It’s time Boca Raton stops fooling itself and its residents. The vision of a pedestrian promenade a.k.a “spine” with stores and restaurants connecting Royal Palm Place to Mizner Park is dead; Killed not by lack of vision, but by lack of urban planning, developer driven downtown development and indifferent City Councils. This over 30-year story, has finally reached its end. The spine is dead, blocked by developments, existing or on the way. It’s a story of failure.
Dead Before Arrival
A downtown promenade is a frequently discussed idea commonly called the ”spine”. Its backers see it as a sort of backbone for downtown linking those two major shopping and dining sites. The Boca spine was first mentioned about the time Mizner Park was developed. In some versions, it is a bustling shopping and dining street. The Los Olas of Boca. The Champs-Élysées of South Florida. In other versions, it is a wide plaza incorporating one or two entire blocks east of Sanborn Square.
It has been part of visions, forgotten, and revived numerous times. We applaud those, like Deputy Mayor Andrea Levine O’Rourke, who continue to dream that it may come to pass. But it’s dead. You need only look at two developments that ring the death knell for the connection: Tower 155 and the proposed Aletto at Sanborn Square. They are both by the same developer, Compson Associates, and both involve architect Derek Vander Ploeg who was also a landowner of the Tower 155 site. Those two developments, would have been impossible if the spine existed. The spine is also blocked by Mizner Plaza, the Batmasian shopping center next to the post office but that is a long story.
Under Mayors Whelchel, Haynie and Singer, various proposals were considered and rejected, or projects were approved that would block the spine. In 2008, three major real estate developers took up the issue. Sadly, the project got mired down over finances and legal arrangements, though the city threatened to take over the property by eminent domain. Eventually the city council pursued a strategy of “hope”; Hope that private redevelopment efforts would create it. It’s evident now that sitting idle and relying on Boca Raton landowners/developers to give up property for the public good was the fatal blow to the spine; intentional or not.
Why do they bother conducting meetings to get the public’s opinion when they just defer to architects and developers anyway?
My research shows that some developers and architects were never in favor of the spine, regardless of its advantages to the public. They didn’t want to give up valuable developable land for the public interest. In its 2009 article “Boca Revives Idea for Downtown Connection“, the Sun Sentinel reported on a meeting to discuss the spine. Architect and developer Derek Vander Ploeg called it “putting lipstick on a pig.” He felt the spine would interfere with developing those properties for other usage.
Partial Spine, Sort Of
The south section of a spine is in place, sort of. Plaza Real South has apartment buildings, shops, and restaurants. From Lemongrass to Corvina. But the sparsity of attractions leaves Plaza Real South a wasteland on its northern end.
Directly across Palmetto Park Rd. where Plaza Real South dead ends, is an entire section of property owned by Alfred Aletto. Beyond that is Tower 155.
The spine was supposed to extend Plaza Real South, cross Palmetto Park Road and continue to Mizner Park. However, Palmetto Park Road is far from being a tourist mecca. And it has never reached its potential as a pedestrian attraction, a downtown main street.
Unfortunately, there are whole stretches of Palmetto with commercial buildings and apartments that do not attract walkers. So it offers little to attract pedestrians to turn the corner onto Palmetto Park, especially in the evening. People go to Palmetto Park Road to reach a specific destination, like Luff’s Fish House. Then they drive home. Few stroll up and down Palmetto.
Don’t Pee Down My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining
Both Aletto and Tower 155 have narrow pathways next to them. Aletto’s would follow a narrow path that dangerously dumps pedestrians onto its driveway on East Boca Raton Road where cars enter and exit the Aletto garage. There is also a rather circuitous route through the buildings and garage. But that’s not a spine, it’s an intestine.
Tower 155’s pathway leads pedestrians to the trash dumpsters in the alley behind Mizner Plaza. If anyone tells you these are a spine, remind them you are not an idiot. It’s an insult to your intelligence. The spine was intended to be a significant pedestrian promenade lined with shops and restaurants. It’s not a path to dumpsters or alley to dodge cars streaming in and out of a parking garage.
Vision is Not Reality
Visions are wonderful. But they are useless if they never reach reality. The City’s game plan with the spine has been just hope and pray. Landowners/developers, not caring about the vision, build and keep building developments blocking the way.
The final nail will soon be driven into the coffin of the spine by the proposed Aletto at Sanborn Square project. Aletto’s 10-story “Building A” occupies the last of the properties where the spine would go. Its tallest and most imposing office building will face Palmetto Park Road, blocking the view and the way.
Aletto Square, by the way, will demolish the remaining historic buildings on East Boca Raton Road. The historic 100-year-old Cramer house located on the Aletto property has already been razed to make room for a parking lot. Aletto, together with Tower 155 and Mizner Plaza, completely and permanently severs Boca’s spine.
Tiger Without Teeth
When it comes to the spine, Boca Raton is a tiger without teeth. It makes a lot of noise but has no bite. It only has teeth for the things it really wants. We don’t know if there were any discussions between the City and Compson Associates regarding the spine. If there were, they had no impact. So in essence, Boca didn’t lose the spine. It abandoned it.
The vision for a pedestrian backbone through downtown will have finally reached its dead end. It would have taken real backbone to create it. The spine is a victim of misplaced priorities, indifference, and development. It is discouraging just how blind a vision can be.