North county growth: UF now holds key to 70 acres at Alton

Palm Beach County donated the land to Scripps Florida in 2006 to cement deal to bring Scripps to Abacoa.

Alton Palm Beach Gardens

Second of two parts

It started as a deal-sweetener to ensure that Scripps Florida would be built at Abacoa.

Now the vacant 70 acres at Alton in Palm Beach Gardens could become a key piece of a deal worth hundreds of millions to convert Scripps Florida into a branch of the University of Florida.

The vacant land seemed an afterthought in the Nov. 15 deal in which UF agreed to take over Scripps’s 30-acre campus in Abacoa, as well as its scientists, $102 million in cash and royalties stemming from intellectual property — all for the nominal sum of $100. 

While no one from UF has publicly detailed any plans for the land, it could be the site of the teaching hospital Scripps and its backers often have mentioned. Or of a UF Health campus, offering a South Florida growth opportunity for the Gainesville-based university. Or even the UF grad school now being touted for downtown West Palm Beach.

Scripps Florida
The 70 acres owned by Scripps Florida on the north edge of Alton just east of Carrier’s Center for Intelligent Buildings.

With neighboring land selling for $1 million an acre, it certainly brings even more value to the UF takeover, which is scheduled to close by Jan. 18.

It doesn’t have the political pull of the downtown West Palm option, which  was proposed over the summer by then-County Mayor Dave Kerner and West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James. 

Working with UF President Kent Fuchs, who was instrumental in Cornell University’s entry into New York City, it already has given birth to three months of planning for a “campus of the future” on a city block downtown offering a new national education model dubbed the Florida Global Technology and Innovation Campus. 

But unlike the downtown site, the Alton property is already under UF’s control and wouldn’t require a gift of land valued at $42 million from the county, plus land donations from West Palm Beach and a private landowner

Marino

That prompted County Commissioner Maria Marino to ask during commission discussion Tuesday, “playing devil’s advocate … if for some reason a deal couldn’t be worked out here (downtown) would it be possible that UF would put the campus up on that 70 acres?”

With both initiatives moving quickly, UF Vice President for Advancement Tom Mitchell told her university executives have had no time to consider such an option. 

“We’ve had no conversations about that. Zero,” Mitchell told commissioners. “We have just agreed upon the terms of that (Scripps) transaction. Now we’re focusing on transitioning those employees to UF employees.”  

Exclusive details of the deal between Scripps Florida and UF

Alton Palm Beach Gardens
The 70 acres along Pasteur Boulevard at Alton in Palm Beach Gardens that the University of Florida will inherit when it takes over Scripps Florida. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Scripps first choice: Mecca Farms

The Alton 70 acres came to Scripps in 2006 to ensure the research institution would be built at Abacoa during the no-holds-barred political brawl to determine its location.

In 2003, then-Gov. Jeb Bush tapped a federal grant to come up with $310 million to lure Scripps to Florida and transform the economy while diversifying Florida’s reliance on agriculture, tourism and construction. 

Bush presented studies showing Scripps would develop a huge industry of spinoff businesses that would require large amounts of buildable land.

In the days after the initial announcement that Scripps would be coming to Palm Beach County, then-Scripps President Richard Lerner selected a site: the 6,700 acres that included the old Vavrus Ranch now known as Avenir and the 2,000-acre Mecca Farms to the west of it. 

The county quickly lined up a deal to buy Mecca Farms for $60 million, setting aside 100 acres for a Scripps campus and the rest to be combined with land at Vavrus for a massive housing and commercial development on west Northlake Boulevard. The county promised $269 million to construct three Scripps’ buildings.

But environmentalists sued, fearing that the Scripps recruitment was a front to bring suburban development to farmland. 

Even after the county began building on the Mecca Farms site, a federal judge ruled in favor of environmentalists in September 2005, blocking further construction, and unleashing the no-holds-barred fight over where the scientists would land.

Jeb Bush’s bottom line

The nascent Florida Atlantic University campus on the south end of Abacoa along Donald Ross Road had been the preferred site of environmentalists, championed at the time by then-County Commissioner Karen Marcus, because it was closer to existing services along the coast and development already had begun there. 

Opponents mocked the 30-acre site at Abacoa as a “postage stamp” too small to allow the spinoffs envisioned by Gov. Bush. 

But with the federal judge’s decision blocking the preferred option, Bush laid down the bottom line for an acceptable Scripps home: The county must reserve space nearby for 8 million square feet of additional biotech development.

To reach that ambitious goal, Marcus lined up 70 vacant acres across Donald Ross Road in the undeveloped 682-acre tract that would become Alton in Palm Beach Gardens. That would give Scripps the same 100-acre footprint it had been promised at Mecca Farms.

The Lester family, which owned the land, donated 30 acres and sold the county 40 acres for $16 million. Palm Beach Gardens contributed $3 million toward the purchase.

In addition, the Lesters held on to 100 acres designated for biotech, which they sold to Kolter Homes for $14.7 million in December 2013. 

In total, the 170 acres were approved for 4 million square feet of biotech development, half of the governor’s mandate, with the rest to be assured through zoning changes at multiple sites throughout north county. 

While the biotech zoning came up occasionally as those sites were developed, the demand on the massive scale envisioned by the governor never materialized and his ambitious goal remains unmet.

Carrier Corp.
Carrier Corp.’s Center for Intelligent Buildings, which opened in 2018 on land set aside for biotech development in Alton. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Alton residents oppose 270-bed hospital 

At Alton, Kolter began developing homes and selling off biotech land. 

Carrier Corp. paid Kolter $17.25 million in December 2015 for 30 acres to build its Center for Intelligent Buildings, which opened in 2018, a building that met the biotech designation.

In February 2017, Kolter sold 6.5 acres for $6.7 million for Your Life of Palm Beach Gardens, a 256-bed senior living facility. 

Proposed 270-bed UHS hospital at Alton. (From plans submitted to the city)

In February, Universal Health Services, or UHS, paid $32.6 million for 32 acres to build a 270-bed hospital, which requires city approval to meet the biotech designation.

The hospital plans are still under city review and have drawn opposition from Alton residents worried about traffic, noise and the hospital’s potential expansion to 450 beds. 

But the Feb. 1 sale also meant Kolter had sold off more than half the 100 acres before a Feb. 6, 2021, deadline. That sale triggered a clause restricting the use of the neighboring 70 acres to biotech through February 2026 for 40 acres and February 2031 for the rest.

Those restrictions, however, could be uniquely suited to UF.

A 2006 covenant on the 70 acres allows 1.6 million square feet of facilities for “biomedical and other scientific research, training and education.” It spells out ancillary uses such as “offices, classrooms, lecture halls, conference rooms, cafeterias, libraries and recreation and fitness facilities.”

It allowed Scripps Florida to enter into collaborations to meet those terms.

Those uses could fit precisely with construction of a UF teaching hospital, biotech incubator space or even a school campus.

Scripps Florida
One of three Scripps Florida buildings at Abacoa in Jupiter. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Land restrictions hamper Scripps

Those restrictions, coupled with the proposal for a hospital on the UHS land next door, made it difficult for Scripps to market the land, Scripps Executive Vice President Doug Bingham told county commissioners April 20. He spoke to get the county to meet its deadline to deed the land to Scripps, but commissioners wondered why Scripps still hadn’t found a builder for the land after 15 years. 

While Bingham referenced the failed 2011 proposal to attract an 80-bed Tenet hospital to the site, he made no reference to the potential for a handoff of the land to UF.

UHS’ plans have “given other hospital systems, other potential medical partners, pause,” Bingham said. “So I think some of them are trying to work on those issues. Certainly,” he said before hesitating, “I guess that’s all I can really say about that at this point.”

But the restrictions also might fit the innovative grad school campus UF has proposed for downtown West Palm Beach.

The grad school would focus on artificial intelligence and data analytics crossing three disciplines: engineering, business and law. 

At a presentation Tuesday focused on the West Palm Beach site between Tamarind and Sapodilla avenues and Datura and Evernia streets, Marino, who represents north county, made her pitch. 

“I’m looking at the worst-case scenario but I would love to see this up in that neck of the woods,” she said.

Despite several concerns voiced at the meeting, commissioners showed little interest in pivoting from downtown. “I think (downtown) is the perfect place for that campus,” Mayor Robert Weinroth said after Marino suggested the north county site. 

© 2021 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.

See Part One: Details of UF’s takeover of Scripps Florida

Author: Joel Engelhardt

Joel Engelhardt is an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor based in Palm Beach Gardens. He spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business, including 28 years at The Palm Beach Post. As a reporter, he covered countywide growth, the 2000 election and the birth of Cityplace in West Palm Beach. As an editor, he oversaw probes into the opioid scourge, private prisons, police-involved shootings and more. For seven years, he worked on the paper’s editorial board. Joel left The Post in December 2020. He and his wife, Donna, have lived together in Palm Beach Gardens since 1992.

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