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Aletto at Sanborn Square: What Open Space? Update

by Alan Neibauer

Boca Raton has a requirement that all buildings have open space. It is an admirable idea,  but since 2016, developers and architects have taken advantage of loopholes that maximize profit at the expense of public enjoyment. Architects could use open space to give pedestrians a break from concrete walls and concrete canyons. But unfortunately, Boca’s architects have subverted the nuances of the code and used hidden space from obscure places in their designs and counted it as open space.

The Aletto at Sanborn Square: Case in Point

One such project currently proposed is The Aletto at Sanborn Square. It consists of three large buildings on a small 1.3 acre parcel across from Sanborn Square on NE 1st Ave. If Aletto is approved, your view from the park will look this:

The view from Sanborn Square looking east

Below is the developer’s rendering of what Aletto would look like. Somewhere in all that concrete is much of the project’s so-called open space. Sanborn Park, by the way, is on the middle left, dwarfed by the buildings.

Aletto Square: Deja Vu All Over Again

Make no mistake about it. This is a huge building brought to you from the same architect and developer that stuffed Tower 155 into a postage-stamp sized lot. The problems with Aletto’s density, the garage, traffic, and parking are so immense that a separate article is needed. But for example, the project averages 284,588 square feet of building space per acre.  This is the equivalent of putting seven sets of Aletto buildings in the Camino Square parcel (where Wynn Dixie used to be).

Aletto Square: The Open Space Flim Flam

But I digress, this article is about “Open Space”. While Aletto might abide by the city’s open space code, it’s far from something that serves the public interest. I actually question whether or not it does meet code by its application of something called covered open space. More on that later. The problem is the difference between the technical requirements in square feet versus the reason for having open space in the first place, to provide space of visual interest to pedestrians and a break from the hard edge of construction. Architects and developers, however, are only interested in one thing — meeting the minimum requirements, and I believe they are bending the rules for their own benefit.

According to the code, the amount of open space depends on building height. For buildings over 75 feet tall, 40% of the lot size must be open space. But all is not what it seems. What you expect to see with that 40% (a little more than a half-acre of space) is nothing like the open space that is actually there. In fact, some of Aletto’s ”open space” is at the bottom of the parking garage with seven floors of concrete above it.

If I stand on a  balcony and look east, then squint my eyes during the right time of day, I can just about see a very tiny patch of the ocean. To a developer this “feature” would be called an ocean view. The same with open space.

Open space, as defined by the code, is “open from the land to the sky predominantly designed for and paved with bricks, pavers or other similar material for pedestrian use, or an area where no structures, or buildings other than landscape features, fountains, benches, arcades and objects of art are located.”

Open space around commercial buildings is meant to enhance the public experience, so pedestrians supposedly won’t be overwhelmed by tall concrete monoliths. It’s to make walking a more pleasurable experience, with public art, landscaping, and architectural elements. And, it’s to bring open space into the public realm.

Back in 2016, as reported by the Coastal Star and Sun Sentinel, local architects met with city officials to discuss rules for open space. When it was suggested that open space be predominantly in front of the building, the architects opposed the idea because it might “limit their design possibilities.” Scott Singer, the chairman of the CRA at that time, felt the intentions should be that open space “be predominantly visible [to the public] and connect to the public realm.” The idea was to have open space that residents and visitors can see as they walk or drive downtown, even if they don’t have access to it. Later that year, the city adopted updated policy that requires open space areas to be “predominately visible from and connected to the public realm.”

But there are a few small caveats. Open space does not equal green space. Quite the contrary. In downtown, open space will most likely be brick, pavers, or concrete surfaces for walking on. 

 Second, the open space does not have to be one large open area. It can be divided up around the property. A few feet here, a few feet there, as long as they add up to the required amount. For instance, according to the code, this one foot space between the curb and the wall of Tower 155 that a resident is “enjoying” is considered open space.

According to interpretations of Boca building codes, this one foot space that is open to the sky is “Open Space”

Boca’s Open Space Oxymoron: Open Space Does not have to be Open

The city allows up to 35% of the open space requirement to be “covered open space.” Certainly an oxymoron, but covered  open space can be under things like arcades,  colonnades, exposed balconies, exposed stairwells, canopies, and areas under pedestrian bridges. So underneath an open balcony, instead of seeing the clouds and birds flying, you see the underside of the balcony,  but it is still considered “open space” because above the cover is sky.

Finally, in spite of the city policy to be “predominately visible from and connected to the public realm”, Boca city code allows open space to not be public space. Open space around a single-family home, for example, is not open to the public. The same goes for space around office and other commercial buildings. But even if not public, it must, as Scott Singer said, be  predominantly visible and connect to the public realm.

Below is a recent open space plan for the proposed Aletto Square.  Note that at of this writing, the staff is still reviewing the project. So the open space plan may change.

The large white area in the lower left corner is an existing building that the developer (thankfully) could not acquire. It contains small stores and businesses, such as the Sanborn Café which may be in jeopardy due to the prolonged construction period next door if Aletto is approved.

The areas in green represent “open space.” Although it’s shown as green in the site plan, it’s actually pavers, bricks, or concrete. It IS NOT GRASS around or between buildings. And, the “open space” section on NE 1st Ave and East Palmetto Park Road is only a slightly widened sidewalk.  If you look closely at the layout, you’ll see spaces marked TX on left side of the office building. This holds electrical transformers and equipment. For some reason, these are also in green to indicate open space, but I can’t imagine how they enter into the public realm.

There is an issue with this space. In his response to Cycle 7 review comment that the area is not open space, the applicant responded:

His response is in violation of code. Code requires that the area surrounded by a wall like used for the building according to open space policy, and open space cannot contain anything other than public art. This space contains electrical structures.

Next, you have the areas in yellow which is “covered open space.” Lastly, you have the white area on the upper right which is the driveway that encircles the parking lot. The total “open space” and “covered open space” areas are combined to make up at least 40% of the land mass.

An Embarrassment to the City

In the Aletto plan, remember that the green areas are not grass. Much of the open space area is not visible to pedestrians walking past, but is in the interior of the project or between buildings. Notice that they include the small sections and walkways that are actually within the garage but considered covered open spaces. How those can be considered open space when above it are seven floors of garage, not sky is just beyond belief.

Regardless of the huff and puff of the applicant, these spaces should not be accepted as open space. There is nothing open about them. They do not comply with the examples of covered open space in the code.

Required open spaces are meant to enhance and improve the public realm. It is hard to imagine how these sections inside and at the bottom of a parking garage actually accomplish that and can be considered open space of any kind. No pedestrian will look into that garage and think “what a beautiful open space.”

For a city that prides itself for its parks, acceptance of this open space plan would just be an embarrassment.

But let’s look a little closer at one section of the open space plan.

There is an alley leading to Sanborn Square. The alley is now 10-feet but will be expanded to 16-feet. City staff comments that it should be 24- feet for two-way traffic. There is a covered walkway shown in yellow (Arcade) next to the alley for pedestrians. This is a continuation from the covered walkway on NE 1st Ave in front of the building. Because the project is too large to legitimately have enough open space, the applicant is trying to claim that a six-foot wide section of the alley, actually a street, is open space. But even more incredible, they are claiming that the six-foot space is meant for pedestrians. No other place in Boca Raton declares the middle of a street as pedestrian open space.

Even though the alley needs to be 24-feet wide for the two-way traffic it will have, the city may allow them to keep it 16-feet. This would create backups on NE 1st Ave, contributing to the traffic at the intersection with East Palmetto Park Road which is already overburdened. It also excuses the developer for a project too big to fit the site.

This applicant has a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey approach to open space. There have been several plans submitted, all different. For example, the previous plan looked like this:

They tried to claim an even larger part of the alley as open space, and there are differences between the spaces within the garage. Whenever the staff rejects sections of open space, the applicant merely sticks a pin in the plan, calls where it lands open space, and tries again.

Whether or not the city just gives them a gift by declaring the driveway open space is yet to be determined.

With the alley, for example, they tried to declare a larger section as open space. Remember, this is a paved road or driveway, for vehicles, trash trucks, and deliveries. Even the applicant has called this a “street.” And the staff rejecting this larger section as open space indicates that the alley is in itself not open space. Whether or not the city just gives them a gift by declaring the driveway open space and allowing space buried under the garage as covered open space, is yet to be determined.

If you’ve spent any time in and around Sanborn Square, your idea of open space is not reflected here. A patch here and a patch there. A couple feet of pavers next to a wall. When you view the project from within the park, or walk past, you won’t really see much of the open space. This is what you’ll see facing looking East from Sanborn Square.

While it might satisfy the open space requirements of the city, which I seriously question, it does not  reflect the intent of the code and the expectations residents might have of open space.  From this example, it is obvious that if Boca Raton is serious about open space, it needs to further review and refine the code to put some brakes on irresponsible runaway development. 

The Aletto at Sanborn Square is just too big for its location. It doesn’t fit in with the low buildings and open space of Sanborn Square. It is unsightly and poorly planned. The lack of adequate parking, the ludicrous open space plan, the traffic it will bring to the small streets in the area, will just be devastating to the entire downtown. It smashes as much billable space as they believe possible into a small area. Let’s hope that the City sees that as an impossible.

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