- Sarah Peters Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The transformation of the rural western end of Northlake Boulevard into a traffic-choked, eight-lane boulevard is poised to begin.
After years of false starts, three giant developments promise to draw so many drivers that in 20 years, when all the homes are supposed to be built, traffic would overwhelm western Northlake even if it were as wide as Okeechobee Boulevard.
Already, traffic bottlenecks are a morning ritual on the four-lane road and, in less traveled times, unchecked drivers turn the road into a dangerous speedway.
But in the future, the vision is for an eight-lane boulevard with development sprouting where vacant land now dominates.
The developer of Avenir is responsible for widening most of the road west of the Beeline Highway to six lanes, but ultimately the county is likely to bear the cost to widen it to eight lanes, County Engineer George Webb said.
Even at eight lanes, Northlake will be overwhelmed, carrying up to 20 percent more traffic than it’s meant to, Webb said.
“It will look like a busy, suburban street,” he said.
Without the new projects, Palm Beach County is already about $65 million short of money needed for road improvements in the central-western communities. Avenir adds about $25 million to $30 million to the county’s list of needs, Webb said.
Louise Sewell, a resident of the Ibis community just east and across Northlake from the proposed 3,250-home Avenir project, said more development is only going to worsen traffic.
“It’s terribly crowded, and some of the drivers are really lunatics, because they weave in and out of traffic,” Sewell said.
Increased traffic from western development has sparked opposition from leaders of influential community groups, including the North County Neighborhood Coalition, which consists of more than a dozen communities with 20,000 registered voters.
Bob Hodgson, president of the PGA National Property Owners Association, said he believes there’s no comprehensive approach to managing western development, which also includes Palm Beach County’s Westlake, formerly Minto West, and GL Homes’ Indian Trails Grove.
“The cumulative effect is going to be horrific for the traffic coming east,” from Pratt & Whitney, far west of the Avenir development, and across the Beeline Highway, he said.
County officials have been preparing for this day since the late 1980s, as the owners of the three properties — then farm and ranch land — began pressuring elected officials for the right to develop thousands of homes. Efforts at comprehensive planning failed in the mid-2000s as former County Commissioner Tony Masilotti tried to persuade state officials to back a plan that would allow suburbs in an area dominated by homes on large lots bordered by dirt roads.
In recent years, suburban-style development has been moving forward, nonetheless, first with Westlake winning Palm Beach County approval for 4,500 homes on 3,800 acres of the former Callery-Judge citrus grove.
Then came Thursday’s decision by the Palm Beach Gardens City Council to move the city’s growth management line to allow 3,250 homes and more than 2 million square feet of commercial development at the 4,760-acre Avenir, formerly known as the Vavrus Ranch.
The GL Homes proposal for 3,900 homes on nearly 5,000 acres, won its first critical vote before the Palm Beach County Commission in April.
Few east-west roads serve all three properties. In the north, there’s only Northlake, which serves the northern half of The Acreage and will be the main road for Avenir.
On average, Avenir is expected to add about 52,000 daily trips to all roads when it’s completed in 20 years.
The bill its developers must pay to make that possible is $105 million. The money would pay for widening Northlake to six lanes from the Beeline Highway west to Grapeview Boulevard in The Acreage. Avenir itself is responsible for the construction work in a three-mile section along its border.
Danny Lopez, an Avenir executive, said most road improvements are probably going to be in place before traffic increases, and people might initially see traffic improve.
“I really don’t think we’re going to have a major traffic problem,” he said.
West of Avenir, in the two-mile section that dead-ends at Seminole Pratt-Whitney Road, the county has plans to widen Northlake to four lanes from two.
Avenir’s money also will pay for improvements to the intersections of Northlake and Military Trail and PGA Boulevard and the Beeline Highway.
Aside from homes, Avenir will have nearly 2 million square feet of office space, 400,000 square feet of stores, 200,000 square feet of medical space and a hotel. The office space is meant to be a draw to provide employment in an area that has few jobs.
The idea is that people will drive to Avenir to work, reversing the normal eastward morning commute.
The numbers bear it out.
While eastbound morning traffic would double, projections show, the reverse commute — drivers going westbound in the morning — would rise by nearly four times. The same pattern holds for westbound traffic in the afternoon.
The county also is giving Avenir credit for 22 percent of its traffic because many residents will drive within the development to work or to the store, rather than venturing onto Northlake and other area roads.
The developer must build a certain amount of commercial space before moving into each phase of home-building, Palm Beach Gardens Planning Director Natalie Crowley said.
“It’s a large project. It has a long buildout,” Crowley said. “It’s gradual, controlled growth.”
Aside from widening Northlake, the Avenir developers have agreed to oversee construction of a connector road passing through their property from Northlake to the Beeline Highway. Traffic would enter at two places — 140th Avenue North and Coconut Boulevard.
Those connections make the proposed northward extension of Seminole Pratt-Whitney Road, long opposed by environmentalists, unnecessary, Webb said. One alternative would be for Pratt to cut east through the Mecca Farms property to tie in with the Avenir road network.
Nearby, Minto Communities plans to start construction soon on Westlake. The development formerly known as Minto West is north of Okeechobee Boulevard and straddles Seminole Pratt-Whitney Road.
With about 4,500 homes and 2.1 million square feet of commercial development, it will result in about 79,500 more vehicle trips on the roads when it’s fully built in 20 years. Minto recently suggested it would consider incorporating the site into a city, which means it could give itself approvals for more development.
As Minto’s deal with the county stands now, Minto will give the county $50.3 million for road improvements. The developers also plan to widen Seminole Pratt-Whitney at an additional cost of up to $10 million.
GL Homes’ plans for Indian Trails Grove northwest of Westlake, will result in about 46,700 more auto trips on the road every day. The developer has agreed to pay $48 million for traffic-related improvements.
Northlake figures into the plans for the 3,900-home Indian Trails Grove project, as well. Its money would pay to widen Northlake from 140th Avenue to Seminole Pratt-Whitney Road and Okeechobee Boulevard from Seminole Pratt-Whitney to F Road, Webb said.
North County Neighborhood Coalition President Sal Faso said looking at any individual community, “there’s certainly going to be an impact on Northlake Boulevard.” Add in Westlake and Indian Trails Grove, and, as the county projections show, the number of trips simply can’t be accommodated, he said.
“It’s the cumulative effect of all these plans on a major artery. Northlake Boulevard will be worse than Okeechobee is today,” he said.