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How the MacArthur Foundation tried to build a city in the Loxahatchee Slough



The Loxahatchee Slough is north and south of PGA Boulevard, about 2 miles west of Florida's Turnpike. It's the county's largest and most biologically diverse county-owned natural area. (Palm Beach County photo)

Did you know the city of Palm Beach Gardens once supported building a Florida Atlantic University campus and thousands of homes in the vast preserve known as the Loxahatchee Slough?


It didn’t happen. But for a while in the days before construction of Mirasol (east of the slough), Avenir (west of the slough) and Abacoa (where FAU ended up), the proposal gained traction.


The prime backers were John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which owned the land and promised FAU 500 acres to anchor the project. 


The wettest, best 5,200 acres — the deep water core of the slough — would be preserved.


Around it would be 16,000 homes, apartments and townhomes; a town center; office buildings; and three golf courses. It would form a city for up to 35,000 residents and 12,000 students. It would be designed, the foundation said, to disrupt the slough as little as possible.


Donald Ross Road would be extended west and sweep through the project’s northern border. The Beeline Highway formed the southern border, except for some development south of the county airport along Northlake Boulevard.


The city annexed the slough in November 1990 and approved the plan on a 4-1 vote in June 1991.


That’s when the opposition took hold.


A clipping from the July 28, 1991, Palm Beach Post, via Newspapers.com.

In July 1991, environmentalists staged a mock funeral for the slough. 


They carried a pine casket and were led by a preacher gripping a Bible. In the ground, they placed a tombstone, reading: "Here lies the Loxahatchee Slough, killed by greed and stupidity."


The FAU Board of Regents toured the slough by helicopter after heavy rainfall and saw why environmentalists had dubbed it “Underwater University.” 


They began to search for another site. 


State and regional planners and water managers filed formal objections to the plans. 


The MacArthur Foundation and the city amended the plan, reducing the housing by about half, but by then the die had been cast.


The land would remain undeveloped. 


And five years later, in 1996, the county paid the MacArthur Foundation $12.7 million to buy and preserve the 10,388-acre slough, which it owns and manages to this day. 


The foundation credited itself for a gift of the 5,200 acres at the heart of the slough.


The county, which had been buying conservation land with a $100 million, voter-approved bond issue, said the gift barely offset the high price it paid. It calculated the discount for the entire property, including the free land, at a mere 10 percent, while most landowners in the bond program agreed to 17.5 percent discounts.


Additionally, the foundation kept 495 acres, a strip along the slough's northern border, land the county ultimately bought and preserved.


It also insisted on conditions that would assure the construction of Mirasol a few years later.


You can hear more about the deal to develop the slough and how the MacArthur Foundation shaped the city from people who were there at the time — County Commissioner Karen Marcus, Mayor Mike Martino and longtime City Council member Linda Monroe — at the first of three in-person panel discussions this year hosted by the Palm Beach Gardens Historical Society. 


The event, which commemorates the city’s 65th anniversary, is free and open to the public. It will be at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday Jan. 24 in the Biotech Building at Palm Beach State College’s campus off of PGA Boulevard. 


The second panel will be emceed by former Mayor Eric Jablin and focus on the years after the MacArthur Foundation sold all its undeveloped land in 1999, putting tremendous development pressure on the city. It will be at 6:30 p.m. Thursday Feb. 22 at Palm Beach State College.


For more information, please email PBGHistory@gmail.com.


— Joel Engelhardt

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