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Arts Group Wants To Take Over Boca Amphitheater, Develop Part Of Mizner Park In $100M Project

A ballerina-turned-civil engineer in Boca Raton, Florida, is spearheading an initiative to take over a publicly owned amphitheater in the city’s Mizner Park and a separate, undeveloped parcel nearby to build a world-class performing arts venue and event space for dance, theater and music productions.

The project is estimated to cost $100M-plus, and the group is seeking a 99-year ground lease from the city for $1 per year.

A rendering of the Boca Raton Center for Arts & Innovation

Andrea Virgin, the founder of Virgin Design, told Bisnow she grew up dancing with the Boca Ballet Theatre, performing mostly in high school auditoriums. She became a professional dancer but studied engineering, too, figuring that she’d need a second career after retiring from ballet.

“I switched out my pointe shoes for a hard hat,” she said. “I never thought the two worlds were going to collide again.”

Once she had established her engineering career, she joined the board of the Boca Ballet Theatre and at her first meeting realized it was time to get the company out of rundown schools and into a facility reflective of its caliber. To pursue the idea, Virgin founded a nonprofit organization called the Boca Raton Arts District Exploratory Corp., or BRADEC, of which she is president. Her group began developing the concept of a Boca Raton Center for Arts & Innovation.

BRADEC first approached the city in October 2018 and was told to explore various sites and come back with a business plan. It honed in on Mizner Park.

Mizner Park was created to define a city center and boost a blighted area. It was financed with $68M in bonds. Owned mostly by the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, it includes an outdoor mall, offices and apartments that are owned and operated by Brookfield Properties, an art museum and the amphitheater, which the city owns directly. Adjacent luxury condos and a Mandarin Oriental Hotel are in development as part of the $1B Via Mizner complex.

When approved by voters in a 1989 referendum, Mizner Park's 5.7-acre north end was earmarked for arts purposes. A nonprofit group had initially leased it for $1, but in 2010, the city took it over.

BRADEC raised funds and solicited in-kind donations to develop schematics and execute an economic impact study, a feasibility study and a traffic study. The project, which Virgin said she is optimistic could be delivered by 2025, will have $1.3B in economic impact, spur 2 million hotel room nights in its first five years and support 12,000 jobs, she said.

Andrea Virgin, founder and president of planning and engineering firm Virgin Design.

Virgin said it costs Boca Raton $1.2M per year to run the amphitheater at Mizner Park, and it is only used 50 nights per year. Furthermore, the retail component of Mizner Park is depressed.

“Mizner Park has been lacking the necessary foot traffic to keep tenants,” Virgin said, especially since a Lord & Taylor closed last year.

More and better programming will drive visitors, she said. A new station for Brightline, South Florida’s privately run train, is being built directly across the street.

Plans call for combining the 3,500-seat Mizner Park Amphitheater with new components, including a 1,100-seat concert hall, a 99-seat performance hall that can be converted into a rehearsal studio, a rooftop terrace and an open-air lobby. Combined, the complex could seat 6,000.

The Boca Raton City Council voted 4-0 last year to move forward with drafting a ground lease agreement, and a workshop is planned for Feb. 8. If there is consensus among commissioners, the city attorney can draft the ground lease, Virgin said.

Assuming the lease is executed, Virgin’s team will then start fundraising in earnest. The group has already identified potential donors and naming opportunities. An architect and design team has been selected already, but other vendors will be needed. Virgin said that her nonprofit role precludes her from being a vendor on the project, but she would volunteer her expertise.

Boca Magazine pointed out that Brightline hasn’t run trains since March, and the business plan depends on tourism. City commissioners have expressed concerns in meetings over what would happen if construction started but wasn't completed.

There is an argument to be made that demand for entertainment from full-time residents will soon be on the rise, however. Wealthy people and tech companies are moving to Florida in droves, as headline after headline is making clear.

“But if they haven’t already realized it, they will soon: The art and culture scene they’re leaving behind is not the same,” Virgin said.

CORRECTION, FEB. 5, 1:50 P.M. ET: This story has been updated to reflect that it costs Boca Raton $1.2M annually to operate the amphitheater portion of Mizner Park. BRADEC says the project would support, not create, 12,000 jobs.