Question: How would you like a consulting job where you are arbiter, scorekeeper and evaluator of your own work? Such is the case for a well-paid consultant hired by the City.
As part of its consulting agreement with the City, Urban Design Associates (UDA) is asked to review new projects in the downtown for conformity to guidelines it created and then provide its approval or non-approval. They are not the final say in these matters but their endorsement counts for something and gives political cover for our elected officials who ultimately give final approval.
Six months ago the City of Boca Raton conducted a planning session for the purpose of evaluating the Interim Design Guidelines (IDG) and related Pattern Book (PB) contained in the Downtown Master Plan, which were created in 2008 as a modification to existing Ordinance 4035. The primary author of the plan was Pittsburgh based consultant UDA. UDA gave the opening presentation for the session followed by public input.
Is UDA Listening?
Based on the public’s comments the evaluation did not go well for UDA. It also did not go well for the only project completed thus far that followed the IDG/PB guidelines. That building, known as The Mark, has come under heavy criticism for unappealing appearance, lack of walkability, and lack of green space to name a few. These were all features that were promised to improve under the new guidelines and citizens overwhelmingly, and rightfully, expressed dissatisfaction with the direction of future development. Each speaker took their turn pointing out their concerns with some going as far as to recommend a repeal of the entire IDG/PB. The only exceptions to this onslaught were the voices of Glenn Gromann and Derek Vander Ploeg. Both gentlemen are well known for their unbridled promotion of IDG/PB through the various City Boards on which they have served over the years.
The results of the April 30th meeting will be presented by –you guessed it – Urban Design Associates at 1:30 PM on Monday, November 9, 2015 at City Council chambers during a Community Redevelopment Agency workshop. Some changes for the better should be forthcoming if UDA has taken into account the public input and critiqued itself with integrity and honesty. However, there are reasons to be skeptical . . .
Reasons for Doubt
History shows that UDA has a track record of recommending something and then endorsing projects that go against their recommendations. Consider that the Downtown Master Plan called for “continuous restaurant terraces” on East Palmetto Park Road. But UDA approved Archstone, aka Palmetto Promenade, which has minimal retail along its 900-foot expanse. Consider that the IDG originally called for 140-foot tall buildings to be placed on minimal lot sizes of two acres but then recommended no acreage requirement when Mr. Vander Ploeg’s Tower 155 project came forward for approval. Each of these changes, and there have been more, chips away at the original vision for the build-out of the downtown.
An Opportunity for Better Planning
The IDG/PB/Downtown Master Plan still has the potential to deliver to the City a good outcome, but the current calculation of “green space” and “open space” is standing in the way of delivering what was promised. The current goal of developers to maximize every square inch of development rights with concrete also stands in the way of the original vision. The public’s opportunity to once again provide an important voice in the process will be the November 9th meeting. For the sake of aesthetics, livability, and human scale, let’s encourage our City Officials to get this right!
What to Look For
It will be interesting to witness the upcoming UDA presentation with recommended changes, if any. Most important in the process will be the input from each member of the CRA Board. Based on prior voting records and public commentary you can expect continual support that favors developers from Agency members Robert Weinroth and Michael Mullaugh. Neither gentleman has seen a project they didn’t like and have signaled that the existing IDG/PB is fine the way it is. It is also worth noting that both gentlemen have not made an attempt to reach out to citizens in the form of Town Hall type meetings in an effort to hear concerns. On the other hand, CRA Chairperson Scott Singer and Agency member Jeremy Rodgers offer the residents the best hope for an open and honest approach in finding a solution for a better plan as each has done at least one citizen outreach.
That leaves an important swing vote in the hands of Mayor Susan Haynie. While Mayor Haynie’s votes have historically supported the Weinroth/Mullaugh mindset, a few recent votes have gone against the traditional rubber stamp for developers. That’s encouraging for the residents of Boca Raton that favor sensible growth and development with the livability features that forward looking communities possess.
Circle the time and date…Monday, November 9th at 1:30pm, City Hall. A new chapter for development in downtown Boca Raton may be at hand.
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