The city’s most prominent gateway location for development — the ‘tent site’ at Okeechobee Boulevard and South Dixie Highway — is once again a glint in developers’ eyes, despite the fact West Palm has held off on offering up the property while consultants figure out how to fix downtown’s worsening traffic.
The latest to jump in ahead of any formal bidding process: master developer and Oscar-winning movie distributor and producer Charles S. Cohen.
Cohen submitted a written proposal this month to have uber-architect Cesar Pelli design a 300,000-400,000-square-foot office tower for the 2.4-acre site, which is walking distance from CityPlace, the convention center, Clematis Street and the waterfront.
The project would give the city “an iconic landmark office tower attracting financial and other service tenants from the surrounding areas and provide the latest technology and amenities found in the very best office towers being built anywhere in the world today,” Cohen’s proposal stated.
The city announced in November it was preparing to put the site back on the market, after previous plans and proposals fell through. Plans for a major digital animation complex fell through when Digital Domain collapsed in 2012. The city commission rejected Developer Michael McCloskey’s plans for a major medical complex 2015.
The commissioners, acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), declared the 2.4-acre site “surplus” to pave the way for selling it but Mayor Muoio said the city first needed to get a better handle on how to resolve downtown traffic woes.
Meanwhile, at least three “very serious folks” have run projects by the city in addition to Cohen’s formal proposal, Community Redevelopment Executive Director Jon Ward said Monday.
“I get verbal expressions of interest in that all the time…. I tell them any conversation with regard to the tent site starts off with, we have to address the mobility piece and traffic and all of that,” Ward said.
With the city starved for top-flight office space, other projects are in the pipeline or in planning. Palm Beach developer Jeff Greene has been wading through the approvals process for two-tower One West Palm project at 550 Quadrille Blvd., which would include offices, a hotel, residences and shops. And The Related Cos. has been trying to soften community opposition to its request to build a 25-story office tower in a 5-story waterfront zone a few blocks east of the Tent Site.
Billionaire Cohen, who distributed the Oscar-winning foreign film, “The Salesman,” has been seeking approvals for an art theater/apartment project on South Dixie Highway, at the former site of the Carefree Theatre. The city is considering reworking its land use rules to allow that and other projects too big for current zoning.
Cohen said this week he’s eager to work his creative magic on the vacant canvas of the tent site, as well.
“I have a fondness for the Palm Beaches and some time ago, maybe a year and a half ago, someone told me about that site,” he said. “What an iconic piece of property and a wonderful development opportunity, centrally located, to build a great iconic office tower. I would like to develop it and I would do it now. Now is the time to do it.”
The site, in a section of downtown generally designated for 25-30-story buildings, could handle two buildings and more than 400,000 square feet “but I thought scaling it back would be more meaningful and more manageable,” Cohen said.
The New York-based developer owns Cohen Brothers Property Group, which owns 12 million square feet of property in New York, California, Texas and Florida. The portfolio includes a dozen office towers in Manhattan and four design centers in four states, including the Design Center of the Americas, or DCOTA, in Dania Beach.
Cohen most recently developed the Red Building at the Pacific Design Center in Southern California, a Pelli-designed project that includes two towers totaling 400,000 of office space.
Pelli, former dean of Yale’s School of Architecture, also designed the World Financial Center and Winter Garden in New York, the NTT Headquarters building in Tokyo, the twin Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and the Mathematics Building and Lecture Hall at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.
Cohen’s proposal says he is ready to proceed without need for financing or pre-leasing “and with 100 percent of all project expenses borne by the developer.” Pelli would create “an aspirational type of design,” Cohen added. The office project would include ground-floor retail and a “world class deisgned park.”
“I’m not worried about any pre-leasing,” he said. “I’ve done buildings without them. And I think my track record could attract some of the best tenants in the region. South Florida is such a highly desirable place for businesses right now, given the local tax situation, this building would attract service companies from the (Palm Beach area) but I believe from other places and cities.
“I only do projects I’m passionate about, and I really want to do more in Palm Beach.”
Mayor Muoio said it will be up to the Community Redevelopment Agency to determine how and when to evaluate offers for the site, and whether to issue a formal request for proposals to open the process to all other qualified developers.
As for Cohen, “He’s a very reputable developer and I have a lot of respect for him. Some of the other projects he’s been involved in have been fabulous.”
But she was careful not to endorse him for the project. “There are other reputable developers who may also be interested in this tent site.”
Would the public might support having an office on the tent site, as opposed to rezoning low-rise land on Flagler Drive for Related Cos.’ 25-story proposal?
“The public is going to be concerned about anything that’s being built because of the traffic,” Muoio said. “It might be a little more palatable in an area that’s zoned appropriately, but I think any new proposal on any land downtown is going to be looked at very critically because of the traffic impact.”
Have a West Palm Beach news tip? Contact Staff Writer Tony Doris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-820-4703.