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where to live in Palm Beach County

Boca's land is almost used up, but the building continues

There is a trend to move (back) East


Overheard in Boca. An older man talking to a friend: "I've got to buy my wife a new house."

    "Why? What's wrong with the house you've got?"

    "Nothing! But my wife went to a luncheon in The Sanctuary and now she wants to move there."

    Keeping up with "The Right Address" in Palm Beach County can be a challenge. Slot in the name of any of the countryclub/gated communities and no matter how spectacular the homes, how exquisite the landscaping, how superb the view, there am always others that appear more magnificent.

    Real-estate jargon refers to "blue-blood estates," where one in 10 residents is a millionaire heir to old money who hosts dinner parties and buys fine wine by the cellar. In most of south Palm Beach County, the wealthiest neighborhoods are likely to have less blue blood and more new millionaires. "High-end" and "upscale" means the neighborhood is likely to attract those with mom than six figures in their annual incomes, while "affordable" means it's probably way out west.

    Regardless of whether buyers are looking to spend a few hundred thousand or a few million dollars on a home, the choice is overwhelming. For many homesteaders, nothing beats the country-club community, with the social and sporting life that literally comes with the territory. Originally peopled with affluent "gray power" residents living the golfers' retirement dream, country-club communities are now appealing to younger people who like the security and amenities.

    "Lots of tennis players are moving to the country clubs," says real estate agent Scott Johnson of Membership Realty, who also notes the rise of driveway basketball hoops - a sure sign of children.
    At the same time, there's a growing trend away from country-club living and back to Boca's eastern areas. The current word in Boca real estate offices is "teardown." Take an outdated house on a nice piece of land in a desirable area, open the checkbook and call in the building contractors.

    Lately, mom and more buyers have been looking north of the Boca border for their mini-palaces. When Boca was still a small town east of the highway, Delray Beach was the place you went for shopping and banking. But increasingly, it has become a premier place to live.

    Behind the rush to Delray is the appeal of its revitalized downtown, the character of its older restored homes and the selection of oceanfront estate homes. "Over the years, Delray remained a more subdued community, while Boca surged ahead. Now the town is hot," says real estate agent Jack DeNiro, founder of J.C. DeNiro Real Estate and a specialist in selling luxury waterfront homes. "We are seeing people from Boca country-club communities moving here. Other purchasers have sold big homes up north and are looking for beautiful houses here to serve as their primary residence."

    In new developments in both Delray and Boca, agents report that many buyers are locals who want to stay in the area. After all, with such a wide choice of luxurious and livable communities, who would want to live anywhere else?


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If you telephone The Lunch Box in Delray Beach looking for owner Jane Hodgkins, you might be told: "She's upstairs." No, she's not busy rummaging through a second-story storage area to find napkins for her eatery on East Atlantic Avenue. Instead, "upstairs" is her apartment.

You couldn't drag Hodgkins to live out west in a traditional suburban home. "Why would you live there? There's nothing there - except for houses. It's weird to me," says Hodgkins, a recently transplanted Bostonian accustomed to living on top of storefronts.

Sure, suburban homes may have swimming pools. "But," says Hodgkins, who owns her building, "I'd rather be able to walk to the hardware store and walk to go to coffee."

Sound strange? While many car-driving South Florida suburbanites still don't see the appeal of living near the coast, more of us in the next millennium are expected to follow Hodgkins' lead. Some will move into storetop apartments. A group may try urban houses with front porches and alley-backed garages, a short walk from shops and restaurants. Still others may slip into Philadelphia-style rowhouses, predicts Boca Raton land-use attorney Charles Siemon.

Already, a few innovative developers are trying their hands at intriguing urban retreats, such as Boca Raton's Mizner Park and the 90-odd rental apartments planned for upward of $2,000 monthly at the 65-acre CityPlace, an office/shop/entertainment complex under construction in West Palm Beach.

This back-to-the-city trend is crucial, if only because of simple math. Enough people to populate a second Miami-Dade County are predicted to drive their moving trucks into southeastern Florida in the next 10 to 15 years. That's 2 million new residents, says Linda Friar of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council. We're running out of land to build new homes. Where will newcomers live, work or play?

Traditionally, the answer has been: Go west, new resident But urban sprawl has become the bad boy of officials like Boca Raton resident and growth expert John DeGrove, who keeps what he calls a "sprawl-is-evil" package in his office at the Florida Atlantic University/Florida International University Joint Center for Environmental and Urban Problems. The small pile of academic studies and press clippings details the costs paid by the public to build roads, sewer pipes, fire stations, schools and other facilities to serve homes built far from urban corridors.

It costs an extra $5,000 to provide new streets, utilities and other services to a house far from the urban core, compared to a house in closer-in communities, according to a 1969 Florida study by James Duncan and Associates, prepared for the Governor's Task Force on Urban Growth Patterns. A study by Rutgers University professor Robert Burchell concluded that more compact communities use 40 percent as much land as far-flung homes. By encouraging folks to live and work around city centers, the cities "could be maintained as healthier, more fully taxpaying entities," Burchell wrote in his jogs study, sponsored by the Brookings Institution. "All of this could contribute to lower taxpayer costs."

So a drumbeat is sounding. Even as homes continue to be built closer to the Everglades, optimistic leaders have coined a phrase to sum up their nascent movement:

"Eastward Ho!"

Can it work? The phone ringing at Chris Brown's office suggests the answer is maybe, if not an outright yes. Developers and home buyers can be prodded to revitalize downtown areas. The Wail Street Journal, impressed with Delray development, has interviewed Brown at the Community Redevelopment Agency. So has United Airilne's Hemisphere magazine. Not to mention officials from other communities. A still-revitalizing downtown Delray Beach now draws more than a million people a year to festivals and tennis tournaments, and in 1997, assessed land values in downtown Delray increased by about $13 million from the year before, according to the CRA.

"In the mid- to late '80s, I think it's safe to say downtown Delray Beach was in economic shambles," says Tom Fleming, who manages the nonprofit Pineapple Grove Mainstream program, which is working to revitalize Northeast Second Avenue.

Fed up, some residents asked the City Commission to sponsor visions 2000, a brainstorming event attended by 100 people who came up with a vision of what downtown Delray should be. Despite the anti-tax climate of 1969, voters passed a $21.5 million bond issue to pay for capital improvements to start turning around downtown.

Today, downtown Delray vacancy rates-once some 60 per-cent-are less than 5 percent, Fleming says. Families are returning. And, while struggling with a debt burden, Delray has seen overall property values grow by $1.1 billion in the 10 years ending in 1996.

"Boca and Delray are certainly in the lead in terms of Eastward Ho," says attorney Siemon, of Siemon, Larsen & Marsh in Boca Raton. Just a decade ago, coastal condos provided the only example for urban living. Now, Trammell Crow's Mizner on the Green development across from Royal Palm Plaza as well as Mizner Park serve as beacons for the bored home-seeker. And storetop apartments are grabbing attention in Delray.

"It's about Generation X and X-plus," says Brown, excited about the trend of people moving downtown. "It's about the 30-year-olds and 40-year-olds. They're tired of suburbia.... They're coming here to live. It's fashionable and cool."

Some happily pay $800 monthly for 650-square-foot studios atop Huber Drugs in downtown Delray, built by local developer David Ross. The draw? High ceilings. Airy, European bathrooms. TV monitors so residents can see who is ringing the doorbell downstairs.

Before developer Cary Glickstein finished building five pricey villas, known as Casa Ia Brisa, on Seabreeze Avenue last year, all were sold - two to families that moved from western suburbs. He also is building eight townhomes at Via Marina, on the Intracoastal in Delray. Most have been sold, with prices starting at $610,000. Coralina Village, a dozen villas starting at $399,000, also is being built by his company, Ironwood Properties, off Seagate Drive between the Intracoastal Waterway and the ocean in Delray. For Glickstein, Eastward Ho is back to the future. He has built beach-area homes, from Vero Beach to Fort Lauderdale, since his business started in 1986.

What is different today is his customer. In days past, snowbirds snagged half his homes. Today, they buy maybe one in five. The rest go to empty-nesters moving from western country-club developments. Some initially fret over moving into smaller homes, but "I've never had one of my customers regret the downsizing," Glickstein says. "After the transition period is over, they're very happy.

"The kids are grown, the housing needs are less. They don't need the range of public schools, the park amenities that families look for in raising young children. These people are looking to simplify their lives."

Truth be told, builders rarely have trouble selling ocean-area homes, and Siemon sees the waterfront trend as separate from the Eastward Ho effort to revitalize the corridor east of Military Trail. A truer test of the Eastward Ho concept might be elsewhere: What would happen if you built houses near an airport-area trailer park in Dania? Or down the street from the Delray flea market? That's what Pulte Homes did. Most of its 260-unit, $60,000-to-$110,000 homes in Dania's Oakbridge development have been sold. Ditto for the company's 133 Kokomo Key town-homes, selling for $90,000 to $130,000 in a one-time trailer park off U.S. 1 in Delray Beach.

"It's worked out OK for us," says Tim Hernandez, vice president of land and marketing for Pulte Homes in Deerfield Beach.

When Hernandez bought the Delray land where Kokomo Key now sits, it was vacant and had been foreclosed. "That was kind of a marginal area when we went there. Now it's getting better," says Hernandez. "We're mostly getting young professionals, people who have a little bit of an adventurous spirit, who want to be east and close to the amenities east."

Hernandez now gives speeches on the hurdles facing developers looking eastward. Eastern parcels, when you can find them, typically are quite small, while western virgin lands seem huge. Neighbors in the eastern urban corridor may be letting their homes slowly deteriorate. What's more, since the amount of bureaucratic red tape for building a 10-acre housing development is the same as for a 40-acre development; it's tempting to build out west. "For all your trouble, why not get three or four times more approved?" Hernandez says.

The answer, for Hernandez, is profits. Back east, "there's less competition for those sites," Hernandez says. Also, "to be honest with you, in South Florida, land is becoming more scarce. So I can't be as picky as maybe I used to be." Still, if you broach the idea of moving east to suburban parents, they undoubtedly will bring up a few nagging issues: What about crime? Schools? The perception is that western communities score better on both counts, Hernandez says. Considering a house is the most costly investment most people make, it's understandable that parents won't want to gamble. South Florida's crime rates continue to fall, but problems persist. Meanwhile, "we're working on education," CRA's Brown says, noting that some of the nation's best schools are in downtown New York City.

Even more obstacles can trip up developers. Old neighborhoods, for instance, may have two-inch underground pipes for wastewater. New codes require six-inch pipes, so developers need to rip up roads. "It's cheaper to build new than it is to rebuild," says Friar, local Eastward Ho coordinator at the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council. "That doesn't mean long-term that development out west won't cost the public more."

So why isn't the entire region moving east into nifty apartments with high ceilings and townhouses within walking distance of great cafes?

Buying a home "has become and always has been an economic decision. You only go where you can maximize your buying power," says Jerry Kolo, director of Florida Atlantic University's Center for Urban Redevelopment and Empowerment Land values along the entire eastern corridor need to rise higher to attract a groundswell of demand up and down the entire strip, Kolo contends. And it's not always convincing to say that western homes potentially hurt the fragile Everglades. "That's not good enough for the economically rational person," Kolo says.

So, for now, if you ask Kolo where most South Floridians will move to in the next decade, he has an answer. Sure, he is the guy in charge of developing policy initiatives for Eastward Ho. But if you ask him whether most people will move east or west, Kolo frankly replies: "West."

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Nina Seibert knows that it's getting tight in Boca Raton these days. As the city's property appraiser for more than three decades, Seibert has seen Boca transform from a wide-open community to one that is simply running out of room.

Between the recent home construction on some of the last remaining large properties - such as The Preserve on 46 acres at Yamato Road and Military Trail - and the city's $12 million buyback of 76 acres of environmentally sensitive land, Boca's real estate squeeze is now a reality.

"There's not really very much vacant land left for new residential building," explains Seibert. "There are a few pieces of land by the old IBM site, and maybe a few more here and there, but that's about it."

Even developers outside the city limits in unincorporated Boca Raton are running short on space.

"We're just about out of land on this side of town, too," says Dean Borg, project manager of The Shores in West Boca, about three miles west of 441. "To our west is wetlands, then land owned by the water-management district, and beyond that are the Everglades. And that's it I don't see where else there is to go."

Which means that the future of residential living in Boca Raton may lie in three areas: high-rise mega-condominiums, the razing and reconstruction of existing homes, and the continued exploration of the hotly debated agricultural area northwest of West Boca's current development.



Perhaps Boca Raton's residential living really has nowhere to go but up - up into multi-storied buildings, that is. From the middle of downtown to the edges of the city's prized beaches, developers are finding that residents wanting a Boca Raton address are more than willing to snatch up high-rise apartments and condominiums in what was once a low-to-the-ground community.

At the forefront of this phase of the city's residential transformation is Boca Developers Inc., which is firing on all cylinders under the watchful eyes of partners Jim Cohen and Brian Street. At Townsend Place, Boca Developers is creating three nine-story towers overlooking the Boca Raton Resort & Club. Even with price tags of up to $700,000 - and before construction is complete - sales are brisk. At the company's Mizner Grand, a two-tower, 12-story condo scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, 136 million-dollar-plus residences will overlook the Intracoastal. And hanging over the ocean, The Aragon offers 41 million-dollar-plus palaces in its 10-story buildings.

Even high-end rentals do not seem to be built fast enough.

There's a waiting list to get into the Mizner Park apartments. Mizner on the Green, east of Royal Palm Plaza, continues to fill up. And just north of Boca, at Toscana and the Yacht Club in Highland Beach, developers are putting the final touches on hundreds of luxury oceanfront rentals and condos.

In Boca, the boom in high-rises is primarily due to the reemergence of the city's downtown, from the creation of Mizner Park and the resurgence of Royal Palm Plaza to the beautification of Palmetto Park Road.

"The downtown now has all of the ingredients necessary to bring about a vibrant and attractive area in which people can both live and work," says Boca Raton Community Redevelopment Agency Director Jorge Camejo. "And I think that is one of the reasons for this resurgence of residential construction downtown."

Boca Raton is not alone in its trend toward downtown living. "It's happening not only here, but all over the nation," says Street of Boca Developers "People are getting out of their homes and going back into their newly recreated cities."

As long as land is at a premium, high-rises will continue to make the best use of the few sites left in this popular community.

"That's where the trend has to continue to go," says Carroll Hahn, owner of Limited Edition International Realty. "People still want the location and the quality, but where do you put it? These high-end, mega-condominium high-rise residences seem to be an answer."



A curious trend formerly reserved for elite areas, such as California's Monterey Peninsula, has arrived in Boca Raton: Residents are tearing down an existing home to construct a new house on the same spot.

"You just can't find a full acre undeveloped in the middle of Boca Raton that is available for new-home construction anymore," explains Judy Leinwand of Boca Raton-based Lang Realty. "Many people are tearing down older houses for the land because the land is just so valuable."

Construction of new homes on existing sites increases the land value, to the delight of area homeowners and community officials. "The assessed value of the land goes up, the same number of cars are on the road, and the same number of people remain in the community," says Seibert, the city's property appraiser. "What could be bad about it"'

But Boca Raton's tear-down trend is being met by some criticism in a city where the architecture, originally created by and later inspired by design legend Addison Mizner, is of supreme importance to the community's identity.

"Personally, I think it's rather unfortunate that some current architecture is being torn down and being replaced with very different architecture that just is not in the Mizner style," says the CRA's Camejo. "Mizner architecture is very pleasing and understated, and unfortunately there are some architects who don't understand that. There is a way to build a big home without overstating what you perceive to be Mizner's Mediterranean style."

Nevertheless, with many of the homes built in the 1950s and 1960s quickly over-ripening into obsolete designs, the knock-down trend may be inevitable.

"Thirty years from now, people are going to say, 'Oh, those old 1990s homes are not good enough; we want 21st-century homes,"' says Seibert. "It's a cycle that probably will continue to go around in our city."



Just a decade ago, U.S. 441 was considered the outer reaches of residential existence. Today, the area quickly has become full to the brim both with new home sites and with people who buy them.

The Lennar Corporation has built some 2,400 homes in communities west of U.S. 441. Country-club communities, such as Boca Greens, have pushed the development still further west. And off Yamato Road, all but 18 of the 333 new homes at The Shores have been purchased within the development's first three-and-a-half years.

"If you want a new home with a new design that you can customize to your needs and desires," says The Shores' Borg, "there really has been little choice but to come out west."

Now developers are planning to build in the controversial Agricultural Reserve. Stretching across 20,000 acres west of Florida's Turnpike and north of Clint Moore Road, the Ag Reserve currently serves as a home to produce farms, equestrian centers and church camps.

But three years ago, Palm Beach County officials first approved a so-called "one-to-one clustering plan" for development in the Ag Reserve. Under the plan, residential developers are permitted to build one home on one acre of land, provided that all homes be clustered together, leaving from three4ifths to four-fifths of the entire development open for agricultural use.

At least two developers have expressed interest in building a total of nearly 1,000 homes in the Ag Reserve. And the struggle continues between developers and environmentalists who would prefer to protect the farmland.

"Well, I don't have a crystal ball, but I don't believe that we can restrict growth entirely," says Burt Aaronson, chair of the Palm Beach County Commission, whose district includes the Ag Reserve. "I believe that we have to manage growth."

To Aaronson, that means limited home construction, while providing sufficient land for continued agricultural business.

Meanwhile, as the debate presses on, newcomers are streaming into Boca Raton, as one of the country's hottest residential spots grows ever tighter on space.

"Even with all the concerns, we still have buyers from all over the world-from Belgium, Poland and all over Europe coming here," says Hahn at Limited Edition International Realty. "We still do have one of the best markets."

all articles from Boca Raton Magazine

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