After sitting through almost seven hours of a planning (sic) session today relating to downtown design guidelines, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Urban Design Associates assured us that, while the current rash of buildings under construction could be better, the end result will be much better than if architects and developers had decided to build REALLY massive structures. Hearing words like “you think this is bad, well it could have been much worse” is cold comfort. But isn’t that what developers always threaten? Give us this or we’ll build a box under 4035 rules, because we can. What kind of good citizenship is that?
Then you had the semi-farcical situation of the preacher preaching to the converted. I guess when you were looking for experts to fill up your various planning panels you never considered conflict of interest. I could not find ONE independent thinker, one architect who is not working in Boca, one developer who is not building in Boca, one environmentalist, one public land use expert, one downtown resident with good taste and common sense sitting around that table. Even the panel member who pleaded for automated parking has a financial interest in such a system.
Not only were the public underrepresented on your committees, we were given short shrift in the process. Luckily the UDA presentation ended early, so there was one hour for three minute comments. Three minutes? And where did those critical comments come from? From concerned citizens who feel so strongly about their community that they devoted an entire day just to get a word in. Were we the public allowed to ask questions of the UDA representative? No we were not. We were allowed to vent for three minutes, and then patted on the head and sent on our way. Only the chosen and the conflicted were allowed to ask questions of UDA. What a disgrace. And who was it that sat down in the one-on-one session with the senior UDA representative (the one whom the public was not allowed to question)? Why Gromann, Vander Ploeg, et al. It sure looked like the fix was in.
What was surprising about today’s meeting was the vehemence and eloquence of those who criticized the IDG and the Planning Book and the sins that have been committed under them. Some very good criticisms were offered. For example:
- Neither 4035 or the IDG require that buildings be massive and ugly. You don’t have to build up and out to the lowest standards.
- The population of the 435-acre downtown is being allowed to more than double. Yet there has been almost no consideration of the traffic impact of this massive new development. The attitude seems to be “lets build it and deal with all that (traffic and public parking) later. Maybe we’ll have a trolley!
- So what if only 80% of the permitted density has been utilized; where is it written that you need to build on and up to every available square foot?
- Nobody praised the Mark, the poster child of the IDG. If you’ve been unlucky enough to see a picture of Via Mizner, it is even worse.
- The IDG and the Planning Book are so complex that they are easily subverted by developers more interested in profit than the public interest. They are so difficult to interpret and enforce that the City has to bring in outside consultants to help.
- Both the IDG and the Planning Book need to be rewritten or scrapped. If rewritten, there should be much more public input and independent design review through the entire process.
There should be a pause in approval of additional development projects in the downtown while the Council, Boca’s planners and citizenry take a deep breath and work toward a mutually advantageous solution.
Ambitious developers have dug themselves a very big hole in downtown Boca. It is going to take some time to climb back out of it.
I wrote to you some months ago warning of a growing groundswell over the mismanagement of Boca’s downtown development. I think today’s turnout was the tip of the iceberg, especially considering the responses we have received from our full-page advertisements. These are articulate, active and committed citizens. It would be foolish to think that their dissatisfaction will not be a factor in coming election campaigns for City Council.
As the banner at the end of the motion picture On the Beach ominously warned: THERE’S STILL TIME BROTHER. There is still time for you, our elected officials, to pay closer attention to the rising concern and anger about what is happening to downtown Boca on your watch. Events like today’s “planning session” do not inspire confidence.
John C. Gore, President