Mayor Muoio, Jeff Greene spar over tower during real estate panel

A real estate conference Wednesday morning turned from routine to rowdy when West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio and Palm Beach real estate investor Jeff Greene got into a testy exchange.

The issue: Bending zoning rules for developers. The result: More than a month after the vote killing a hotly debated project, wounds have yet to fully heal.

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The spat began with a seemingly benign query: Moderator David Layman lobbed a softball question at a five-person panel featured at a Bisnow event attended by nearly 200 people at the Northbridge Centre. The panel included the mayor, Greene and three other developers.

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Noting the city commission recently voted against the creation of a special business district that would have allowed the construction of a 25-story office tower on the waterfront, Layman asked Mayor Muoio and Greene, who were on opposite sites of the issue, to explain their positions.

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Muoio started out gently, explaining that she was in favor of creating new Class A office space in a tower proposed by the Related Cos. of New York.

The tower, which would have gone on Flagler Drive land slated for only five stories, was supported by the Business Development Board, former Mayor Joel Daves, business people “and myself,” Muoio said. To permit the tower’s construction would have necesitated the creation of a special district by the city commission on all parcels east of Olive Avenue between Okeechobee and Lakeview. The tower was proposed for vacant land in this district, on property next to the First Church of Christ, Scientist, at Lakeview and Flagler Drive.

Despite the support of many groups, the city commission voted 3-2 against the district and therefore, the tower.

But Greene criticized the city’s bid to get the district approved, an effort he has dubbed “spot zoning.” He said the tower would have added another 700 to 800 cars to an already crowded intersection.

Then he noted that the city already permits tall towers in another part of town, the Quadrille Business District. Greene said he’s poised to build the $200-$300 million One West Palm twin-tower project that will rise 30 stories, a project that needed special approval from the city.

The attempted creation of the new business district, the Okeechobee Business District, has created uncertainty in the real estate world, Greene said.

Greene said maybe the city will come along and propose the Olive Business District “and have 60-story buildings,” he said. “Developers have to have rules, too.”

A glowering Muoio pounced at his comment.

“Don’t talk about rules,” she snapped at Greene, “when you wanted us to change the rules for you.”

“Mom, Dad, you’re really making me scared,” said panelist Angelo Bianco of Crocker Partners, in a bid to lighten the tense mood.

“This is why I do industrial,” quipped Steve McCraney, another panelist on the dais.

“You knew it would be a lively discussion!” Muoio said.

In the end, both Muoio and Greene tried to walk back their momentary hostility.

Greene praised the mayor’s efforts to advance the city, and Muoio lauded the Greene School, a private school built by Greene “that is an awesome addition to the city.”

After the discussion, attendees gossiped about the dustup.

They gave Muoio points on style. But it was a win for Greene on substance.

While the real estate developers, brokers, bankers and builders said they all seek to grow the city, several were offended by the tortured process by which Muoio, city staff, and Related tried to get the city commission to approve the tall tower on land zoned for only five stories.

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