When it comes to development decisions, nothing is simple. Virgin Trains (owned by Fortress Investment Group LLC using the Virgin brand) has proposed building a train station near the Downtown Library in east Boca to connect to its Miami – West Palm Beach – and (eventually) Orlando service. At the moment, Boca residents gain nothing from the Brightline service, other than the silent treatment (thank God) as the trains whizz by. It makes no sense for most of us to drive 35+ minutes to West Palm or Ft. Lauderdale to take a fast train to downtown Miami. A stop in east Boca would be a transportation-changer, particularly for those heading south when even the express lanes are parking lots. And we could shave an hour off the trip to Orlando’s theme parks.
What’s the idea?
Like most development decisions faced by our elected officials, the Boca Brightline station involves tradeoffs. Boca’s City Council really wants that fast rail link. Recognizing this, Virgin Trains is driving a hard and potentially profitable bargain. In return for building a state-of-the art (opponents call it “monster”) train station and parking facility, Virgin wants future development options on two potentially valuable pieces of land near our Downtown Library. It’s called Transit Oriented Development, or TOD. They eventually want to build some combination of hotel, office and residential facilities on that potentially valuable land. It’s all right there in East Boca, next to our “new” downtown.
One can understand Virgin Train’s motivation: passenger rail service is almost never profitable. Check Amtrak’s books: only the Auto Train and the DC-NY-Boston Acela make money; every other route is a loser. So passenger train companies are smart to make money the old fashioned way, like their transcontinental ancestors, by getting land deals.
One can also understand the opposition to Virgin’s land grant proposal soon to be considered by the City Council. In order to get the right TOD. parcels, Virgin wants to build its parking garage on the grounds of the Downtown Library parking lot. This would also put the four-story garage right next to the Library Commons residential community, a new “Boca Wall,” which has residents there about as happy as those who now live behind the concrete barrier known as Palmetto Promenade.
Opponents argue that putting the Brightline parking garage on the existing Downtown Library lot would desecrate a beloved “palace for the people”– NIMBY hyperbole perhaps, but they do have a point as well as a point of view. There are other, less controversial, development options available. But they involve relocating and redesigning Virgin’s proposed parking garage, leaving them less (or less valuable) land for future commercial development.
The City Council is scheduled to consider all this in public meetings starting November 13 and then more in the weeks following. What should be a thoughtful negotiation will probably degenerate into a “Save Our Library” pressure campaign. At times like these, Boca’s leaders need to find a way to get all parties into a room, have a rational discussion, and hash out a sensible compromise. Ironically, with all our “sunshine” laws, this is a difficult thing to do. It’s also proving difficult because three Council Members are nervous about their reelection prospects next March.
The bright side of the Brightline controversy is that there is a compromise hiding in plain sight: make the TOD. deal more attractive in return for Virgin’s relocating and redesigning their parking garage. We can get our fast rail connection and save our Library parking lot. We can all go to Disney World!
It would be better
It would be even better if the plans for any future Transit Oriented Development were part of an overall development plan for our city. How will the addition of fast rail service, perhaps linked to improved commuter rail service, affect the development of neighborhoods within walking distance of the stations? How will those stations be linked to other potential developments such as Midtown or the FAU Gateway project? What do we expect that Boca will look like in 2030? Do we have the infrastructure to support such a vision? Is there a master plan? Is there any plan?
Such an approach would take time, foresight and political courage. Sadly, with another important development issue pending before our City Council, confrontation is more likely than consultation. A complex development question will once again be considered in isolation, as a stand-alone decision. We have seen this play before. No wonder development in Boca seems to proceed in fits and starts. And no wonder such development gives our residents starts and fits.