As more old buildings vanish from Boca Raton, will the downtown lose its charm?

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BOCA RATON — Gone is a nearly 100-year-old Boca Raton home that was recently toppled to make way for redevelopment. And many more buildings may be next. It all has left some community members worried that the area’s historical charm could be lost forever.

The demand for new buildings has pitted competing interests against each other: The constant growth of Boca Raton, which has seen thousands of residences added in recent years, against the desire to preserve decades-old buildings tied to the city’s character.

“These little buildings are a link to our past. They’re tangible links to our history and if we tear them all down … we might as well be a new community,” said Susan Gillis, curator of the Boca Raton Historical Society and Schmidt Boca Raton History Museum. “If they want to live out west in a new community they can, but those of us who live east like to have a little history and a little character.”

The Cramer House, formerly located at 136 E. Boca Raton Road, was built in 1925 by one of the city’s first developers, Harley Gates. But it was demolished last month to make way for Aletto Square — a proposed development project that, if approved by city officials, would include two high-rises with 93 luxury apartments, office space and a rooftop restaurant.

Now, five other buildings in downtown, all built in the 1950s and 1960s, could be demolished as part of the same project, worrying the Boca Raton Historical Society and several nearby residents who oppose the high-rises or appreciate the aesthetic and history of older, one- and two-story buildings.

A spokesman for Aletto Square’s developer couldn’t be reached for comment Friday. But the nearly 100-year-old Boca Raton home wasn’t necessarily a gem: Carl Klepper Jr., the vice president of developer Compson Associates, last month called the home “a safety issue. It was in disrepair.”

The particular site of the Cramer House, if approved, will be where an automated parking garage and a portion of a residential building will go, Klepper said. In December, Klepper told the South Florida Sun Sentinel how Aletto Square could be a boon. Klepper pictured all the businesses that have moved to Boca Raton staying there, contributing to the demand for Class A offices, which are typically in the most prestigious buildings, competing for premier tenants.

“One of the things we noted was that Boca Raton has not had Class A office space in quite some time,” he said at the time. “It sounds crazy but during the studying of this project, one of the cornerstones of a Class A office building was to encourage economic development in the downtown. … Commerce drives the downtown.”

Appreciating the downtown vibe

Cameron Ferguson, of Delray Beach, owns OnSite Power Control in Boca. His business isn’t downtown, but he frequents a nearby destination, Tucci’s Pizza, and often walks around downtown Boca on his lunch breaks.

“When I come here and I see this old character, this old limestone, this old type of construction, it’s like a nostalgic, cool, old Boca vibe and when you just pack in high-rises … you lose that character,” he said. “I understand it, I’m a capitalist, I want people to make money, but what’s going to be enjoyable to spend time at down here?”

Cameron Ferguson, of Delray Beach, who owns a business in Boca Raton, walks along Northeast First Avenue in Boca Raton, close to where several older buildings in Boca's downtown may vanish amid redevelopment plans.

Cameron Ferguson, of Delray Beach, who owns a business in Boca Raton, walks along Northeast First Avenue in Boca Raton, close to where several older buildings in Boca’s downtown may vanish amid redevelopment plans. (Carline Jean / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

“I’ve been spending a lot of time in Chicago, and a city like that is built from the late 1800s, where it was all planned out to have great views,” Ferguson continued. “It’s also about the people who live there and making sure that the buildings around them aren’t affected when they put in a high-rise. When you have a planned city like that, it’s a lot more enjoyable to spend time in it.”

The Aletto Square project, if approved as proposed, will form an L-shape complex between Palmetto Park Road at the south and East Boca Raton Road at the north, just east of Northeast First Avenue.

“That is a very historic block, because we have these two little one-story buildings,” Gillis said. Among the locations is the popular pizzeria.

“Then there’s Tucci’s Pizza, which is a horrible crime to get rid of that,” she joked. “There should be a law against that.”

Tucci’s will likely relocate to inside Aletto Square, officials said when presenting their plans to the city. Tucci’s didn’t comment, referring questions to Aletto Square.

The buildings in question have all housed various businesses, including laundromats and pharmacies, and even some residential space over the decades.

They feature art deco-style architecture, often in bright, funky colors with barrel-roof tiles. The buildings that would need to come down were all purchased in the late 1990s by co-developers of the project, Alfred and Anna Aletto, according to property records and state business filings.

The future of the businesses in these buildings remain unclear. One business owner anticipated likely moving to another building, but was notified that wouldn’t happen for another year or so, the owner said. Applications for demolition of the remaining buildings had not yet been filed with the city, records show.

“We would totally have to relocate,” said that business owner, who asked not to be named.

‘These have been around forever’

As he walked his dog through downtown Thursday, Mitchell Sonn, a retired medical supply distributor, talked about the downtown’s distinctive qualities. “It’s like old Palm Beach. These have been around forever,” Sonn said.

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He lamented the idea of any more big change. “It takes away from the local charm,” he said. “And it’s starting to feel like New York City, where everyone’s in high-rises, versus everyone who used to live in houses around here. … So some of the charm has left the city with that, but, progress. What can you do?”

Seen is the 131 E. Palmetto Park Road building on Thursday, April 7, 2022. one of several older buildings in Boca's downtown that may eventually be demolished.

Seen is the 131 E. Palmetto Park Road building on Thursday, April 7, 2022. one of several older buildings in Boca’s downtown that may eventually be demolished. (Carline Jean / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Todd Whidden has owned Natures Symphony Aromatherapy, at 48 NE First Ave., for 40 years.

He said he thinks the construction of Tower 155, around the corner, cost him customers who wouldn’t visit downtown due to the noise and dust of construction. He figures it resulted in a net loss for him, calculating it only gained him two customers that he knows of who live in the high-rise.

“The city says they support small businesses, but their actions are going to force small businesses out,” Whidden said.

Seen is the 120 E. Boca Raton Road building on Thursday, April 7, 2022, one of several older buildings in Boca's downtown that may be demolished.

Seen is the 120 E. Boca Raton Road building on Thursday, April 7, 2022, one of several older buildings in Boca’s downtown that may be demolished. (Carline Jean / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

“We’ve got character. We’ve got charm,” said Caroline Shardt, owner of The Color Connection salon. Her business would be demolished to make way for Aletto Square, if it’s approved. “I think the city needs to evaluate where they’re going … bigger isn’t always better.”

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