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Reborn Carefree: Six theaters, 97 apartments planned for WPB site

The curtain has been lifted on the redo of the old Carefree Theatre in West Palm Beach, and the plan is a show-stopper.

On the site of the crumbly old theater at 2000 and 2020 S. Dixie Highway, developer and film producer Charles Cohen envisions a massive new complex featuring six auditoriums totaling 750 seats for classic, art house and foreign films.

Restaurant space would be on the ground floor, below the stadium-style theaters, with three floors of 58 apartments above the theater. The seven-floor building would be topped off by two “belvederes,” or open, tower-like cupolas often used in Italianite structures.

To the south of the existing Carefree Theatre site, another building would be built at 2100 S. Dixie Highway, the former Runway Motors. That five-floor property, dubbed El Cordova, would feature first floor space for high-end home furnishing showrooms, plus 39 apartments on four floors above. Two belvederes would adorn the top of that building, too.

Together, the properties total 191,410 square feet and 97 apartments.

Cohen heads New York-based Cohen Brothers Realty Corp., which owns and manages more than 12 million square feet of U.S. office space, including Dania Beach’s Design Center of the Americas, known as DCOTA. Cohen also heads Cohen Media Group, which produces films and also owns an array of American classics, British cinema, foreign classics and a range of avant-garde films.

Cohen, who owns an apartment on Palm Beach, bought the Carefree in September for $3 million from Lori Stoll, the widow of late concert promoter Jon Stoll.

When Stoll operated the Carefree, it was a popular destination for live comedy and musical performances, as well as artsy films. But the property fell into decline after Stoll’s 2008 death.

Cohen said his goal in buying the Carefree was to create a center that would serve as a cultural destination for film aficionados. He also wanted to add to the momentum of this up-and-coming portion of Dixie Highway, south of Okeechobee Boulevard and north of Belvedere Road. The area features the EmKo art gallery, new restaurants, a planned upscale primary school by Palm Beacher Jeff Greene and the expansion of the Norton Museum.

After months of work, the Carefree Theatre plan was unveiled late last month to area residents and business leaders. About 60 people crammed the EmKo gallery to see the presentation by Cohen and architect Allan Greenberg, one of the most influential architects of the classical movement.

As with any creative piece, reviews are mixed.

“I like it. It fits the (artsy) flavor of what South Dixie Highway is trying to be,” said Linda Cullen, treasurer of the Flamingo Park Homeowners Association and a broker-associate with Corcoran Group on Palm Beach.

But others expressed concern about the project’s size and the traffic it will create.

“The general feeling is that it’s too big,” said Karen Steele, an El Cid resident and executive director of the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens just up the street on Dixie Highway. “You’re putting a massive building at the end of a historic block with one and two-story homes.”

The Carefree Theatre site rises 88 feet to the top of the roof. El Cordova rises 66 feet to the top of the roof.

In an interview April 19, Cohen noted that the project deliberately is higher only along the commercial Dixie Highway western edge. The project slopes down in height as it nears residences to the east of the site.

Indeed, Cohen said he took pains to create a lively complex that would be respectful of the neighborhood. “We want to create a community place, which will allow people to see a movie and have dinner, and celebrate the architectural significance of the El Cid Historic neighborhood.”

The redeveloped Carefree plan has the same number of seats as the old Carefree Theatre, but the seats are split into six auditoriums.

Of the six auditoriums, five would be devoted to showing today’s top independent art house and foreign films. One theater would be for professionally curated classic films. Movies would be shown 365 days a year, but showing times would be staggered to avoid traffic crunches that neighbors used to suffer through when the Carefree had big shows.

Cohen tried in advance to address traffic and parking concerns by showcasing plans to create two levels of underground parking with 500 spaces. The garage level even goes beneath Barcelona Road, the east-west street between the two buildings, which are bordered by Flamingo Road to the north and Cordova Road to the south.

In addition to serving the needs of the complex, the garage also features an additional 50 spaces for the public to use for nearby shops or restaurants, Cohen said.

Neighbors said they appreciate the care Cohen took to address community concerns.

But although well-intentioned, “there’s too much going on at the site,” one neighbor said. “My feeling is: Pick two. Either movie theater and living space, or movie theater and retail.”

Ditching the apartments might be the best move, agreed another neighbor. “Nobody is opposed to the theater … but the bulk is all these added apartments.”

Cohen dismissed the notion the project is too big: “It’s a big property,” he said.

And he insisted the project must have housing. “The apartments animate it,” he said, “and it’s not any great leap of faith to believe an art house theater will not make it without the rental residential income to make it financially viable.”

The neo-classical Mediterranean-style design was influenced by Addison Mizner but also is inspired by landmarks such as The Breakers Hotel on Palm Beach, said West Palm Beach architect Rick Gonzalez, who also worked on the plans.

Dormer windows, or perpendicular windows in a sloping roof, are featured in the top floor apartments in a bid to evoke Parisian mansionettes and also reduce the appearance of the building’s height. Arches flow throughout the project, down to the exterior arched windows facing the streets.

And those four belvederes? They will be lit up at night, Gonzalez said.

If plans are approved by the city, the project could break ground in a year, with construction expected to take 18 months, Gonzalez said.

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