Times change . . . and time changes most things. So it goes for the narrative now being presented by those that defend recent development in downtown Boca Raton. In essence, the narrative basically states two different aspects. First, and most popular: “We are simply building out the plan that was created thirty years ago.” Second, heralded by those on the Planning and Zoning Board in public hearings and restated by others: “We can’t build in the downtown beyond the building rights granted in Ordinance 4035.” These two statements are in response to a growing outcry of the high density construction currently underway in the downtown.

Having heard these phrases multiple times from different sources over the past six months, I have concluded it is no small coincidence. In fact, that is why the label of “narrative” is given. Apparently, certain members of the development community plus several of our elected officials and some of our members of important city boards have picked up the mantra and view it as a simple, yet dismissive, response to those that question the level of development in our downtown . . . with two snaps of the fingers, “Next Topic Please.”

Let’s stay on this topic for a while and see why the narrative is a false narrative. That requires a brief “flyby” of twenty-seven years of Boca history. First of all, it’s true; a development order for the downtown was created in March, 1988 through the adoption of Resolution No. 28-88. The vision at the time was for a “Central Business District” with abundant office space focusing on the financial services industry. However, times do change.

Beginning twenty-some years later, instead of office space being created we have rental apartments being created in abundance. The downtown has already approved well more than double the residential units allotted in the original plan with more on the drawing board. This leads us to a quote from a now not-so-long-since departed city employee John Hixenbaugh, the former City Planning and Zoning Director, who admitted “We don’t have a lot of history with the magnitude of residential that’s coming into the downtown right now, . . . Because there have been so many projects approved at one time, we don’t know what the cumulative impact is going to be.” (Jan 30, 2013 Coastal Star). So much for telling it like it is. Good luck wherever you may be John.

In 1992 the City crafted Ordinance 4035 as the controlling Development Order for Downtown Boca Raton. The Ordinance was subject to a referendum petition and subsequently approved by a vote of citizens. Remember those halcyon days of citizens actually being afforded the opportunity to participate in the process of being able to voice their opinion through a vote on development issues? Thanks to the lobbying success in 2013 of our current Mayor Susan Haynie, former Councilwoman Constance Scott (can we fine citizens who exercise their rights?), City Staff members and others in the development community, citizen’s right to petition for a referendum on development orders was taken away. That act by our elected officials was a pitiful example of not representing the citizen’s best interests.

Highlights of Ordinance 4035

Per document dated October, 1993 include:

  1. Division of the Downtown into seven distinct districts or subareas.
  2. Assignment of Building Rights to each subarea broken down by Residential, Office, Retail, Hotel, Institutional.
  3. Authorization for total development/redevelopment of 8,043,440 sq. ft. (existing 2,836,464)
  4. Assignment of “Equivalency Factors” when converting Office to Residential, Retail to Office, etc.
  5. Forecasted allotment of 1,346 residential units throughout the downtown.
  6. Height Restrictions of nine stories or 100 feet.
  7. Parking requirements.

Note: The Ordinance included a conversion formula for density/intensity using a factor of 2.4 residential units equal to 1,000 sq. ft. of Office Space. It looks like the real money is in building residential.

The first amendment to the Ordinance occurred in 2006. There have been at least six amendments to the Ordinance since then. Most notably was the passage of the Interim Design Guidelines/Pattern Book via Ordinance 5052, passed in 2008, which took building heights to the 140 plus 20-foot limit and now manifests itself in the form of the prison-like structure known as The Mark. Other amendments transfer building rights from one district to another putting the original plan out of balance for which it was intended. By the way, there was much concern and discussion by members of the CRA/City Council in the fall of 2008 during Public Hearings about not wanting 140 plus 20-foot buildings (also referred to as Landmark Buildings) popping up in all areas of the downtown. We are currently at four approvals with more, sure to come.

Admit It . . . The Plan Changed

Make no mistake, the “Plan” that was envisioned twenty plus years ago has evolved and changed so that it no longer exists in its original form. That point is very clear. Indeed, some of the evolution has been for the good. However, a few key factors like vaguely disguised gifts of “spot zoning” and the aforementioned transfer of building rights have given us concentrated density and intensity issues beyond what was originally conceived. Factor in the granting of technical deviations and variances for an assortment of items including; parking, ingress egress, etc. and the notion of “simply building out the plan that was created thirty years ago” is now demonstrably false.

The gift giving to the landowners and developers came courtesy of an accommodative CRA/City Council and the gift giving continues to this day with asking nothing in return. An excellent example of missing an opportunity for getting something in return was the 2012 approval of the Archstone project, now Palmetto Promenade, on East Palmetto Park Road. Aside from the numerous issues of the project – which is a case study in how not to bring a project forward – our City Officials had an excellent opportunity to obtain at least partial, if not all, funding for the resolution of the problematical intersection of 5th Avenue and East Palmetto Park Road. That intersection continues to be an issue, especially during discussion of the Wildflower property and will no doubt end up being the financial burden of the citizens.

What Comes Next?

Oh yeah, let’s not forget about the statement of: “We can’t build in the downtown beyond the building rights granted in Ordinance 4035.” This particular ordinance has a forty year life from the date of its passage. Using 1993 as the date of passage leaves another eighteen years. That may give comfort to many who have concerns about downtown overdevelopment unless you are aware of a question put forth to the City Attorney during a Public Hearing earlier this year regarding changes to the Ordinance. Basically, she could give no assurance as to what a future City Council or CRA might do once the downtown is built out to the limits intended by 4035. One year ago, less than 20% of the 8 million sq. ft. of building rights remained and it is going fast. Therefore, the eighteen-year marker is a non-event. The granting of the remaining rights may occur within the next few years. That means a near-future City Council/CRA may be faced with determining the next iteration of development of the downtown. Only this time there will be no approval by a vote of the citizens.

Choose your candidates wisely.