What happened last night to Boca Midtown?

Last night there was a City Council meeting to discuss approval of the re-zoning of the area that’s being called Boca Midtown. The chamber overflowed because there were so many concerned community members. A summary of what happened and the results of the meeting are here.

Boca Midtown is a proposed re-development of the area just west of I-95 and south of Glades Road. The most controversial part of this proposed re-development is the re-zoning of that area to allow 2500 new residential units in that small space. This is the part that area residents are most concerned about. Although the builder has demonstrated the ability to create successful spaces multiple times in this city, the lack of planning and scope of such a dramatic change for this initiative leaves many community members doubtful of the benefits versus costs of moving so many people into one of the tightest spaces in Boca.

I first heard about this plan from my HOA President, Bill Senyshyn, but I didn’t understand much about it. People on Facebook were talking about the Sears closing just days before. So when I heard about this I assumed it was referring to the fate of the Sears side of Town Center Mall. I didn’t learn until later, from the article on BocaWatch.org, how this proposed zoning change was for a larger area to the east. The article on Al Zucaro’s highly excellent website detailed the impact of this proposal, but not the scope.

I shared the article from BocaWatch on Nextdoor.com in an effort to make people aware of it and to learn more about it myself.  The replies to my post appeared more quickly than I expected. From one of the comments I learned that the zoning proposal included the allowance for up to 2500 new residential units. At this point I still wasn’t aware of any specific plan as to where those units would be and how so many units could be fit into such a small zone. The post I made included a call-to-action to attend the meeting. I decided to attend my first City Council Meeting ever.

The City Council Meeting was held in Council Chambers, a beautiful and modern room with high-tech filming gear mounted on the walls. This room is immediately inside the north entrance and it was extremely impressive. What made it even more impressive was how many people attended the meeting. The people managing the public’s attendance were really, really nice and attentive and made me feel very welcome.

I couldn’t get a seat in the chambers and was directed to the overflow area in the conference room across the hall. The overflow area had nice seats and a big television where a HD live stream from inside the chamber was playing. The impression it gave of prioritizing the visibility of government affairs to the public was very positive. I sat next to some neighbors. After a while someone came into the room and announced how some of us could move to the chamber. I jumped up to take advantage of the chance because I wanted to say something if I could.

I came into the Council Chamber as the issue of Midtown was being presented. The people speaking first represented the property owners who would benefit from the zoning change. Before I explain what they were saying, from my perspective, and what I would have liked them to say, I will explain what’s at stake here for both the property owners and the community.

The Trends of Tomorrow Drive The Need for Change Today

The reality of renting commercial space, retail and office space, is going to change in the next decade even more than its changed already. There’s going to be little profit in renting commercial space relative to renting or selling residential property. This is because of changing trends in business, how people consume and travel and inter-state migration. I’ll explain each one.

People will do business differently in the future where demand for retail & office space will diminish.

For a few years I rented office space for my marketing business. I had employees coming in and out. I had to pay rent. I had to keep the toilets clean. I had two places to worry about when I went on vacation, a home and an office. It was fun and I loved having all that space. But it certainly had costs – and when you’re in business you have to always be weighing the costs versus benefits. Eventually I downsized, moving my gear all into a single room office. I was lucky to have the opportunity to do so, to move into a smaller, cheaper space that was within walking distance of my home instead of being across town.

My landlord was Investments Limited. I can say that they were always “really cool” with me and I totally appreciated and valued both spaces they offered. They were especially nice and collaborative in offering me the second location. However, over time it became more of a storage space rather than a space I actually used. I was just a lot more comfortable doing work from home where it took zero travel time to get to work in the morning. So I decided after about 6 months to close the second office altogether and just work from home. It was one of the smartest things I’ve done so far as it provided me a lot more time to actually produce and a lot less to worry about. It made me more profitable.

While I was a tenant I often dropped my checks off at the Investments Limited offices on the second floor and admired how hard the owner, Mr Batmasian,  was working with his crew in his conference room just around the corner. Always there, always working. Plus he had bought some of my mom’s art at some point in the past for his home, and that scores big points with me.

He had invited me to a meeting when I initially moved in, and I was excited to get the opportunity to meet him and maybe help him with marketing perhaps. The meeting never occurred though. When I showed up at the Investments Limited downtown office I was told the meeting was cancelled. They had texted me a half hour previous informing me of the cancellation at least. It was disappointing. The meeting was never rescheduled. I wondered if it was something I had done. I made sure, thereafter, that my rent was always on time and I tried to be the model tenant.

On the day when I went to drop off my keys and the final check for the second location my landlord was there in his office. Although I did intend to say “thank you” I didn’t. He was busy in the conference room as usual and he didn’t seem like talking when I said “hello” from outside the room. For a second time I couldn’t help but think he was displeased about something around me, personally. I left not realizing what it was. Maybe I was reading too much into it?

After I finished unpacking my gear in my home office it dawned on me. If I were him I wouldn’t be too happy about me either. It’s about what I do. I do digital marketing. I create online businesses. With what I do you don’t need brick and mortar. With what I do you don’t need to rent an office space. I don’t need to and worse yet my clients who I create online businesses for don’t need to. That’s one of my implied brand promises to my clients: that online makes offline superfluous.

We don’t need office space to do what people needed it for yesterday. If I was a landlord trying to move office space I wouldn’t be too keen on online marketing at all. If I need talent I use people just like me, people working from home. I don’t need to pay for their work space and desk or for their time I’m not using. Many businesses have adapted to become more mean and lean, less dependent on yesterday’s necessities.

The demand for office space will diminish in the future, and being a commercial landlord will be less profitable.

The truth and reality about the diminishing need for office space yields a future where there’s going to be a lot less people occupying office space and a lot more people working more comfortably, more effectively and more profitably from home. Here in Boca Raton we have one of the nation’s highest concentrations of office space. It only stands to reason that a lot of property owners who now own commercial zoned properties will need to convert their properties to residential or they’ll lose more and more on the investments they’ve made here.

The silver lining to this changing phenomenon, with regards to this proposed project, is that residents of whatever locations are built would probably be working from home more than today’s residents of similar properties. Traffic from those new residents might actually be lower than the traffic impact of today’s Boca Raton citizen. That might not be significant today, but it will be more and more significant tomorrow if the remote worker trend continues.

Here’s the reality that the community needs to face: If this opportunity isn’t provided to commercially zoned properties, to become more mixed-used, then these locations will decay. The property owners won’t be able to attract tenants at rates they once would, so they won’t be able to sustain these properties like they are being sustained now. While many community members, myself included, would like to put our feet down and say “no residential here ever”, that probably isn’t part of the reality of keeping this area as vitalized as it can be.

 

How People Living In Boca’s Behavior Will Change

There are some interesting trends that are emerging and growing right now. These trends will continue to mature and define how people use residential and commercial spaces.

Online Shopping

One big trend is the growth of online shopping and how it’s replacing the retail shopping experience. Not only will this change the demand for retail space, and change how retail space is used but it will also increase the traffic on the road due to deliveries. Companies will compete to deliver products and services more immediately, and this will mean that the number of visitors to every residential location will increase in turn. Residential locations of the future will have more steady peak-hour traffic in the future than ever before.

Delivery of groceries is replacing many trips to the grocery store on behalf of the consumer but resulting in more traffic and activity at the consumer’s residence. Boca residents are already using services like Shipt and Instacart for routine staples and in conjunction with meal planning apps.

Self-Driving Cars

In the next ten years we will see combustion vehicles phasing out and self-driving cars phasing in. When cars can get from point to point without drivers the cost and risk of driving for people currently might not drive as much their own is lowered. A gentleman from the public who spoke at the Council Meeting last night brought up self-driving cars and challenged everyone to consider how we will be impacted by them. It will be a lot easier for Boca Raton’s elderly to go where ever they wish to go whenever they have time to go there. When this occurs we expect to see more cars on the road in our city.

Intra-State Migration

Florida is an attractive state. We have no state income tax. It’s easy to attract business and people to Florida. We don’t expect the demand for residential units here in Boca Raton to diminish. The fact that this project is desired by the developers shows a confidence in that expectation. A professor from FAU who attended last night’s meeting spoke and explained, in terms that sounded somewhat threatening, that these new residential units are going to be built somewhere in Boca and that this was the most reasonable place. While the latter part was debatable, the first part felt uncomfortable but inevitable. We probably will see even more residential units being built and occupied to the extent of current zoning and beyond.

The Arguments For and Against Midtown Boca

The Track Record of the Developers

The biggest developer in this redevelopment effort, the land owner most impacted by the proposed zoning change, is Crocker Partners. I can say with great certainty that this developer has already demonstrated a level of excellence in our city that is beyond impressive. Both Crocker Center and Mizner Park were developed by Tom Crocker and resulted in places where people love to gather and have fun. Both places are incredible jewels in Boca’s crown. We’re very fortunate, as a community, to have a developer with such a positive track record in Boca Raton, and even more fortunate that someone else doesn’t own the land and have similar plans for it.  I have no doubts that whatever Crocker Partners does will be excellent and near first-class in its execution.

Because of the track record of Crocker I was actually pretty relieved to hear, from the comments on NextDoor, that this land in question was going to be developed by them. I thought “whew this could be a lot worse”. I was looking forward to hearing more about whatever was planned.

I learned that the project was being called “Midtown Boca” and that it has a website. The website doesn’t really illustrate the vision as well as it could. The one thing that stood out to me was its FAQ section that raises the most salient concerns as questions. The problem is that those questions don’t have direct answers and instead have explanations weren’t like answers to me. Why raise the questions if you aren’t going to answer them directly and instead dance around with a long explanation? That seemed really weird and didn’t create a good feeling about the real answers to those concerns. I wanted to see a lot more drawings of what this could look like – some meat and potatoes – but there wasn’t much to satisfy my desire to get on board with the vision. It left me looking forward to hearing more about it at the meeting.

The Stakeholder’s Case for Midtown Boca

This guy looked a lot like Dustin Hoffman, right?

The first spokesperson for Crocker Partners was a young man who resembled Dustin Hoffman so closely it was distracting. I’m admittedly less familiar with the process of zoning approval than would have allowed me to understand all that he was saying. The level of language was above me yet I could follow enough to recognize that a lot of his time was spent on sidewalks and whether they were going to be built before or after the redevelopment. His emphasis was on the infrastructure that expected much of the development to be used by pedestrians, not vehicle traffic. While this was a nice idea it struck me to be totally in-congruent with my experience of Boca residents. He spent a little too much of his time discussing the process of approval while avoiding discussing what was going to be approved. No attempt was made to establish rapport with or really address the audience – almost everthing this gentleman said was addressed to the council.

Mr. Bianco, the Managing Partner of Crocker Partners, reminding folks about Goodies.

The second spokesperson for Crocker Partners was another young man who turned out to be the actual current managing partner for the entire firm, Angelo Bianco. He interrupted the first young man a few times and finally replaced him. I wasn’t much more impressed by his presentation, but his demeanor was more confident. Both of them seemed a little too argumentative and confrontational with the board members to project much concern with community buy-in and sentiment.  Instead of being armed with vision they seemed to be frustrated and like they wanted to argue process. I found that to be an enormous let down, like I had wasted my time attending and giving them the chance to sell me on it.

I don’t blame either of them for being disappointed or being defensive. It must have seemed for a while like getting community buy-in wasn’t needed, like the community was ignoring it in spite of multiple public meetings taking place without any opposition. And then last night, all of a sudden the locals get wind and it starts going south. They did everything the city was requiring they do, everything the city asked the way it was asked for, and then this uncontrollable negative public sentiment rises up and becomes a political obstacle.  My sympathy with their frustration didn’t overshadow the difference between what I expected from them as evangelists and their actual performance. It probably would have reflected better on the project, to the community, if neither of them spoke at all.

The spokesperson for Simon Malls was a lot more clear and matter of fact. She didn’t exude frustration.  She explained how her company has to do something with that Sears space – they can’t let it decay. If they had to create a mixed-use residential space there, and they believe it can sell, why wouldn’t it do as well as Mizner Park? The confidence and resolution projected by the Simon spokesperson, in contrast to the tone projected by the Crocker duo made her news of the possibility of the residential units easier to accept, at least for me. The number of units Simon would be allowed to build is a small fraction of the total overall proposed. As a local resident I think it would be pleasantly progressive to have that Sears space replaced by something mixed use. There’s a lot of poorly used parking space there already. That area could definitely be engineered to be more profitable and fun for locals.

 

The Public’s Reservations About Midtown Boca

This author, being a little less than collaborative, disappointed having expected some clarity of vision.

After the stakeholders spoke and presented their cases the public had their chance to speak. Our Timbercreek HOA president and other Timbercreek residents spoke. So did I. Each of us made our opinions on moving residents into that space heard. I was probably the least amenable to the idea of residential units being allowed in that space, stating that the number of dwellings appropriate for that area is zero.

One person who got to speak for longer than the average Boca Resident was a professor from FAU who made the time to attend the meeting even though he admitted he wasn’t a Boca Raton resident. As an expert on urban planning he explained a few things that I found very questionable.

  • The first was the traffic that would be caused by an increase in residents and structures would be no greater than it is today. Thankfully Councilman Weinroth had pointed out that he traffic is already 135 % its maximum capacity, so saying it would stay the same isn’t saying much.To say we’d be doing just as well as we are doing now is still bad. It says little about the ability of the area to handle existing traffic other than it’s doubtful it would improve.
  • The second thing he said was that 2500 units are going to be built somewhere in Boca. If we don’t build these units in this location then they will be built somewhere else less able to handle the increase in traffic (admitting traffic would increase at least.)
  • The third thing he said was that the value of our homes would increase as a result of this redevelopment that includes residential units. If that were true it would be great news. I just can’t see how increasing the supply of a thing (housing) will result in the price of it increasing. Simple economics, the Law of Supply and Demand, would dictate that adding to a supply, irrespective of the demand, would diminish the price due to more demand being satisfied. In essence it’s really difficult to imagine how this dilution of the housing supply wouldn’t negatively impact adjacent home values.

    The Urban Planning Professor from FAU

I would love for this FAU professor to publish something that supports these arguments, not just make an appearance and appear to squander his authority towards the matter by invoking that authority without supporting facts and references to share. I really want to believe these things but can’t just yet without more to contradict what seems obvious.

I took off around 10:15 as I didn’t eat dinner before attending. I had no idea that these meetings went so long. On the way out the police officer who was on duty explained to me how these meetings sometimes extend beyond midnight. I felt sorry for the council members, the city personnel and the stakeholders who kept discussing the matter after I left.

After I left Mr Bianco got to speak again. I watched the rest of the meeting online today. There was one thing he said after I left that made a lot of sense: more dense, more goodies. I really hadn’t considered the element of goodies until a resident in attendance brought up how we’d be losing the one form of entertainment in the area: Strikes aka Don Carters, the bowling alley.

The Goodies & The Reality of Density

Mr Bianco brought up something late in the game that could have been a game changer with regards to my sentiment and the sentiment of residents. Whether this project is good or bad, is successful or not successful, will depend on Crocker Partners and how much they’re incentivized to make it good. Whether it’s another amazing place that we all get to enjoy or another ugly flop is going to depend on them. It’s in the city’s best interest and resident’s best interest to give them “the clay to work with” as Council Member Rogers called it.

Mr Bianco explained how the project will be more successful and more excellent, filled with more “goodies” for locals, if the density is higher. This makes total sense and is the best argument for the increase in density. The degree to which Crocker will be able to make it excellent will directly depend on the density. This is absolutely true and was under represented last night. If the whole presentation by the two gentlemen was begun by explaining that key principle without emotion then the public sentiment could have been managed better.

I want goodies. My neighbors want goodies. And as much as we might complain about them and what it takes to put them in place, we’d be the first ones there taking advantage of them.  But just saying “goodies” isn’t really convincing – even with the mathematical certainty of it.

I think a plan is needed, but what’s needed even more is a vision. Not just a description of a vision, but the actual renderings, and a goody list.

What would we get? A new bowling alley? A new movie theater? An amphitheater to replace the one that might get torn down at Mizner?  A foodish-courtish kinda deal? I don’t think anyone is expecting promises, but hearing more about what could go there would be great. Right now the Midtown Boca has at least four pictures of Mr Bianco smiling really hard but only three highly cropped watercolor concept sketches without descriptions. He’s a handsome guy, but I want to see the work at hand, not smiles.

A simple poll on the midtown website asking residents what they’d like to see in the development, what we think is needed, would have been enormous. It would have projected a tone of concern and collaboration no matter where the input leads to or ends up.

What does it take to vitalize that location?

Let’s be honest. Lots of the land that is proposed for re-zoning is used in a somewhat goofy fashion. For example, when was the last time you had a reason to drive on the south side of Glades Plaza? Nobody goes back there. It’s an almost unusable space as is. How big of a deal would it be to slip an apartment building in there? Not really that big of a deal to be honest. Given the traffic that’s already there, one condo building wouldn’t make much of a dent in my opinion.

What else is there between Crocker Plaza and Town Center? The medical plaza and Tyco are used by most residents more than the office buildings across the street, but as a whole few people use those spaces relative to how central and important they really are. The bowling alley is a favorite place that would be missed. The building that used to be the gym, the building that Nippers is still in, is a big waste of space along with it’s giant unused parking lot. Who doesn’t miss Kings? Nothing has gone in where it used to be.

It could be more pedestrian friendly.

I live in a neighborhood to the north of Town Center and the only way most of my neighbors visit those areas is by car. None of us walk because you have to cross busy Glades Road and then navigate through areas where there’s no clear sidewalks as you cross Town Center’s parking lot and around CheeseCake Factory. These are vehicle friendly places, not places where riding a bike or walking feels safe.

I used to live in those Town Center Apartments south of Town Center and across a canal. Even though I was a college student who wanted to walk around I couldn’t walk from there to Glades Plaza or Town Center without walking onto Military Trail where there’s no sidewalk now. If I wanted to go to Town Center or Glades Plaza I needed to get into my car and drive over.

It’s probably a pain for Paradise Palms folks to walk over too. There’s just no way to get to that location easily on foot from anywhere. Even if Military was prettied up it would still feel somewhat unsafe to cross. Even if Glades was made more pedestrian friendly it would still be a scary road to cross.

The one big thing that would make this area more usable as a center of town that’s more connected for both cars and pedestrians would be a connector referred to as the Butts Road Extension. If there was a way for southbound traffic on Butts Road to travel south adjacent to the canal and join the southbound flow of traffic on Military Road then it would make it easier for traffic exiting both Town Center and these newly proposed residential locations. Including pedestrian walkways that span the canal running adjacent to Military and the canal perpendicular, the one that goes east-west on the south side of Town Center, would greatly improve the ability to walk from both Paradise Palms and developments south of Town Center.

Add a pedestrian flyover to Military and all of a sudden you’ve got a way for people in Paradise Palms to get to Town Center safely. You’d have a way for communities to the north, west and within these proposed new residencies to cross over Military to get to Crocker Center. We don’t need more sidewalks within these locations – we need better sidewalks connecting them to the surrounding neighborhoods.

That area where the bus stop is, just east of Town Center and west of Glades Plaza, is the natural hub for all bike traffic. The amazing bike paths to the north can be made to connect to the extensive bike paths to the south if this one connection was made real. We’d have a unified bike path system that would allow both commuters and recreational bikers a real safe alternative to getting into cars. The key is that one connector that could make all the difference where the Butts Road Extension would be.

And while we’re talking bikes and walking… what’s up with that Patch Reef Trail not extending behind Boca Bath & Tennis like it was supposed to?

And the Military/Palmetto Intersection? That’s a nightmare. If there was ever a candidate for doing some kind of ramp or easement of the southbound and eastbound traffic, that’s the place. If these things were in place then a lot less people would react with an automatic NO to the idea of residential units being zoned in.

Mixing in some residents makes a place more vital

Crocker has experience creating mixed use locations, locations where people live, work and play. If this location is left as is, commercial only without any residential injected into it, then an opportunity to turn it into the same kind of vitalized phenomenon Mizner is would be lost. The reality is that this area will probably be the best it can be, for existing residents, despite the increases in traffic it would incur, with the right balance of residential mixed it. This isn’t an argument for increasing the density, however, just a rationale for changing the balance and use.

One favorite aphorism of mine comes from Edward Leedskalnin, the builder of Coral Castles. He was fond of saying “Leave as much space as you use.” If Crocker can demonstrate this wisdom, this same idea of a city built around open spaces, in the Master Plan that’s yielded, there doesn’t have to be so many goodies. Maybe there is a corner where a building with the desired number of units can rise in an aesthetic manner with an amount of green space greater than its footprint? If not, this will continue to be a hard sell.

The Decision

Last night resulted in the decision to re-convene at a later date to continue the discussion, hopefully when a Master Plan is provided. There was a 4-1 decision to further postpone the decision on this re-zoning ordinance. While residents against the re-zoning might consider this a victory it only delays the decision until more information is available.

The next CRA workshop is scheduled for Monday, Feb 12 after the CRA meeting at 1:30. Council Member Rogers suggests checking to see how long the CRA meeting will be if you only want to attend the workshop.

Moving Forward

It will be very interesting to see more vision of the excellence we’ve come to expect from one of Boca’s lead developers. Community members should remember that we’re already neighbors. We should strive to be good neighbors. That means being collaborative. Just saying NO might not yield the outcome that will serve us best. Instead let’s all try to practice the wisdom and balance that yields the outcome that’s reasonable.

Maybe instead of a mass re-zoning of the entire area a more surgical re-zoning of specific tracts within it would be more accepted?

Maybe nobody can see how it would work yet so it’s hard to buy into the idea and support it? Nobody’s expecting monorails, but maybe an orchid garden and a mixed-use theater would be cool? A food truck roundabout? A new city park with a cool playground or skateboard ramps? A gym to replace Bally’s? A farmer’s marketish stall area? These aren’t big high-tech expensive goodies, but a little something to talk about goes a long way. There is stuff we’re lacking, stuff we’d appreciate and benefit from. A little would go a long way on getting people to buy in.