By Mary Hladky
Pearl City cleared a high hurdle to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places on Aug. 3 when the state’s National Register Review Board approved the listing.
The board now will submit a formal nomination to the National Park Service, which will make the final decision, said Natalie Meiner, director of communications and marketing for the Florida Department of State. The park service then will have 45 days to review the nomination and approve it or ask for changes.
The decision is a victory for Pearl City residents and their supporters who have long sought the historic designation, which will make the area eligible for federal financial support for historic preservation.
“I feel this is something this community really needs and they need to be uplifted,” said Marie Hester, the president of Developing Interracial Social Change (D.I.S.C.), who has worked for more than two years to get Pearl City on the national register. Her grandparents were among Pearl City’s first residents.
But the state agency’s decision has compounded concerns that a historic designation at this time will endanger, or possibly torpedo, rebuilding the dilapidated Dixie Manor public housing complex in Pearl City.
Those worries prompted both the Boca Raton Housing Authority and City Council to withdraw their support for historic designation earlier this summer even though both would gladly support it when the project is well underway or completed.
Michelle Feigenbaum, development manager at Atlantic Pacific Cos., which is redeveloping Dixie Manor along with the Housing Authority, wrote in a letter to City Council members that to obtain U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approval for the demolition of Dixie Manor, the site must first undergo an environmental review.
Atlantic Pacific has been advised that the review will take much longer if the site has a historic designation, she wrote. That would delay both construction of the new Residences at Martin Manor and getting tenant protection vouchers so current Dixie Manor residents can be relocated during the construction.
If deadlines that are connected to project funding are missed, the funding could be revoked. And the state could deny plans to demolish Dixie Manor and build new public housing on the site, she wrote.
“We are eager to continue working with D.I.S.C. and the community as we move forward on the redevelopment of Dixie Manor to honor the incredible history of this area,” Feigenbaum wrote. “Unfortunately, an official historic designation is expected to negatively impact our ability to provide new and significantly improved affordable housing to the community and the city of Boca Raton.”
Yet now that the state review board has approved historic designation, Atlantic Pacific will not ask the National Park Service to deny or postpone it, said Jessica Wade Pfeffer, a spokeswoman for Atlantic Pacific.
Atlantic Pacific expects that Pearl City will be placed on the national register soon. The company “is now focused on the road ahead” to redevelop the property and is prepared to undergo additional reviews, she said.
Pfeffer stressed that Atlantic Pacific supports the historic designation. Its only concern, she said, is that the designation is occurring “at this point in time.”
What remains unclear is what Boca Raton residents knew about the designation’s impact on Dixie Manor redevelopment.
Hester, who attended the Aug. 3 state review board meeting virtually, said Ruben Acosta of the state’s Bureau of Historic Preservation repeatedly said the designation would not affect the Dixie Manor project. He also said, “I wish I had a bullhorn to carry around to tell people, no, you are confused” about negative impact, she said.
Angela McDonald, chair of the Housing Authority board, also heard him say there would be no impact on the project.
Deputy Mayor Monica Mayotte heard the same when Acosta met with Boca Raton residents on June 10. That is why she proposed a resolution stating the city’s support for the designation, before she later pulled it.
Housing Authority board member Brian Stenberg, who is a City Council candidate in the 2024 election, also heard that at the June 10 meeting but did not recall if Acosta qualified it in any way. That prompted him to propose that his board express its support for the designation.
“From a personal standpoint, it is frustrating,” he said. “The idea of a national historic designation for Pearl City is excellent. It tells a story people have been trying to tell about Pearl City for generations.” And yet, “nobody wants to see a slowdown in Dixie Manor being modernized.”
Acosta did not return a call seeking comment.
A June 28 letter to the Housing Authority from the state’s Bureau of Historic Preservation said that listing a property on the National Register would not restrict property owners’ rights to use and dispose of their property as they saw fit.
But it also said if redevelopment of the property should require approval or assistance from a federal agency, the redevelopment would be subject to reviews. HUD is involved with Dixie Manor redevelopment, including its demolition and issuing tenant protection vouchers.