Looking pensively in the distance at a skyline of condos in Boynton Beach, Willie Aikens stands at Northeast Ninth Avenue and Northeast First Street and struggles to understand why there’s so much undeveloped land with “no trespassing” signs surrounding him.
Those condo buildings are less than a mile away, but in Aikens’ mind, they might as well be in a different city.
Near those Marina Village and Casa Costa buildings are the incoming 500 Ocean, Ocean One, The Villages and Town Square developments that will bring in businesses, restaurants and residents — a complete transformation of the undeveloped downtown on and around Ocean Avenue.
But back where Aikens stands in the Heart of Boynton, the neighborhood has a Family Dollar to celebrate as the newest commercial building to come into the community in about 40 years.
And that was two years ago.
“It’s a slap in the face for us,” Aikens said. “The people here are hurting because they don’t have homes. Businesses are not going to come here if they don’t have homes.”
Aikens is the Heart of Boynton neighborhood association president and spends his retirement walking the streets, talking to residents, and constantly fighting to better the area.
A pastor at one of the 28 churches in the community went to him to get a sidewalk fixed because children kept falling on the cracked cement. A community standards employee driving around happened upon him and relied on him to point out the area.
And when a hungry woman spotted him from across the street and waved him down, he offered to her to join his prayer group, and asked her what she’d like to eat.
He does what he can, but he’s not a developer, and he’s not working for the Community Redevelopment Agency, the organization that is trying to redevelop that empty land.
Developers: No tax credits, no building
The CRA is run by the board that is comprised of the city commissioners. They meet monthly to discuss and vote on projects, land purchases and development for an area whose median household income is less than $30,000.
But to Aikens, it’s just not happening fast enough. And the faster the development happens, the faster the crime might be pushed out, he said.
There’s been a big focus on vacant land known as Ocean Breeze East, about 4.5 acres at Seacrest Boulevard between Northeast Sixth Avenue and Northeast Seventh Street. Officials have been trying for more than a decade to turn it around but developers have been slow to move if they don’t receive tax credits.
The CRA board is giving it another shot, and recently chose Centennial Management Corp. to develop a three-story building of 123 affordable apartments with about 2,500 square feet to be used as the new Neighborhood Officer Program office and community space.
But they’re also trying to do this with tax credits. They’ll apply in December, and if they don’t get them, they’ll apply again in the fourth quarter of 2018. If they don’t get those, then the CRA will give them gap financing of about $5.25 million over 15 years.
Commissioner Mack McCray, who represents the district, voted against Centennial’s plan saying it will take too long to get shovels in the ground. He preferred a proposal by St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, of which he is a clerk. The church suggested building the development with money from the CRA — about $10 million — instead of tax credits, but the project failed to please the entire board.
“It seems like it’s a process that’s being carried out too long,” McCray said at a recent CRA meeting.
Commissioner Joe Casello also voted against the project because he said the site should be the location of a new police station.
Aikens, whose house sits across from Ocean Breeze East, agrees with both McCray and Casello.
“Anything that will help this neighborhood. We need help,” he said.
Some gains, but more idle land
There have been successes in the area. Across from Ocean Breeze East is Ocean Breeze West, a community of 21 single-family homes. And Poinciana Gardens, also referred to as the Model Block, will have single-family homes, new utilities and will be aesthetically pleasing. The neighborhood is west of Seacrest Boulevard, along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Northwest 11th Avenue.
But what about the rest of the vacant land?
- The Cottage District is about 4 acres of land on Northeast Fourth and Fifth avenues the CRA wants to see developed with single-family homes. The agency this past year asked developers to submit their best ideas but got no response.
- MLK South is on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard east from Seacrest. The CRA has tried to get it developed, but it’s at a standstill.
- The Palm Beach County Housing Authority owns land about two blocks north of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on Northwest Twelfth Avenue in the Cherry Hills neighborhood that’s vacant.
Resident Brian Fitzpatrick has asked the CRA board several times to create a Boynton Beach housing authority to build homes. The idea has intrigued officials, but they never gave the public a clear yay or nay. The idea was brought up again this month.
Meanwhile, Aikens walks all these spots every day and his question remains unanswered: “What are we gonna do with all this land? Are we gonna keep it for another 10 to 15 years?”
He looks at the Family Dollar and says, “And this took 40 years to get this building. Do we have to wait another 40 years for another building?”