Newsletter: Jul 27, 2022

"Delray's Next Great Street": What Happened To It?

In the early 2000's, Mayor Jeff Perlman and city planners recognized what could happen if the pressure of development in downtown Delray became too severe - the erosion of its charm and perhaps even the loss of its brand as "The Village by the Sea".

It was not hard to see that Congress Avenue, just west of I95 was a viable solution -- a four-mile long, drive-thru main artery between Boynton Beach and Boca Raton dotted with commercial strip malls and weedy vacant lots.  It was an underutilized area, if not an eyesore, at a remove from Atlantic Avenue but close enough to provide shuttle services to downtown Delray and the site of the Tri-Rail train station.

There was already one large business anchoring the south end of Congress, the headquarters of Office Depot. More would move there if housing was available for their employees and food and entertainment businesses would soon follow to capture that market.  Larger businesses would also diversify the city's tax base, which was heavily dependent on residential and smaller retail and restaurant businesses.   It seemed like a win/win.

Then came a phone call Perlman described as "the call every mayor doesn't want to get." Office Depot was leaving and moving to Boca Raton.  

Enacting the vision now had an urgency to it.  New zoning laws were developed to lure larger businesses to Delray and allow the development of a higher density, larger scale live/work environment for their employees and make Congress "Delray's Next Best Street".  No one thought the 49 plus acre Office Depot location would remain vacant for long.

And then, the one-two punch: the recession.

Plans stalled and the vision was put on the back burner given the difficulty of persuading developers and businesses at that time to invest in it.  By 2012, the economy was once again in full swing and downtown Delray's revitalization initiatives had succeeded beyond expectations, drawing tourists and new residents like bees to a honey comb.  Developers were already snapping up relatively inexpensive property along Atlantic Avenue to draw more of them.  It was a plum ripe to be picked.  

And it was.

A developer had recently bought two full blocks on East Atlantic Avenue next to Veteran's Park and was seeking to build a massive residential and commercial complex, now known as Atlantic Crossing.  One that zoning laws as they were written couldn't prevent coming to fruition.  Attention was turned to the downtown business core to staunch the flow of others like it and lawsuits regarding Atlantic Crossing, due to delays in the project's approvals not fully supported by the city's zoning regulations, consumed the headlines.  A hard lesson learned, remedied by a tightening of zoning laws and, as many hoped, accompanied by the dusting off Perlman's vision.

Late in 2014, the City Commission, under the direction of Mayor Cary Glickstein, created a task force to make recommendations on how to develop Congress Avenue as "Delray's Next Great Street".

The task force looked at the zoning regulations that existed and envisioned eco-friendly pocket parks, landscaped pedestrian sidewalks and bike paths scattered among new, higher density commercial and residential buildings, which could reach up to 85' tall or eight stories and provide needed residential housing, each project with at least 20% moderate income residential units.  The intent: to finally make the Congress Corridor a live/work/play alternative to Atlantic Avenue.  The plan coming out of the taskforce, an effort of over 30 Delray volunteers, met rave reviews when it was presented to the City Commission in 2016.  

But over the next six years and with a change in leadership, Delray would be experiencing the effects of a revolving door at City Hall that didn't seem to stop spinning.  Multiple City Managers and Interim City Managers swapped chairs, which inevitably resulted in the lack of oversight in numerous departments and patchwork directives to solve Delray's problems.  

The development of "The Next Great Street" languished while development downtown boomed.   Property values skyrocketed as its population expanded and its available buildable land diminished.  Commercial rent rates also skyrocketed and long-term, smaller Delray businesses folded to be replaced by tonier tenants and owners asking for late night hours in the entertainment district on Atlantic Avenue.  Residential rent followed suit, making much of Delray unaffordable for many who worked and lived in the city.

The city responded to the growing and critical housing shortage by creating overlay districts with incentives for developers to build housing that would offer below market rents and densely packed small, single family homes and multi-family apartment complexes.

Blocks of older buildings and worn-out strip centers in the downtown core, which had been snapped up earlier, were re-developed or in the process of it.  Prices had risen so much, that a developer could offer affordable housing required under the tighter zoning regulations.  But costs to buy property and build were still rising. This created an incentive for developers, who owned property or could still buy east of I95, to look for ways around the area's height and density codes or gravitate toward more costly, high-end projects.  They did both.

Meanwhile, the Congress Corridor, west of I95 saw only a smattering of affordable residential units developed, Alta Delray, among them.  And the 49-acre Office Depot site remained vacant.

Lack of affordable housing made it difficult for Delray to lure larger businesses to Congress Avenue. They also needed housing within a reasonable commuting distance for their employees.  

A solution was offered by a representative of a developer who had navigated a project through the zoning approval process east of I95:  "The only way to solve the problem is to bring back bonus incentives in the downtown corridor for housing set aside for workers such as police officers, firefighters and medical personnel...allowing developers to recoup their money by selling more units at lower prices."

But other plums outside of Delray’s downtown can be picked to house essential workers -- and sold at a lower price.  They're growing on a tree in the Congress Corridor, one planted well over a decade ago.

For more information:

Use the link below to see the "Congress Avenue Task Force Report".  Find the March 8, 2016 "City Commission WORKSHOP MEETING" and then click on "Agenda", which you will have to download.  Then click on: "Congress Avenue Task Force Final Report".

Best Regards,

The Friends Of Delray Board

Judy Mollica - President

Steve English - Treasurer

Gregg Weiss - Secretary

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