Sugar Sand Worth The Effort

The current sweetness that is Sugar Sand Park belies some of the bitter battles District Commissioners fought to ensure the creation of one of Florida's iconic parks.

In the 1980s development company Bramalea LTD owned the 132 acres located at the southeast corner of Military Trail and Palmetto Park Rd. that, for three months in the 1920s, served as a golf course for the Ritz Carlton hotel (now The Boca Raton). After plans to develop the land into, first, high density housing, then a shopping mall/performance arts center failed to receive city approval, Bramalea elected to sell the land parcel.

Recognizing the growing need for more athletic fields, Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District Commissioners began negotiations to purchase the land. Those negotiations didn't exactly go smoothly – at one point the District declared it could only afford 25 acres – but in 1988 the District and Bramalea agreed on a deal to buy all 132 acres for $15.8 million. 

Covering more area than Patch Reef Park and Red Reef Park combined, Sugar Sand was about to become the District's largest park. But the elation immediately following the land purchase soon yielded to trepidation. 

When Commissioners toured the site they found that for the better part of a half century Sugar Sand had served as a dump site for old cars, appliances and other junk. Motorbikes and ATVs had carved trails, chewing up the natural ecosystem.

“It was a terrible mess,” former Commissioner Gordon Gilbert said. “It was a dump site, really, when we first took over.”

District Commissioners immediately recognized that accommodating environmental concerns while removing the junk and developing the new park would be a challenge. Endangered gopher tortoises called the site home, as did native oak and pine trees.

“It was a balance between the people who wanted green space and the recreational needs of a growing community,” former Commissioner Dirk Smith said.

While crafting an environmentally sensitive development plan, Commissioners also were inundated with ideas for the park. Shortly after the purchase, a petition requesting a skate park began circulating. At least twice Commissioners had to fend off requests from the Boca Raton city council to build a 150-unit senior living center on the east end of the site.

Hesitant to enter further into debt by paying for construction services before paying off the mortgage on Sugar Sand, Commissioners didn't rush into park development. Approval of the initial development plan came in 1989. It included baseball/softball fields, football/soccer fields, basketball courts, racquetball courts and a community center. Later plans would see the addition of a carousel, a science playground and an observation tower. Those final three items, along with the racquetball courts  and community center, would ultimately be removed from the first phase of development. The racquetball courts and the tower never returned.

In an effort to avoid over-development at Sugar Sand, Commissioners soon struck a deal with FAU to build football/soccer fields for community use on the Boca Raton campus.

Commissioners also agreed to a plan to round-up and relocate the gopher tortoises to the east end of the site, creating what, at the time, was the largest gopher tortoise conservation area in South Florida. 

Design plans took another hit upon the realization that constructing the baseball fields as designed by the architect would require relocating a would-be pine tree forest and a mature oak tree hammock at the cost of about $1 million - without any guarantee that the trees would survive. There was also the little detail that “Mount Boca,” an important environmental ridge of land 17 feet above sea level, bisected some of those fields. Another redesign was at hand.

Construction finally began in 1992. Like many South Florida construction projects, delays appeared from nowhere, but Commissioners continued to fight for their vision. In 1994, the year before the park opened, the District issued a call for volunteers to design and build a science playground.

Sugar Sand Park ultimately opened in 1995 to much fanfare, providing six new ball fields for community use. That same year officials announced that the Children's Science Explorium would relocate from Royal Palm Plaza to the forthcoming Sugar Sand community center. That community center opened in 1998, along with the field house and the inline skating rink.

Completed in 1996, the volunteer-built and designed science playground still delights Boca Raton youngsters and their parents.

Throughout the past three decades Commissioners never ceased trying to improve what was already one of South Florida's best parks. Commissioner Elaine Kleinman didn't abandon her push for a carousel. In 2005 her wish came true, providing a destination Boca Raton children, parents and grand parents can enjoy together, especially during the holiday season.

The park and some of its attractions underwent several renovations during the years, including the addition of a splash pad, ADA accessible rides and a playground restoration. Attractions now include a walking trail, a nature trail, picnic pavilions and a butterfly garden.

Commissioners successfully deflected requests to relocate Boca Raton High School, and later Addison Mizner School, to Sugar Sand Park.

As the District celebrates its 50th Anniversary, Sugar Sand Park - arguably the District's greatest achievement for the Boca Raton community - is quickly approaching its 30th year as one of South Florida's premier public parks.

“The facility I had in my mind as being a beautiful facility actually was as beautiful and better than I ever imagined,” former Commissioner Elaine Kleinman said following the District's 50th Anniversary Celebration at Sugar Sand. “It's been revamped. It's been fixed up. It still exists. And it is as welcoming as it ever was.”

Every month, as part of the District's 50th Anniversary Celebration, we're highlighting the District's biggest accomplishments from the past half century. Below are previous stories.


This story originally appeared in the May 2024 edition of our District Dispatch newsletter. To receive future newsletters via email, enter your email address below, then click "Send Me District Newsletter Updates!"

The Sugar Sand Science Playground Face

The iconic face that welcomes visitors to the Sugar Sand Park Science Playground.

Sugar Sand golf course 1920s

For a brief period in the 1920s the land that is now Sugar Sand Park served as a golf course for the Ritz Carlton - now The Boca Raton.

Aerial view of Sugar Sand Park in 1975

A 1975 aerial view of the land that would become Sugar Sand Park.

Sugar Sand design graphic

A 1992 South Florida Sun-Sentinel graphic shows the location of "Mount Boca."

Volunteers building the Sugar Sand Park science playground

Volunteers build the Sugar Sand Park science playground.

This story originally appeared in the May 2024 edition of our District Dispatch newsletter. To receive future newsletters via email, enter your email address below, then click "Send Me District Newsletter Updates!"