Uptown – Downtown

 The ‘Eastward Ho’ Movement Takes Hold In Boca Raton

When you’re alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go...”

Downtown. It could be Manhattan or Miami, Chicago or Charleston. It makes no difference. Downtown is the big draw. It’s the hub, charged with the energy of people going places and living life amid an array of activities, all at arm’s length.

It’s the heartbeat of any city, large or small, and it’s unfolding in Boca Raton, complete with a balmy, moonlit night, palm trees swaying in silhouette, an alfresco dinner and a leisurely stroll through Sanborn Square.

In Boca Raton, Broadway is Federal Highway. Midtown is the rapidly evolving area between Mizner Park, Royal Palm Plaza and the Intracoastal Waterway. And who needs Coney Island with the white beaches and warm Atlantic Ocean just a short jaunt east of Palmetto Park Road and Camino Real?

That’s the matrix emerging for a renewed downtown Boca Raton. Unincorporated Boea Raton encompasses about 70 square miles.

The incorporated city is little more than 27 square miles. It’s where some 80,000 people live, work, play, raise their children and enjoy retirement. Only in the past decade or so has Boca Raton had a well-defined downtown, both a workplace and residential locale integrated with shopping, dining, recreation and culture~. The epicenter of the city is Palmetto Park Road and Federal Highway. South to north, downtown extends from Camino Real to the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Mizner Park.

M.J. “Mike” Arts, president of the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce, attributes the marked success of Mizner Park’s restaurants, retail shops and cultural attractions as the spark that ignited the current downtown redevelopment and a renaissance in residential living. The key, he says, is the ongoing notion of linking Royal Palm Plaza to Mizner Park.

“That was in the plans from day one, even before Mizner was built,” Arts says. “There will be a spine connecting the two areas, which, in turn, will encourage other new development. It will he a place for people to walk and enjoy a much larger area in our downtown.”

Foremost in the minds of planners is maintaining what has made Boca Raton famous—a sense of affluence, the beautiful environs and, most of all, a small-town atmosphere.

Arts says he sees people choosing to gravitate downtown to work and live. “I don’t believe that you can overdevelop your downtown,” he says. “You have to put a concentration of development in that area, but the main thing you need to have is mixed-use—meaning people there can comfortably work and shop. That, in turn, keeps traffic off the road.”

It is essential to promote pedestrians in the downtown area. As studies indicate, automobile traffic in Boca Raton is not caused by downtown density. It’s what Arts calls “background traffic” coming in from areas west and south that are heavily developed.

Jorge Camejo at City Hall agrees. He’s been with the city since 1981 and today serves the community as director of development services, an umbrella department that oversees planning and zoning, building-code enforcement and other housing concerns in Boca Raton.

Camejo acknowledges that “mixed-use” is the whole concept behind lessening traffic.

“I believe—and the data demonstrates this-that because of the degree of residential development we have experienced downtown to (late, we now have a balance [of traffic] at peak hours,” he says.

“For example, if you envision those buildings downtown being office and only office, imagine what that would be like at 8 o’clock in the morning. It would be everyone in at 8 and everybody leaving at 5—all at the same time.”

What’s happening now, Camejo says, is a lessening of traffic impact due to significant residential occupancy downtown. Now there is a noticeable level of traffic coming into downtown while traffic is leaving and vice versa.

Another keen observer of the downtown area is Troy McLellan, senior vice president of business development at the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce. He foresees a “happening downtown” for Boca Raton, a resurgence he says is similar to what’s been going on in neighboring Defray Beach.

“Boca Raton has a great image,” McLellan says. “No one is trying to change that. But for a while, people weren’t coming on a Thursday night to dine at one of the great restaurants on Palmetto Park. A residential component will certainly help to create a strong downtown. Sure, one perception may be that we are growing too fast and that we’re all about development and growth. It is just not the case. It is about growth—but calculated in a good way. Boca Raton—like the Boca Raton Resort & Club is known worldwide. It is a model community and its management has been excellent, in my opinion, never out of hand or directed too fast.”

A look around downtown tells the tale. Condominiums like Townsend Place are in the final phases of construction. Toward mid-town, Royal Palm Place on the site of the former Woolly’s food store will offer rental apartments and apartments in Palmetto Place are quite affordable - at least by Boca Raton standards, says Camejo.

“Some one-bedroom units were priced in the $170,000 range when they first were selling; now most are over $200,000,” he says.

Again, by local standards and given the recent decline in interest rates, that’s an attractive deal. In fact, most can afford to buy instead of rent, especially with 30-year mortgages available. In many instances, folks wanting to move downtown can buy a unit for less than they can rent one.

Camejo also stresses that apartment buildings will be limited to nine stories, or 100 feet. But architecture will not be restricted to the time-honored Mediterranean styles associated with Addison Mizner’s work. A few recent additions attest to a diversity of tastes in structural schemes for Boca Raton’s downtown.

Consider the distinctive office building on the corner of Camino Real and Federal Highway. As Camejo points out, the last thing the downtown needs is another bland office building.

“That’s the most modern building to be seen downtown,” he says. “It was designed by Phillip Johnson, who is a world-renowned architect. He does not do traditional Mizner-style buildings. Any attempt to break up the monotony of what would otherwise be the same style in architecture is fine. Some view it as a positive thing; others have a different opinion. But it’s like the Eiffel Tower. When it was first built people couldn’t stand it. The more it remained in place, the more fond of it people became.”

And there is still the potential for more development in the future, Camejo adds. Currently under study is the North Federal Highway corridor north of Mizner Park, which probably will be re-addressed in terms of land use to include residential development.

The Chamber’s McLellan is keeping an eye on businesses in the downtown, too. In terms of major employment, Washington Mutual bank and Office Depot have moved into town, with others waiting in the wings.

“About 80 percent of our members are small businesses—that is, under 10 employees,” he says. “We have our share of corporate headquarters also, with Sunbeam and IBM with a new building. We are an attractive business location with all those things CEOs want—an airport, a high quality of life, beaches, retail, restaurants and weather, plus awesome private schools like Pinecrest and St. Andrews and fine public schools. When you look at it from that standpoint, these executives are taking a long, hard look at Boca Raton.”

Downtown is where many transplants will want to be. It’s the nightlife. the restaurants and the convenience of perhaps owning only one car that you can leave at home when you go out. Maybe it’s the perfect spot for the young executive testing the waters of a new job, the college student or the suburban couple tired of cutting the grass. Downtown is the magnet.

“Mostly, it’s an opportunity for people to he living in an area that has more of a 24-hour activity and amenity offering,” says Camejo. “It’s only a recent phenomenon that has created this opportunity, allowing people to choose this lifestyle over that of the guy who lives in a gated community and has to commute to the office every day. That’s not to say that one style of life is better it’s just that now people can choose.”

So what is the Chamber of Commerce’s and City Hall’s take on the rise of Boca Raton’s downtown? The buzz words, the hype?

“We don’t need a catch phrase,” says Arts. “Downtown Boca Raton sells itself.”

  Source: Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce, BOCA RATON ANNUAL 2003-2004

think boca logo.gif (6482 bytes)