I moved to Boca in the fall of 2002. I bought a condo in Townsend Place, one of the first high rises built in the newly designated Downtown Redevelopment Area as defined by City Ordinance 4035. The Ordinance contained density and height restrictions, rules for open spaces and setbacks, parking, landscaping, and building design. It was a comprehensive vision designed to prevent downtown Boca from becoming like downtown Ft. Lauderdale or Miami. The architecture was to be modeled on the examples set by Addison Mizer, the visionary architect-founder of Boca Raton in the 1920s.
Resident-focussed candidates matter
In 2002, downtown Boca was a relatively quiet area of low-rise shops, restaurants, and bars. Some of it was low rent. A Shell gas station and an open lot that sold building stone flanked the intersection of Palmetto Park Road and Federal Highway. The Royal Palm Plaza retained the glamor of its early days, and it was supplemented by the newly completed (with city money) Mizer Park complex on the site of a derelict shopping mall. But as developers looked around, they saw opportunity. All those strip malls, and small stores, and empty lots. All that air space above them offering views of the Resort and Royal Palm golf courses all the way to the ocean. All that money to be made if only they could get permission to build as many high-rise units on as little land as possible. If only they could get exceptions to all those restrictive Ordinance 4035 planning rules.
And for a while at least, they had the City Council on their side. Council members were concerned that downtown Boca was in decline. Some had visions that it could become a major urban center. To test that vision, the Council approved construction of a 12-story rental apartment complex called The Mark, as an “experiment.” The experiment proved such a failure that to this day very few at City Hall or the Chamber of Commerce acknowledge it. It has been partially hidden by other, newer high-rises like the Big Box Hyatt Hotel. Out of sight, out of mind. But the Mark experiment paved the way for a rash of development projects that were exceptions to the rule—or at least that paid only lip service to the city planning efforts behind Ordinance 4035.
Palmetto Prominade became the next cause célèbre. A single building, three blocks long and 10 stories high, dominating the north side of Palmetto Park Road was approved over vocal protests by neighbors and small shop owners. Clever design changes made the building less of a monolith. Traffic (always an afterthought) on Palmetto necessitated the removal of all those royal palms that had just been planted by the city for beautification. Turns out we needed those extra turning lanes for all the cars now using Palmetto Park Road.
Beware City Council insiders and Old Guard
Then architect insider Derek Vander Ploeg and his friends at City Hall changed the rules to approve construction of Tower 155 on SE Mizner Boulevard. The condo, which under Ordinance 4035 should occupy 2 acres, was allowed to be crammed on a plot ¾ that size. The number of floors was reduced on the west-facing end so that extra floors could be added to the ocean-facing side of the building. There is a narrow alley separating the north side of the building from the back of the Mizner Shops strip mall and the post office. The building may not win any architectural prizes, but it is a monument to the maximization of space. Even now, it is embroiled in controversy as residents battle proposed new developments which will reduce their property values and quality of life. There is the massive Alletto Square condo-office complex just up the street and a proposed 12-story hotel which will be built on the Mizner Plaza-post office strip mall. Remember that narrow alley? Residents in those million-dollar condos looking out over Mizner Park may soon be staring at a blank wall or into somebody’s kitchen.
Citizens began to ask, “What’s going on?” Snowbirds would return to find their little Boca nest filled with fatter and taller odes to concrete. Today there’s even a monument to all this ambitious overbuilding: it’s that billion-dollar pile of unfinished concrete on Federal Highway some are calling the “Mysterious Oriental.” Oh, the excitement about a Mandarin Oriental Hotel coming to Boca! No beach, no adjacent golf, but within walking distance to Trader Joes! Construction started five years ago, and the project has suffered all kinds of problems. Completion is nowhere in sight (nor are the workers), but the developer has promised delivery by Christmas of this year. Do you believe in Santa Claus?
By 2014 It was becoming clear that development in East Boca was spiraling out of control. Then came the announcement that the Israeli developer Elad had bought the seven-acre Mizner on the Green rental apartment complex on SE Mizner Boulevard and had plans for two thirty-story high rise condos on the site. That’s taller than the “iconic” pink tower at the Boca Raton Resort. Maybe it was just a bait and switch proposal because it didn’t last long. Next came a plan to build a single 9-story, three-block-long box on the site. Nearby residents organized to fight for changes, and while they were at it for political changes at City Hall to stop the construction carnage in downtown Boca.
They had success in the 2017 municipal elections. Reform candidates backed by activist groups such as Boca Beautiful and Boca Watch won seats on the City Council. Suddenly our City Fathers were much more circumspect in approving new projects in the Downtown Redevelopment Area. The Elad group negotiated a compromise design plan with their Townsend Place neighbors and the Monster on Mizer morphed into the beautiful Alina residences you see today. The Batmasian’s Investment Limited (which is one of the biggest property owners in Boca) decided that its plans for turning Royal Palm Place (aka the Pink Plaza) into a magnificent four-tower megaplex was just a bit too ambitious. Development projects continued to move forward, notably the massive apartment complex on the site of the old Winn-Dixie property on SW 4th Street, but the developers’ passion for cash seemed to have cooled. As had our City Council’s appetite for approvals.
Downtown Boca Development Industry Takes and Takes
And just when you thought enough is enough, powerhouse land-use attorney Bonnie Miskel and Compson have teamed up to cash in on their holdings between SE 3rd and 5th Streets. That’s two square city blocks worth of $ million condos, with a portion of SE 4th Street and a two block-long alley disappearing to make way for a 12-story, 190-unit residential tower “The Residences of Boca”. The irony here is that developer Hunter Monsour gets credits for not building office space, while the Aletto developer Compson earned plaudits for building offices instead of residences at a time when office construction is in a near free fall through the country. Like vacuum cleaners, both projects were given public owned alleys by an all too eager city council and Zoning Board. Boca sorely needs those alleys for safe pedestrian ways. But they scooped them up along with the sunshine and give back nothing.
Death of the Downtown Boca Spine?
For the decades of talk talk talk about a downtown spine connecting downtown north and south of Palmetto, crossing Palmetto Park remains a high-risk endeavor with Aletto the last nail in the coffin. For the lack of imagination and concern for residents who will live, work, and play in downtown Boca, Aletto architect Derek Vander Ploeg and the City Council could have and should have at least included a pedestrian walkway across Palmetto Park Rd. Now the city is hiring a consultant for multiple millions of dollars to solve Boca’s mobility problem—a problem of their own making.
Back in the days when I was President of Bocabeautiful.org we were routinely criticized as a NIMBY—not in my back yard—organization. With all that’s going up (approved and in the planning stage) in downtown Boca these days, the acronym should be NIMFY—not in my front yard. If you are a residential property owner, take a look around you. See any potential building sites? A small shopping center, a parking lot, a low-rise building, or even a golf course? Enjoy your view while it lasts. The development community is now proposing a change to the zoning for all those low-rise business zones to allow multi-family high rise apartments.
Boca Beautiful disbanded in 2019. John Gore is now devoting his energies to the fight against cancer. His new book Stage Fright: 15 Rules for Coping with Cancer has just been published on Amazon.