Amid outcry, West Palm mayor nixes plan for waterfront skyscrapers

West Palm Beach is dropping plans to allow 30-story office towers near the Intracoastal Waterway, after a public outcry to keep the downtown waterfront’s low profile.

“We are now ‘going back to the drawing board’ to rethink how to add this office space in the Flagler Financial District while keeping in mind our stakeholders’ feedback,” Mayor Jeri Muoio said Thursday in an online newsletter.

The decision follows a recommendation from the city’s Downtown Action Committee that the city kill the proposal.

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Nancy Pullum, president of nonprofit watchdog group Citizens for Thoughtful Growth, called the decision to kill the plan good news.

“We are pleased that the city has heard the voices of residents and property owners on this proposal,” Pullum said Thursday. “We hope that future plans will heavily involve the public early in the development process.”

The city proposed changing its Downtown Master Plan to encourage construction of luxury office towers and lure companies and jobs downtown. The plan was to preserve a handful of historic churches by allowing them to sell their properties’ development rights to builders, who then could use those rights to build up to 30 stories in a waterfront area now zoned for a maximum of five stories.

Only two top-tier office towers have been built since 1989 and city officials said West Palm Beach loses corporate prospects because there’s no room for the companies to occupy.

But dozens of residents poured into the city hall auditorium last month to oppose the incentive plan, saying it would jam roads, block water views and hurt condo values. They said the change would kill voters’ desire for lower buildings close to the waterfront and harm prospects for developing areas farther back, where city incentives already have attracted two projects, including developer Jeff Greene’s One West Palm, at 550 Quadrille Blvd., which he said is just three months from laying its foundation.

Greene said he would kill his $250 million project if the city approved the waterfront height incentives.

Among the potential development sites that would have benefited from the proposal is one The Related Cos. of New York has contracted for, next to First Church of Christ, Scientist, at Flagler Drive and Lakeview Avenue. Related is seeking city approval for a 300,000-square-foot luxury office tower there. Gopal Rajegowda, the senior vice president who heads Related’s development areas in the region, could not be reached for comment on the mayor’s decision Thursday.

While the administration moved to drop the waterfront proposal, the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency is scheduled to vote next week to seek a developer for a prominent nearby property it owns, the Tent Site. That 2.4-acre site sits at the intersection of Okeechobee Boulevard and Dixie Highway, a few blocks from the water.

The city will continue to seek other options to generate office space while keeping downtown livable, Muoio said.

“We believe we can build the space to attract top employers, while keeping in mind feedback about traffic at peak hours, views, the waterfront, walkability and the fast-growing need for mass transit and safer pedestrian routes,” she wrote Thursday morning. “Our goal is to continue to improve our remarkable city and address this issue by allowing best practices and evaluating successes and pitfalls of cities with similar growing pains.”

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