Boca Raton has a reputation as a hard place to put up a building — especially downtown.
Now, the city is considering ways to give builders something akin to a “fast pass.”
But some say streamlining the development process means residents won’t have their say.
Judging from the debate last week at its first discussion, the proposals could be the talk of Boca for months. Even some members of the City Council appeared taken aback by some of the suggestions to speed development reviews.
The plan would shave up to 10 weeks off reviews by removing some steps for larger projects and adding an “express lane” of sorts for smaller projects.Saving time would save millions in insurance, interest and general costs for builders, say architects of the plan — city staff members and the Downtown Boca Raton Advisory Committee. The city would benefit from getting more taxes quicker.
“This is the Internet age, technology is moving us forward,” said Glenn Gromann, chairman of the Downtown Boca Raton Advisory Committee, pointing out that his cell phone sends him news alerts that could also work for residents. He said his committee has been working on the streamlining plan for four years. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel here, we’re just making it rounder, so it rolls a little faster,” he added.
As it is now, downtown projects must be approved by city staff members and then reviewed by up to three different citizen boards before ending up with the City Council.
But residents and some Council members were concerned about steps that could be skipped. Some say keeping a tight reign on development has made Boca better and should not be changed. Of particular concern was the discretion over smaller projects that would be given City Manager Leif Ahnell.
With Ahnell’s nod, projects smaller than 25,000 square feet could get approved without a hearing. Changes that affected less than 10 percent of a building, no matter how large it was, could also be approved by Ahnell, bypassing any hearings.
Streamline advocates say the Tower One Fifty Five project is an example of why such overhaul is needed. When the developer wanted to reduce the number of units, the project spent six more months in the planning pipeline. “That didn’t serve anyone,” Gromann said.
Streamlining development was among the City Council’s top priorities at a goal-setting meeting earlier this year, an acknowledgment that development in Boca moves slowly. “Traditionally and historically, Boca has been a no-growth or select growth city,” said Jack McCabe, a housing analyst in Deerfield Beach. “Most builders that build in the lower, more working-class price points, would say it’s been difficult to get things approved in Boca.”
Jeffrey Lynne, a Delray Beach lawyer who has represented developers, said Boca’s development process makes it hard for developers to respond to the changing demands of the market. Right now, for example, he said he’s going back and forth with the city about replacing some condo windows. “There are cities that are much easier to develop in,” he said. “In the (Boca) downtown, you have to jump through a lot of hoops to make that happen.”
But Mayor Susan Haynie seemed to have some issues with taking out some of those hoops, particularly the two stops development proposals make in front of the Community Appearance Board — which enforces the “Boca look” — and the stop in front of the planning board. “When you see some of the structures downtown that everyone complains about, it’s because we didn’t have the expertise” of the current boards, she said, noting that she would not support developments bypassing the Community Appearance Board.
Architect Douglas Mummaw said that the city should rely on the urban planning firm it’s hired for that kind of review, Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh. “It’s always good to seek citizen input, but at the end of the day, you have hired the most prestigious urban planning outfit in the world,” said Mummaw who works for Investments Limited, the biggest landowner in the city. “If they say a project is good, I think we have to rely on that.”
But resident George O’Rourke said the current streamlining proposal goes too far: “This comes at the expense of citizen involvement and the sacrifice of administrative control.”