BocaBeautiful.org members ask Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) to ensure A Vision for Boca’s Future… 

It is facile to label those who complain about what is happening in downtown Boca as anti-development “crazies.” But our complaints, though sometimes harsh, are neither crazy nor unreasonable.

Our principal demand is that city officials should enforce the law– namely Ordinance 4035. While our immediate focus has been on the open space requirements (ground to sky), we keep reminding those charged with enforcement of the other requirements of Boca’s basic zoning ordinance, such as setbacks, landscaping, architectural style and building materials. While some of these provisions are quite specific, e.g. no more than 40% of a building’s perimeter area shall be of glass, they all were included to achieve a common purpose: compatibility with neighboring structures. This is the essence of Ordinance 4035. This is what most of its 65 pages are about. This is what needs to be enforced by our elected officials.

 Citizens are demanding that no new projects proceed until the City Manager has certified that each proposed project meets the legal requirements of Ordinance 4035. While we applaud the City’s decision to suspend permitting for new projects until this is done, we are wary of actions, such as the recent decision on 327 Royal Palm, which certified only that the open space requirements of 4035 had been met. We want certification that all of the requirements of 4035 are met. All we are asking is that any new construction in Boca Raton comply with the law.

 We urge city officials to complete their “audit” of construction under 4035 as quickly as possible, starting with the most recent construction projects such as Via Mizner I and Palmetto Promenade. This simply requires a competent architect or panel of architects to look at the plans and look at the Ordinance. It has been over two months since the 4035 enforcement problem was brought to light. Why is it taking so long to certify that the law is being enforced in Boca Raton?

If city officials determine that buildings are not in compliance with Ordinance 4035, penalties should be assessed—just as they are in the case of routine zoning violations. No one is suggesting that buildings be torn down, but it would be reasonable to recover from developers penalties at least equivalent to the value of the additional square footage built and marketed in violation of the Ordinance. In the case of older buildings, where the developer no longer has a presence in Boca, this is probably impossible. But wherever practicable, the city should attempt to recover ill-gotten gains from code violations. That’s what cities do.

More importantly, every pending development project in Boca Raton should undergo a vigorous 4035 review. City officials may have erred in the past, but there is absolutely no excuse for them to err going forward. No permits for new development, no permission to break ground, should be issued until the City Manager certifies that a project is fully in compliance with Ordinance 4035. For the protection of the city, such certification should be able to withstand independent legal challenge. This is just prudent governance.

In addition to certifying that new projects comply with the spirit and letter of the law, the City should establish a mechanism whereby citizens and the Council can be assured that what is actually built on a site conforms to the approved development plans. Too often we have been shown pretty drawings, only to discover that the finished product looks quite different. Boca Raton needs to enforce the law and it needs to ensure that developers produce what has been promised and legally approved.

The City of Boca Raton also has to take a hard look at whether existing infrastructure—particularly our roads– can support all of the planned development. Boca needs to do a comprehensive traffic study for the five roads that are the major arteries of the downtown: Federal, Dixie, Glades, Palmetto and Camino. What are current traffic levels during high season and off-season? What are projected traffic levels (high and off) once the current raft of buildings under construction (Via Mizner, Palmetto Promenade, 327, Boca Lofts, the Hyatt, etc.) is completed? What are projected traffic levels if all of the projects currently planned for Boca’s downtown and vicinity are completed? This last projection is the most important calculation of all, for we might find out that Boca’s existing infrastructure is insufficient to support all the planned development.

If competent planners tell us that our roads cannot handle the enormous increase in population and traffic, then the solution is simple: build more roads or build less buildings. The important thing is that we should be considering this problem NOW, not after the construction has occurred. Boca Raton should be developed according to a sensible master plan—not on a project-by-project basis with variances granted to suit the particular needs of a developer.

If this all seems like a sensible way forward, the final question is how do we get there? One path is by confrontation. Developers and their allies continue to press their advantage, political and economic, and we see more of the same. A growing number of citizens, unhappy with what they see happening around them, protest—sometimes angrily. They seek redress at City Hall and, failing to get that, they go to the courts. Ultimately they seek to elect a more sympathetic slate of City Council members in 2017. The process is messy, often acrimonious, time consuming and expensive.

There should be a better way to secure Boca’s future: a dialogue in which a small number of interested parties seek a compromise between unfettered development and a moratorium on any new construction in congested areas. Perhaps this could be facilitated by a neutral third party. Discussions would be private and low key and would be focused on compromise solutions. If successful, this first effort could lead to a more public forum in which a broader swath of the community could be involved. There will be no pleasing everyone, but perhaps enough of a consensus could be reached to allow orderly development to proceed– development based on common sense in addition to dollars and cents.

A more pleasant process leading to a more pleasing outcome. What’s crazy about that?

John C. Gore, President, BocaBeautiful.org