Thumbs up on the new Hyatt and other downtown news and notes from Boca and Delray

Boca Raton
Boca Raton

Hyatt looking good

Even the most strident critics of downtown development in Boca Raton will have a hard time complaining about the new Hyatt Place Hotel.

For decades, the city debated what to put on the southeast corner of Federal Highway and Palmetto Park Road. In the mid-1980s, voters defeated the plan for a mixed-use project. Long after Mizner Park opened a quarter-century ago, the site remained vacant, with a gas station across the street. Some downtown gateway.

In September 2014, however, the city council approved the Hyatt Place as part of Ram Realty’s the Mark at Cityscape project. Approval came under Ordinance 5052, which allowed extra height—the hotel is 15 stories tall—in exchange for adherence to downtown architectural guidelines. Architect Paul Slattery, who has since died, promised a “visual landmark” with “a human scale.”

As the developer projected, the Hyatt Place opened before the holidays, in time for high season. I toured the hotel with Sales Director Audra Durham, who worked previously for the Hyatt Place in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The parent company bills Hyatt Place as “a new generation of hotels that offer casual hospitality in a smartly designed, high-tech and modern environment.”

Hyatt Place Boca adheres to that model. Durham told me that the hotel wants to position itself as “upscale but at a competitive price.” Like the Hyatt Place in Delray Beach’s Pineapple Grove, Hyatt Place Boca will go after its share of corporate meeting business. Durham said, however, that the balance at Hyatt Place Boca would be more 50-50 between corporate and social. “We are going to be very event-oriented”—weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc.

One feature that distinguishes Hyatt Place from traditional hotels is the multi-purpose lobby “gallery.” The same employee can check you in, serve you a latte from the Starbucks bar or pour you a glass of wine, all without moving more than a few steps. For now, there’s a casual restaurant as part of the gallery. At the end of January, a Louie Bossi restaurant is scheduled to open. It will front Palmetto Park Road. Construction on that side of the hotel is associated with the restaurant.

There’s been debate about whether downtown Boca is pedestrian-friendly. Durham believes that it is, and said the hotel will tout its proximity to Mizner Park, Sanborn Square, Royal Palm Beach and the historic City Hall. She expects a significant number of vacationing guests who stay at least five nights.

As promised, there will be valet service only at the restaurant, to reduce the traffic impact. Though the hotel opens nicely onto Federal Highway, guests enter from Southeast First Avenue and drive into the parking garage after checking in without having to go back onto the street.

Hyatt Place seems like a fine addition, not just for downtown but for Boca overall. The 200 new rooms could help the city bid for conventions that the Boca Raton Resort & Club couldn’t accommodate on its own. The optimism that accompanied the council’s approval 28 months ago appears to have been justified.

New Delray chief

With Delray Beach having named Fire-Rescue Chief Neal de Jesus acting city manager, the city has made Keith Tomey acting chief. Tomey retired last month after serving for more than 30 years with Miramar’s fire-rescue department in Broward County, rising to chief himself.

De Jesus probably will be the city’s temporary CEO until at least April. The March election will determine a new commission, which will choose a permanent manager. Whenever that happens, the plan is for Tomey to become assistant chief under de Jesus, who would return to his old job. Mayor Cary Glickstein said the two will give the department “highly respected leadership (that) will help us attract, retain and build our leadership bench.”

De Jesus previously was the chief in Coral Gables, where he worked for 31 years. He later was appointed director of fire-rescue services for the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, serving for two years until being removed as part of what news reports called a purge carried out by Sheriff Scott Israel after his election in 2012.

It does not worry Glickstein that Tomey is another retiree starting a second career in Delray Beach. De Jesus, Glickstein said, has “re-energized and re-aligned our fire-rescue department. We have a lot of positive momentum that we didn’t want interrupted by Neal’s interim city manager role. Bringing in someone with similar experience but that has no interest in competing for Neal’s spot upon his return means our progress continues in both the fire-rescue department and at City Hall.”

Sad buildings

Mayor Susan Haynie is “not certain” how city council discussion will proceed Monday on one of Boca Raton’s most ambitious, creative goals—creating what Haynie calls a “signature” downtown municipal campus.

It peeves Haynie that, though Boca describes itself as a world-class” city, “our city buildings look so sad.” Which they do. City Hall was built in 1964 and screams it, despite an expansion in 1983. The community center, next door to the west, is cramped and dated. So is the police station. The only notable exception is the downtown library, which opened a few years ago.

Boca Raton certainly has the canvas to create something special. The city owns nearly 30 acres in and around Northwest Second Avenue between City Hall and the library. In addition to the properties listed above, there are athletic fields, a skate park, the tennis center, the old library and two vacant lots. According to the property appraiser’s website, the holdings’ combined market value is about $63 million, based on highest and best use.

That use, of course, would be as residential development. In October, the Miami-based Related Group sniffed around, proposing a “public-private partnership” with residential development among the “potential amenities” that would give a “value-added” component to the campus. Haynie, though, doesn’t want private housing as part of any grand plan.

Related probably got interested because a month earlier the council rejected City Manager Leif Ahnell’s recommendation to hire the West Palm Beach-based architecture firm of Song & Associates to plan and design the city campus. Only two firms had responded to the city’s advertisement, and the council didn’t like Song’s approach. Haynie specifically didn’t like West Palm Beach City Hall, which the firm designed.

So the council would need to hire a new planner and architect, or a firm. First, though, Haynie and the council members would need to decide what they want, after which they would need to hear from residents. “This is not about building a Taj Mahal,” Haynie said, “but there could be something spectacular.” It could include, she said, “lots of new downtown green space.”

Timing could work for the city on financing such a project. Later this month, the council will hold its next discussion on selling the western golf course. A sale could bring the city between $40 million and $73 million, which could finance all or part of the campus. In addition, Boca is projected to receive between $5 million and $6 million from the county’s sales-tax increase. As with any golf course money, there are no plans for the tax revenue.

Whatever happened downtown, Haynie said, the city would retain the complex farther north on Second Avenue that houses the sanitation department and the building on Congress Avenue north of Yamato Road that includes the police and fire training areas and the emergency operations center. In fact, the largest indoor gathering space is at the Congress Avenue address. That’s just one reason why a downtown campus isn’t just exciting—it’s essential.

That waterfront ordinance

Also on the council’s Monday workshop agenda is another discussion of how to enforce the ordinance that restricts use of city-owned waterfront land to four public uses. During the first discussion, which came after voters approved the ordinance on Nov. 8, Councilman Robert Weinroth proposed that all current uses on such properties be allowed—“grandfathered,” to use the legal term. He got no support.

New sales office at Penn-Florida

Penn-Florida hasn’t yet sought permits for Via Mizner Phases 2 and 3, but the company soon will have a sales office for the luxury condos whose owners will have privileges at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel that is to be part of the project. The office will be in the building behind the old City Hall that nearly a decade ago housed the Old Towne Tavern restaurant.

Downtown Advisory Committee

For almost 10 years, Boca Raton has been trying to do away with the Downtown Advisory Committee. It was supposed to go out of existence when the city completed the downtown master plan, which hasn’t happened.

So next week, the city council again will choose 12 people to serve one-year terms, after which the plan probably still won’t be finished. Rinse and repeat.

Current member Mary Csar, who’s also director of the Boca Raton Historical Society & Museum, said the committee still serves a role as a conduit for suggestions from residents to the council. Example: Though the city keeps adding downtown residents, downtown remains too dark in the evening. “We’ve been hearing this for years,” Csar told me Wednesday. “We hope (the city) will keep up some of the Christmas lights.”

Delray community workshops

On Monday, Delray Beach will hold the second of four community workshops seeking comment as the city updates its comprehensive plan.

This session, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Old School Square field house, will cover economic development, education and “intergovernmental coordination,” such as the relationship between the city and the community redevelopment agency and other local governments. The next two sessions will take place in March and May. Planning and Zoning Director Tim Stillings said the city hopes to finish the update early next year.


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