Midtown Passes, Delray Wins!


 
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The Delray Beach City Commission met for nearly nine hours Tuesday night into Wednesday morning.

And it was worth it.

The feature attraction was Midtown, the mixed-use project on and near Swinton and Atlantic Avenues. The properties include the iconic Sundy House. If the commission had delayed a vote, further delay might have killed Midtown. At the next meeting, which won’t happen until after Tuesday’s election, the city will have a new mayor and perhaps three new commissioners. Developer Hudson Holdings would have had to start over.

Instead, by a 4-1 vote, the commission approved Midtown. The meeting went so late because many residents spoke and because the commission, city staff and the developer’s representative reworked the plan. As Mayor Cary Glickstein said, it wasn’t the ideal process, but it happened in public view and it ended well.

City planners could explain the details best—and the project already had changed in the last few weeks—but the key improvement Tuesday/Wednesday involved the design of an office building on Atlantic Avenue. Glickstein said it was the issue that had him “still struggling.” Given the nature of some of the properties and the area, Glickstein wanted more “compelling” architecture.

The result was that Hudson Holdings agreed to eliminate one floor from the building and rework the look. Fortunately, the developer had hired Rick Gonzales. No architect in the county has a better reputation when it comes to historic preservation. Gonzales turned the 93-year-old Methodist church in West Palm Beach into The Himmel, now the public hub of CityPlace.

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To all commissioners except Shelly Petrolia, the change means that Midtown will align more closely with the new Central Business District Land Development Regulations and thus provide what Glickstein called “authenticity.” To allay fears that Midtown could become another Uptown Delray—the project that collapsed after three years—Hudson Holdings agreed to start construction on a key block within two years. That’s how long Delray Beach allows before development approvals expire. The commission attached many other conditions, such as an effort to hire local contractors and employees.

Though all parties held up impressively as the hours went by, the effects of the marathon session showed. As discussion ended on that construction deadline, someone asked if “vertical construction” could apply to the underground parking garage, not just to buildings. Probably, Commissioner Mitch Katz said. “Just vertical down.” The brief laughter lightened the mood.

It was a wonderfully practical outcome for both sides. Hudson Holdings can begin work on a project that Delray Beach needs and is much better than first proposed. As one resident asked, “If not this, what?” The area is deteriorating. South Swinton Avenue especially needs an infusion of private capital. No other developer is waiting in line. Had the commission voted no, the perfect would have become the enemy of the good.

Dissenters mainly included the city’s historic preservation idealists. The historic preservation board twice rejected Midtown’s key components. While acknowledging that only about 2 percent of Delray Beach buildings are considered historic, Glickstein said of the area in question, “This isn’t Gettysburg.” He meant that the history is in the buildings, not any sacred ground. Moving some of those buildings won’t eliminate the history.

Katz correctly praised the speakers. Many stayed under the three-minute limit. Both sides made good points. If the speakers had been lawyers, a judge would say that the case had been well argued. Hudson Holdings’ attorneys, Bonnie Miskel and Neil Schiller, stayed flexible.

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Credit also goes to Planning, Zoning and Building Director Tim Stillings and other staffers. They checked to see that the changes complied with code. At one point, Stillings made a key catch, and the language was changed. City Attorney Max Lohman made sure that everything was legal. His performance might make those who want a new city attorney—a full-timer, not a contractor—think again.

A successful Midtown could catalyze redevelopment on West Atlantic Avenue and provide needed downtown office space. Nothing is certain, but something is possible. With luck, those eight-plus hours one day will look like time well spent.

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