Last week’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) workshop….a useful exercise but to what end?

After four hours of testimony, Q and A, public comment and CRA member comments, the results and next steps for downtown development are as undefined and fuzzy as ever. The meeting provided the most informative session on the Interim Design Guidelines (IDG) and the infamous Pattern Book to date. After 8 years, Urban Design Associates (UDA), a million dollars consultant, admitted to numerous failings and oversights which have resulted in a major blight on our downtown; to wit: The Mark….

Perhaps the most telling item is the discovery that after the CRA/City Council approves a final plan for construction, the construction plan may not actually be built as approved. It seems that an appointed board, the Community Apearance Board (CAB) may actually change the final approval. It also seems that the developer may or may not actually build the approved project.

Testimony conclusively established that this was and is the case with the Mark, the most controversial project so far under the 2008 IDG. Testimony also conclusively established that neither the highly paid consultant nor city’s staff accepts responsibility for insuring compliance by the developer to the approved plan.

How is this possible with our ‘stellar’ staff? How is it possible with such a high paid consultant; a consultant, who at the workshop tells us their contract deliverables do not include assurance of compliance?

Apparently compliance is not anyone’s responsibility.

Of course that may excuse little non-compliant issues but offer no explanation to the issues of the poorly designed loges; the lack of walkability and connectivity; the ‘bulky’ look now at 140 feet instead of 100 feet; and the prison like look on the west side of the building.

In their presentation, UDA defined the four main objectives contained within the Pattern Book. These principles are to 1) improve open space to the public; 2) emphasize the pedestrian network; 3) decrease the ‘bulky’ design and look; and 4) Improve the visuals through articulation.

Excuses, defenses, justifications….that is what was apparent under the questioning of the CRA members. Of course that is not to excuse the CRA members themselves. This discussion has been 8 years in the making. The Pattern Book was created in 2008. As 2016 is about to role in, the Pattern Book is only now being evaluated; is only now being reviewed and updated; is only now identified for its myriad of missed opportunities.

With the Mark completed, CRA members are forced to admit that the results are less than what was expected. A bit too late don’t you think….especially as the Via Mizner project is out of the ground a project that when completed will make the Mark look like low density.

In real estate, the rule of thumb is location, location, location….. So how did the Via Mizner get to be where it is?

Reflection on the history suggests that the corner of Federal and Palmetto was to be the location for the additional height granted under the IDG. Apparently, the interim guidelines are now thought to have created development rights to all parcels of land within the designated IDG area.

Another item brought forward was the issue of the Mark being an experiment; a one-time experiment. In April, the consultant introduced the idea that the experiment was to contain 4 projects but the recession prevented this as no other projects were presented….This is a proposition that is not supported by the evidence. The public record has no reference to a 4 project experiment. In fact, the downtown master plan states that the Mark was the one building to be used as an experiment; a fact conclusively established in the workshop.

The Mark is a failed experiment but yet we now have Via Mizner. How? ….Residents should realize that the building out of the ground on Federal and Camino Real is phase one of three. Phase two and three are now in the pipeline for approval (see Sun Sentinel, Nov 11, 2015 Mandarin Hotel/Luxury Condos) …with oversight by the same staff and consultant that have denied responsibility for developer compliance to the approved plans….

As an aside, in the last 30 days two major items, the Wildflower and the IDG have demonstrated the deficiencies of staff and how staff conducts its business. To be fair, it also demonstrates that good goverence is not achieved by consensus. Good goverence is achieved by leadership and in a manager- council form of government, leadership is diluted and accountability is lacking.

Boca Raton operates under a manager-council form of government. Staff takes direction from the council and then proceeds to move that direction forward. Staff members are functionaries; they are not leaders; staff members are beyond accountability to the citizen. The citizen cannot fire staff; only the city council can fire staff and even then can only fire the City Manager. This is unlikely to happen as the City Manager dictates what the council get to know….and as has been established with the Wildflower episode, the council has accepted the proposition that staff lying to the residents is an acceptable practice.

Residents can vote out the Mayor and councilmembers but cannot vote out the City Manager. This is where accountability is lacking. In the Wildflower situation and now with the IDG mess, staff has unequivocally failed. Eight years have passed since direction was given to staff on these initiatives but yet in each matter the circumstances are back to point go; a complete waste of time, human resources and taxpayer dollars. Try defending those results in the private sector….

The Wildflower negotiations have failed; a circumstance many residents applaud, but the point is that these failed negotiations fall at the feet of the negotiator; a non-elected persona with no accountability to the resident.

The IDG/Pattern Book also is a failed initiative with responsibility at the feet of that same non-elected persona. Eight years to come to a point where the results are inadequate; where the city landscape is permanently scarred; and where there is again no accountability to the resident.

So, beyond all the rhetoric and argument above, is it time for Boca Raton to demand accountability to the residents? The manager-council form of government is inadequate. The community must demand leadership to address these shortcomings. This can only be done by considering the alternative; to wit: altering the form of government to that of a Strong Mayor.

In a strong mayor form of government, the mayor is responsible to the people to implement the approved vision. If he or she fails, the citizens can ‘fire’ the mayor. The city manager position would not be affected by this form of government but the city’s residents would have accountability; residents would not find themselves many years down the road simply to be back at the beginning…

West Palm Beach, a city of 105,000 residents, is the only ‘strong mayor’ form of government in Palm Beach County. It took West Palm almost 10 years to evolve from the manager-council model to the strong mayor model.   Their experience is a roadmap for a civic discussion revisiting Boca’s city charter, a document that has been in existence for decades dating back to a town of under 10,000 residents to a city now with residents in excess of 90,000. Ten years from now, Boca Raton will be well in excess of 100,000 residents.

BocaWatch is calling for the creation of a Charter Review Committee; a committee established in cooperation with the Chamber of Commerce, the editorial boards of our major newspapers, and the political science departments of our leading institutes of higher education. Such a committee can explore the pros and cons of this shift in leadership; a committee that can make recommendations to the council and offer the possibility of a ballot referendum where the resident gets to make a choice.

One thing is clear from the events of the recent past; the status quo is wholly inadequate and is worthy of consideration for change.