Does DESIGN MATTER in our Downtown?
In my recent article, I gave an overview and brief history of the downtown to bring awareness to the process of development in our community. I could belabor the exhaustive legal process our city leaders and private citizens engaged in to get our current zoning ordinances enacted. For time sake, let’s say it was an arduous process. Today, there is an on-going passionate discourse on design quality, adherence to original zoning laws or interim guidelines, development or over development and its positive or negative impact on our city. Like all important matters, there will always be two passionate parties lobbying their position. This issue has everyone hyped up and in some cases, dug in on their opinion. It is not my objective to dismiss ones opinion or the other. Instead, I would like to encourage and foster a broader understanding of Design and the important decisions we are facing Downtown.
Let’s start with the hottest topic.
Is “The Mark” on Target with our new vision for Downtown Boca Raton?
There are many critics discussing this. However, I emphatically believe it is. All architecture and design in general is subject to criticism and personal opinions. In fact, our Architectural education process includes very stressful Review Pin-ups which are criticized and judged. In a community, the Public, our Architectural Peers, our Clients and just about everyone else is a critic. I have very strong positive feelings about The Mark AND I also see areas where it can be improved. But then again, I see that with my own projects. I am certain my highly respected, award winning colleague, Jaun Cacyedo of RLC Architects is doing more critically judging of his work than we are. That is what we Architects do. However, I believe the lack of color was a missed opportunity to express and enhance the building’s strongest architectural features which are excellent. The ground floor pedestrian realm and dark windows detract from communicability to the street. The garage side of the building(The most discussed aspect) is massive and unbroken as required in the Interim Design Guidelines “IDG”. Last, portions of the building’s modern vocabulary seem unfinished and unarticulated in our city’s historic “Addison Mizner” context. What I can say is that developing a project of this magnitude involved thousands of decisions to create it. The stakeholders including Ownership, Architects, City Officials, Urban Design Associates, and Citizens were all involved. I am not clear how the building represented in the Interim Design Guidelines was allowed to be altered to the building constructed today, This only indicates that the City review and approval process can be improved. It does not mean we should abandon the plan for our Downtown.
What I will affirm is The Mark has many significantly important attributes we need in our Downtown. It is a successful in-fill urban plan. It threads together Palmetto Place, Royal Palm Place and our beloved Bank of America Building in contextual scale. The commercial ground spaces will energize Plaza Real South and the 400 plus residents will utilize and enjoy the restaurants and services in and about the Royal Palm Place and Mizner Park areas.. People living in our downtown IS VITAL to creating an exciting pedestrian realm. The new Hyatt will further compliment this urban plan. We are already seeing this positive impact from the residents of the Camden walking across Federal Highway at night heading to Royal Palm Place for dinner. Despite many current opinions, The Mark’s architectural style brings variety to our Downtown. Variety in a downtown is critically important to creating good cities.
Friends, Design will always be subjective. If you want to see this in action, sit in on any Architectural Jury Review or attend one of our weekly City Community Appearance Board meetings. Even my respected architectural colleagues who sit on this Board and who are educated experts, technically trained in design principles, historic irrefutable precedents and proven case studies, will debate their personal design opinions vehemently. Who is right then? Add in community stakeholders like the residents who live, work and play here, the civic leaders, planning departments, developers, businesses, commercial retailers/service providers and of course our visitors and the opinions multiply infinitely. So I ask again, Who is right?
The truth and irrefutable fact about the Interim Design Guidelines “IDG” and Pattern Book is that it provides a new IMPROVED tool box for Architects, Developers and Property Owners to use. Urban Planning Strategies have evolved over the last 30 years. There are thousands of case studies (poor & excellent) that we have learned from. Mizner Park was a trend setter and garnered much public debate over what should be done in our downtown in the late 1980’s . there was significant resistance to change. With creative, thoughtful urban planning, civic leadership AND a lot of public resistance to change, Mizner Park was created. It is now one of THE MOST RESPECTED Urban Planning precedents in the world. Currently, It is the largest Commercial Attractor in East Boca Raton. Subsequently, the future vision of our Downtown was created and is only now seeing positive development head winds to add complimentary projects. It only took 25 years.
The original 4035 Design and Zoning Ordinance is not better or worse, just simpler. We have seen the architecture and buildings built under this code. They are not all spectacular case studies. In fact, we have a lot to critique about its shortcomings 25 years later.
The new IDG/Pattern Book provides a specific planning strategy to create walkable, pedestrian friendly sidewalk and street networks. It specifically aligns building scale to the street with an overall city plan to create variety and appropriate spatial realms. The architectural design criteria address HOW to break up massing both vertically and horizontally. Unlike 4035, that was only concerned with one street section profile, the IDG/PB mandates how an architect/Developer must articulate its project to avoid unsuccessful massing and banal redundant architecture. Trust me, these new buildings cost more to build – A LOT More. Building design is not usually enforceable by municipalities. Therefore, a specific set of planning tools is good and necessary for the community. It provides consistency, but allows variety. This too is critical in developing good cities.
We are not abandoning our architectural legacy. The “spirit” of Addison Mizner’s original architectural vision can be maintained. There can be modern interpretations, but a loggia is still a loggia. Balconies, varied roof lines & “mizneresque” architecture is achievable in various design vernaculars. Variety creates interest. If you read the original language in the 4035 code, it specifically suggested interpretations of these planning forms. In fact, the word “Mizneresque” was created to describe such adaptations. Please don’t misinterpret my statement here. Concrete and steel, repetitively organized pancake” styled building forms as depicted in the recent submittals of the New Mizner on the Green are not Mizneresque.
Why should we adopt the iDG/Pattern Book?
It updates a 30-year-old code. It provides valuable irrefutable urban planning criteria for successful development and space making. It is a framework for growth. It sets proven urban planning strategies in motion. It builds momentum towards a unified vision. Designing a spatial pattern that follows proven successful case studies creates a better city. Most importantly, it provides continuity, which elevates credibility and reinforces the BRAND of a city.
The IDG/Pattern Book outlines a set of specific precedent driven planning/design tools to improve the quality of space, functionality and architectural articulation of the built realm. It is not just about tall buildings. The IDG/Pattern Book has hundreds of design criteria in addition to height. The original 4035 Ordinance has twelve pages of graphic criteria. Ask any Architect which code they would rather design to and you will get a full consensus on the IDG/Pattern Book over 4035.
Height is a volatile emotional topic with citizens. It should be . I encourage concerned stakeholders to understand that we are really comparing 140’ to 100’ in terms of what “additional height” is being allowed now in the new Interim Design Guidelines. Under the IDG, you can only achieve additional height for a small percentage of your overall mass. This creates varied roof lines and enhances the architectural appearance of the facades. It DOES NOT PROVIDE MORE DENSITY than allowed under 4035. If citizens do not like 100’ tall buildings then we have an entirely different debate. 100’ Buildings (120’ with roof features) ARE allowed in our Downtown. 140’ Buildings must be made thinner and have complex building forms and most importantly, greater street setbacks to gain the extra height. 100’ buildings do not require this. This is a positive trade off. We are about to see how poor design under the 4035 code can impact our skyline when the infamous “Archstone-Palmetto Promenade and Boca Lofts are finished. Continuous unbroken massing, repetitive ordering, redundant forms, windows etc. will fill the sky with banal uninteresting architecture. Friends, poor design can result from any code and height restriction.
There are only limited parcels that can functionally be developed to large multi-floor projects with heights over 100’, because they are limited by setbacks/step back codes all defined in the new IDG/Pattern Book. In addition, multi-story projects require vertical structured parking. This requires minimum buildable land geometries to be successful. The fact is, there are not enough assembled parcels in the downtown to do this. This is fundamentally the strongest reason to require variety. If we do not get it right now, our downtown will never realize its potential for successful urban planning and Place Making. Our Downtown is not perfect, but it has a lot of potential. Height is only one aspect.
What the future will tell
I can hear the “monkeys calling” – Tower 155, Camden, Boca Lofts, Via Mizner and the Royal Palm Place Master Plan are underway. These developments are critically necessary to improve the Downtown. They will each have different influences on both the immediate and long-term potential of the urban plan.
If all stakeholders can agree there is intellectual confusion regarding beauty. Who decides?. Design is subjective. Do we know it when we see it? We all want positive development. When it comes to Urban Planning and Architectural Design the case studies should prevail. I believe we can all agree that the process of achieving design excellence and place making balanced with market-driven pressure of development can be improved. It took us 10 years to create the 4035 Ordinance. Twenty-five years later, we are still a work-in-progress. It is, therefore fair to believe we have a few years left to refine it. The Interim Guidelines AND Approval Process should be improved AND ratified so we can get to work on achieving our Downtown’s potential.
I would also encourage all stakeholders who are concerned to stay involved. This community is evolving. We all love it passionately. Stay informed. Improve your architectural knowledge. Ask questions of the experts. Offer your opinion during planning workshops and join the efforts to positively move our city along to achieve its ultimate potential. I am certain this process will be on-going and it is to be expected that we will all learn from it. DESIGN MATTERS Friends…….
Douglas A. Mummaw, AIA, NCARB
Proud Boca Raton Native
President – Mummaw and Associates, Inc.
Past President – The Rotary Club of Boca Raton
Past Adjunct Professor of Architecture – Palm Beach State College