To be blunt, it is just as stupid to characterize those who oppose development in Boca Raton as “not-in-my-back-yard crazies” as it is to claim that those who support it are the “paid stooges of developers.” The 2017 local elections are upon us, and you are going to hear plenty of this. Vital questions surrounding Boca’s future deserve a more intelligent debate.
Development—or redevelopment—comes in many forms. There are projects, big and small, of quality and taste. One could argue that Mizner Park (although it was very controversial at the time) falls into that category. Then there are projects that look like they don’t belong in Boca. The Mark and the new budget Hyatt Hotel are examples. Some projects are just too big for the land or neighborhoods they occupy: Palmetto Promenade, Tower 155 (it received a special variance), and the proposed monster Mizner 200 come to mind. Some projects don’t belong in the neighborhoods for which they are proposed: a Walmart on the beach or a museum in a residential enclave. These are all questions of style, taste, quality and suitability.
But the issue of what you build is only part of the development story. Equally important is the question of how you sustain development. Do you have the roads, the parking and other infrastructure in place to ensure that the addition of thousands of new hotel rooms and residences does not impair quality of life? Do you have a vision? Are you working to a comprehensive and detailed plan? This is not rocket science; it is common sense. For if you do development in a piecemeal fashion—one project at a time—you end up with unintended consequences and angry residents.
This is what has happened in Boca Raton. Over the past eight years, our City Council has approved project after project—some good, some bad, some very ugly—without careful consideration of the consequences. To be fair, some Council Members such as Robert Weinroth do have a vision: of an exciting “urban center” where our old downtown used to be. He just does not have a detailed plan of what it is supposed to look like or how it is supposed to work. He has no plan for parking or traffic, and neither (as of this writing) do his colleagues on the City Council. Like in some urban Field of Dreams, their philosophy is “build it, and they (parking and better roads) will come.” So we have had development in Boca without the necessary foresight or planning. And it is a growing mess.
The resulting problems, traffic and parking and overall congestion, have led to public disapproval. Most recently this was manifest in the “Boca Question” on the November ballot, when a whopping 67% of Boca’s voters—a majority in every precinct, east and west—approved a measure banning commercial development on city lands adjacent to the Intracoastal Waterway. This ballot measure, which was vigorously opposed by both sitting City Council members and the Chamber of Commerce, is the clearest indication to date that our civic leaders have not handled development in Boca well. It was a referendum on the quality and pace of development, and the developers lost overwhelmingly.
What’s next? First, there will be a pause in major development decisions, as three of five City Council seats are up for election on March 14th. No politician in his right mind would want to vote for another big construction project until after that date. Then on March 14th, the voters will decide the direction that future development in Boca will take.
Make no mistake. The development and redevelopment of Boca will continue. No sensible person is advocating otherwise. At issue are the quality, character and pace of that development; and whether we have adequate infrastructure to handle it all in place before the buildings are built.
How to decide which of the many candidates running for City Council is best qualified to deal with these complex issues? Here’s a simple test:
If you are happy with what has happened in Boca over the last eight years, vote for the status quo. If you are unhappy and think we could do better, vote for candidates who advocate change.
The future direction of development in Boca is yours to decide on March 14th.