|By Luis F. Perez, South Florida
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jan. 25, 2006 - BOCA RATON -- The elegant Camino Real has a resort for the rich on one side and a yacht club on the other, but the two sides are miles apart in a battle that has become familiar for owners of the city's signature hotel as it tries to modernize.
Neighbors are once again forcing the Boca Raton Resort & Club to modify its development plans. This time, resort officials changed their designs to build The Golden Door Residences, a 62-unit luxury condo and townhome project they propose putting on land that's now tennis courts adjacent to Camino Real.
A coalition of homeowner groups, led by the Royal Palm Yacht & Country Club, hired a lawyer, political consultant and architect to oppose the resort's plans. The Coalition to Preserve Camino Real has met with resort officials and influential community groups, including the Federation of Boca Raton Homeowners Association and the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce, making its case.
It's a scenario resort officials have seen before: They propose building on land they own, and wealthy neighbors rally in opposition, in some cases filing lawsuits. The net effect is a number of projects have been altered, scaled back and stalled, keeping the resort from moving forward with its redevelopment plans, which officials say they need to complete to stay competitive in the luxury hotel market.
"It's certainly not the first time they would be doing something controversial," said Susan Gillis, an archivist with the Boca Raton Historical Society.
City officials gave the hotel a green light several years ago to build on the resort's Great Hall site, on the east side of its main entrance off Camino. But the resort's new owners, the New York-based private equity company The Blackstone Group, proposed moving the project to the west side of the entrance where the tennis center is now.
Coalition officials bristle at the proposed change.
Lynne Chandler Novick, coalition chairwoman, recently stood in front of the Camino entrance to Royal Palm and pointed to the resort and its pink tower across the street.
"We object to the massiveness of the structure on the west side because simply it's more in proportion to the streetscape of Camino Real, the tower and the condos on the east [side]," she said.
Marda Zimring lives in the Royal Palm yacht club and joined Chandler Novick in a conference room with Bert Oliver, the coalition's lawyer, and Neil Schiller, its political consultant. She said Blackstone wanted to build up the property to sell, leaving hulking buildings in the neighborhood.
"There's nothing of that intensity, that height, that bulk sitting up on the street in the whole area," Zimring said.
Resort officials are sensitive to the perception of a big, out-of-state company running roughshod over its neighbors. It's the first issue Anne Hersley-Hankins, director of corporate communications, and Russ Flicker, president of development, talked about.
"We live here," Flicker said, adding that he bought a house and moved his family here. "My kids are going to be going to school with their kids."
Hersley-Hankins said the whole community would benefit from the proposed improvements.
"We're going to be here a long time. It doesn't make sense to have unhappy neighbors," Hersley-Hankins said.
Flicker had a ready list of reasons why resort officials "strongly feel" the Golden Door works better on the site of the tennis courts: A smaller portion of the building would be on Camino; on the east side, it would wrap around the resort's circular entrance jutting out into Camino; it doesn't require putting an 85-foot wall on Lake Boca Raton; and access to the proposed condo would be from inside, alleviating Camino traffic, Flicker said.
Neighbors have forced the resort's hands before. Presidential Place, a 42-unit luxury condo adjacent to the resort's Boca Beach Club, set the example followed by the Camino coalition. The condo association hired lawyers and experts and has sued three times, most recently in June, and successfully stalled the resort's beach club redevelopment plans.
That controversy erupted in 2001 when the resort's previous owner, Fort Lauderdale billionaire Wayne Huizenga, proposed building two 85-foot-tall buildings and a 1,071-space parking garage.
Since then, resort officials have downsized and changed plans to build at the beach club a number of times. They continue to meet with lawyers for the condo association and continue to plan to build on at the beach club, but not on the most controversial parcel on the lake, across from Presidential Place. Flicker said the resort plans to build on the lake parcel, but it's seeking something everyone can agree on.
And the coalition is vowing to fight on.
"From the people involved," Chandler Novick said, "we are not limited with funds."
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