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BOCA RATON — A consensus in Boca Raton seems to exist: The ever-growing downtown needs improvements. But the fierce debate to resolve that has created an impasse.
The downtown has seen a building boom, and many who live or work downtown want a more pedestrian-friendly atmosphere to come with it. Meanwhile, those who live east of the Intracoastal Waterway are concerned that narrowing a major road to widen the sidewalks will create a bottleneck of traffic, which could slow emergency-vehicle responses, hurricane evacuations and boost tie-ups to and from the beach.
Now, developers, city officials, city planners and other stakeholders are trying to determine how best to move forward. In recent years, the downtown has seen an influx of newcomers and new high-rises, boosting the city’s housing supply with more than 2,000 apartments and condos, as well as the opening of hundreds of hotel rooms. On Thursday evening, the public voiced its concerns about downtown Boca’s future.
The meeting was organized by Ele Zachariades, an attorney and partner at Boca Raton land use law firm Dunay, Miskel and Backman. She and a handful of others spoke about current issues and possible solutions.
‘We still have not connected the dots’
City Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke, who lives downtown, spoke. While she and Zachariades said no plan had even been close to being decided on, the group pushed for a general vision that would make downtown more walkable and safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.
“This visioning session focuses on approximately four blocks of the downtown section of Palmetto Park Road. What I would like to call ‘the heart of downtown Boca,’” O’Rourke said at the meeting.
“We have Mizner Park and we have Royal Palm Place, both good on their own, however, they are basically isolated,” she continued. “We still have not connected the dots that make our downtown a truly viable, vibrant and world-class, important part of our city.”
Louis Merlin — an urban planner, professor at Florida Atlantic University and member of the group — spoke in depth about what makes for good urban design, including sidewalks that have ample space for families and people in wheelchairs or other mobility devices; bike lanes that are protected from motor vehicles; trees that offer adequate shade; and roads with space for cars, buses and trucks.
Of prime concern for many downtown residents, visitors and business owners are the crosswalks. Multiple people griped about the visibility of them and how often cars blow through the crosswalks and speed on Palmetto Park Road.
After a portion of the presentation, attendees put green or red stickers on posters indicating what they like and don’t like about downtown currently and what they’d like to see or prefer to forego in any future changes.
With about 75 people in attendance and several of them not voting at all, the colored dot system only gave a sampling of what people may or may dislike. Some said they liked all the outdoor dining and natural and artificial shade. The list of dislikes included street parking, narrow sidewalks, traffic and busy intersections, and the current crosswalks and proposed alternatives of almost any design.
‘You can’t mess with an evacuation route’
A concern for multiple residents on the east side of the Intracoastal Waterway was that, if Palmetto Park Road is narrowed to allow a widening of the sidewalks, an already congested area of roadway could get even worse.
“There’s a lot of concern here on the beach for what they’re trying to do. That’s something that has to be dealt with immediately,” Emily Gentile, president of the Beach Condo Association of Boca Raton and Highland Beach, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel before the meeting. “You can’t mess with an evacuation route.”
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“Traffic is so backed up now,” she said. “One lane will be going east, one will be going west, and an emergency lane in the middle. People on the beach can’t get off the beach now.”
Mayor Scott Singer, who did not attend the meeting, shared those concerns, in a statement to the Sun Sentinel: “Countless residents have expressed serious concerns about taking vehicle lanes away from Palmetto Park Road. Having lived east of A1A, I understand their fears of a plan to have four lanes merge into two, especially right by the Intracoastal bridge.”
According to data from a 2020 traffic study by the Florida Department of Transportation, the area of A1A and Spanish River Boulevard sees an average of 11,000 cars per day. At A1A and Palmetto Park Road, it’s about 18,000 cars per day.