Congress Ave: Delray's Next Development "Hot Button"
Updated: Aug 1, 2022
Delray has yet to fulfill former Mayor Jeff Perlman's vision to relieve development pressure in its downtown core by making Congress Avenue into its "Next Great Street" -- a step child that has languished as revitalization initiatives downtown blossomed into large scale, expensively priced developments and filled blocks of Federal Highway, Atlantic Avenue and its side streets.
Plans to fulfill the vision could be slow walked yet again. This time due to politically inspired "spin" in a mass email that urged Delray residents to "email your Commissioner" about a proposed project on Congress called Delray Central -- and painted red X's next to the names of three Planning and Zoning Commissioners, one of whom is running against Commissioner Juli Casale next March.
The Planning and Zoning Board's recommendations end up at the City Commission for a project's approval. It's where the buck stops and also why residents need facts not just spin to decide what they agree with and what to protest.
THE SPIN: The three Board members who voted "no" on a motion to deny approval of the Delray Central Project are pro big development and a request for waivers would "memorialize the non-conformities instead bringing the site into compliance".
THE FACTS: First, a waiver request does NOT memorialize a non-conformity. It is simply a request. City staff had reviewed the waivers the Delray Central developer requested and noted in their report that the Board had the choice to continue with direction; to move to approve without direction; or to deny approval.
Second, a motion to deny approval was made immediately following the discussion and voted on, resulting in three 'no" votes from those who felt it wiser to continue to move the project forward in the approval process with direction concerning the waivers the developers had requested. What two of them described as "a good project, not perfect but workable."
If a motion to continue with direction had been made and passed, the Board's recommendation to approve would be a "conditional approval" and incorporate the Board's directives. It would then go to the City Commission for discussion and a vote. If that passed, the Site Plan and Review Board (SPARB) would review subsequent plans for compliance with those directives and then vote to certify or not certify the project. This is the general process for large master plan projects in zoning districts in which Delray Central and Linton Commons are located; however, given the complexity of these projects, portions of the plan and/or changes often are reviewed by the Planning and Zoning Board for approval.
The "no" votes were hardly an endorsement of overdevelopment but rather based on concerns about unnecessarily delaying the process, which could leave the door open for legal action such as what happened with Atlantic Crossing in downtown Delray. Of particular concern to legal staff were the Board's discussions involving the lack of mixed income affordable housing, as well as concerns regarding the massing of the three large structures - one which would be taller than any other in the area. In both cases, the project was compliant with existing if imperfectly written or out of date zoning codes.
The buck stops at the City on this issue and its need to review and revise the Congress Corridor regulations so they conform with its focus on affordable housing and address concerns about excessive "massing" -- thus ensuring decisions are made on a legally sound basis.
THE SPIN: Yet another behemoth project, like Atlantic Crossing, that will ruin Delray's "village by the sea" appeal.
THE FACTS: The proposed project, Delray Central, is on Congress Avenue just south of Linton Boulevard, alongside the rail road tracks west of I95 and in a zoning district called the Congress Corridor. In other words, quite far from Delray's downtown where Atlantic Crossing continues to grow.
It's also at a remove from a soon to be built large scale, mixed use development one mile from the beach on Linton Avenue called "Linton Commons". The project's developer requested and got a special overlay district for the site so a new 280-unit apartment building (more units than Delray Central) could be built behind existing commercial businesses. The project was approved by the City Commission, including Commissioner Casale, in 2021 and was met with rave reviews from Mayor Shelly Petrolia who called it "refreshing" and "a beautiful addition to the city," according to an article written by Randy Schultz for Boca Magazine.
THE SPIN: The overall size and scale of the project and location on the subject site -- an eight-story building of 271 Rental Units squeezed between two existing office buildings of two stories and four stories.
THE FACTS: The proposed project is definitely of a large scale given its acreage and the size of two existing buildings on it, but it is less in size and scale than permitted by the Congress Corridor zoning regulations. The height of the eight-story apartment building complies with the 85' height zoning regulation for the Congress Corridor. The side setbacks between two existing buildings and the new residential building are greater than required. The location of the proposed residential building would be in line with the front set back of the two older buildings and would be farther from Congress than regulations required, in part to relieve existing entrance and exit traffic safety issues. A parking garage for the residences would be hidden from view, wrapped by units on three sides of the residential building and would only be seen from the railroad tracks. All in all, one of the issues a number of Board members had with the project was that the size of the complex as a whole would be the first one of its kind in the zoning district, even though its massing and the height of the new building would meet existing zoning criteria.
In comparison, Linton Commons is also of a very large size and scale for its zoning district. But the waivers it needed were bundled into a new multi-use residential and commercial zoning overlay district specifically created for Linton Commons, which included them and which was approved -- a request not made by Delray Central. The developer was allowed to exceed the overlay district's height restriction and to increase the number (or density) of units from 12 to 30, also not a request made by Delray Central. The new building backs up to a residential area rather than the railroad tracks and its parking garage is wrapped by units on four sides. There is no similar complex along Linton Avenue east of I95.
THE SPIN: A lack of a mix of unit types and income levels for units reserved as workforce housing.
THE FACTS: The proposed project provides for 20% moderate income workforce housing, which is the requirement for the Congress Corridor area. All Board members stated they would like to see the same mixture of types and income levels for workforce housing, which was required in the Linton Commons project's new special overlay district. However, as City Attorney William Barrett told the Board during their discussion, "The applicant is meeting the affordable housing regulations (for its zoning district) and this should not be a basis not to approve this."
In other words, if the City wants mixed income and types of affordable housing in the Congress Corridor, it must change those affordable housing regulations before this issue can be a reason to deny approval of the project. The buck stops at the City on this one for not revising the Congress Corridor code earlier.
THE SPIN: Excess parking provided in lieu of providing additional landscaping as City staff requested.
THE FACTS: The developer took away some excess ground parking and added green space at the direction of the Planning and Zoning Board members after its first presentation of the proposed plan in April. During the developer's second presentation on May 16, the "no" voters noted and agreed that excess ground parking could and should be reduced and green space increased. They stated they would be in favor of moving the project forward if this, among other issues they raised, was addressed as a condition.
There is also excess parking at Linton Commons; however, there is more green space provided.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Issues that come before the Planning and Zoning Board are complex and time consuming and it's a process with many moving parts, made more complex by projects such as Delray Central and The Linton. Mistakes, when they occur (and they will), can be rectified if acknowledged. Its unpaid, volunteer members, all of them, should be commended for donating their time and performing a necessary civic duty. They are supported by experienced staff who do the legwork (often a marathon) to produce coherent, detailed reports on projects that come before the Board and often must referee discussions and offer their professional opinions regardless of the pushback. It doesn't serve Delray or its residents well when political posturing pours the fuel of "alternative" facts and storylines into the mix.
To watch the May 16, 2022 Planning and Zoning Board meeting video on Delray Central, click on the link below (Agenda Item 8D, three hours into the five-hour meeting): https://delraybeach.granicus.com/player/clip/2349?view_id=3&redirect=true
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