Taylor’s decision to open downtown this year is significant to the downtown’s appeal, advocates say. 

“The fact Lord & Taylor picked Mizner Park rather than the Town Center mall speaks volumes about the downtown as a place to be,” Hixenbaugh said. “I can’t imagine why a young professional wouldn’t want to live downtown.”

But the bandwagon for downtown development hit a bump last year when the City Council approved the 378-unit Archstone rental project, drawing objections from nearby homeowners.   

“Our City Council has taken the position that any development is progress,” O’Rourke said. “It’s obvious that the legacy they want to leave is high-density development at any cost.”

The neighbors don’t object to more than triple the density at Tower One Fifty Five the newest downtown project. But O’Rourke says that is because Tower 155 is a condo project. The project won city approval in January. 

Whelchel explains to the single-family homeowners that city officials are powerless to tell a developer to build condos rather than rental units. That is a bank’s decision.

But the neighbors sued and won a major court victory when they demanded a city referendum for voters to decide whether Archstone should be built. The city has appealed the judge’s order.  

As tensions increase this year, development advocates appeal to neighbors to support their dream for a dynamic downtown.

“We need to allow people here to make a special place like downtown Delray Beach or Las Olas Boulevard,” Vander Ploeg said.

Opponents respond that there isn’t enough demand for rental apartments. Witte estimates city growth will only support 400 new rentals. The fear is a glut of empty apartment buildings like South Florida ’s unsold condo glut.

“At some point, the market will not support all of them,” Hixenbaugh agreed. But nobody knows when that will be.

The mayor says not to worry. “We will know before it becomes too much and too late,” Whelchel said.                

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Comment by Karen Lindholm on January 31, 2013 at 5:52pm

This is good writing...

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