The city commission by a 5-0 vote Tuesday night approved the proposed condominium at the waterfront Chapel-by-the-Lake site, green-lighting what proponents call an attractive addition to the waterfront and residents have decried as a blight on the waterfront.
The decision followed nearly five hours of debate and months of some of the most contentious development debate in the city in a long time. It included three previous meetings totaling 14 hours, plus two “town hall” meetings, as well as several vote delays and at least four design changes.
“I don’t think the developer could make the project any smaller,” commissioner Shanon Materio said. She and Kimberly Mitchell had been the initial “nos” in a 3-2 vote last year that sent developers back to rethink the scope of their project.
The project originally was proposed as a 29-story, 384-foot-tall condo complex. It dropped to 25. Then it was proposed as two towers of 24 and 25 stories.
The latest configuration, revealed this month, would go back to one tower, drop the size to 295,000 square feet from 425,000 square feet, reduce units from 96 to 70 or 75 and add a public walkway along the Intracoastal Waterway behind it.
Planners Tuesday said they prefer the lower of two recently submitted tower designs. Planner Kerry Kilday told commissioners the 22-story, 291-foot tower required fewer waivers than the taller and narrower 25-story tower.
Mitchell said she believed developers have responded to concerns and she favors the plan “when you take what could be built there.”
Commissioner Keith James also said that what the church could build under current zoning “really is not a pretty picture.” He said the developer “has, I think, bent over backwards” to accommodate concerns.
Commissioner Ike Robinson said he has to trust the judgment of city planners, who recommended approval.
Sylvia Moffett said, “what this does allow is $20 million worth of revitalization (and) beautification of Flagler (Drive).”
Al Adelson, front man for the developer, GAK, said later, “the commissioners worked very hard to protect, to watch out for the city. We worked together well and came out with a project we hope makes everybody proud.”
And associate pastor and church spokesman Kevin Mahoney said, “we’re very pleased with the work of the city commission to accomplish this project for our city.”
Before the vote, as it became clear the plan would be approved, several residents angrily and noisily walked out.
“I’m sorry those people got up and left,” said Jeri Muoio, who as strong mayor had no vote. “We all, we all, find it incredibly insulting that people suggest there’s money being exchanged, there’s corruption going on.”
First Baptist Church, which owns the open-air chapel just south of Okeechobee Boulevard and just across Flagler Drive from the church, made a deal to sell the 3.2-acre property to GAK for $23 million.
In the new configuration, the tower would be pushed to the north end of the property, adjacent to a 100-foot-wide stretch of submerged land that GAK plans to buy from Palm Beach Atlantic University, contingent on approval of the condo project.
That would bring the southern setback, next to the Trianon condo, to 119 feet to the tower’s wider base and 170 feet to the actual tower, dramatically farther than past configurations but still too close for city rules.
The city was permitted to waive rules under the comprehensive plan if it believed the value of the project justifies it.
Kilday has said virtually every recent major development in the city has received some waivers.
Developers and the church also have said the sales price has dropped, but won’t say by how much.
Developers Tuesday took about 1-1/2 hours to make their presentation and field questions from commissioners. That was followed by more than two hours of public comment.
Resident John Mike, who supported the plan, said, “the decision is whether we have a real living growing city or a cluster of sleepy villages which are doomed to die.”
Len Fintzy, president of CityWatch, made up of neighborhood presidents from various western communities, said the group’s directors unanimously support the plan. He pointed out that no one else has offered to buy the property and either leave it the way it is or build something else.
Andy Halper, a resident of the nearby El Cid neighborhood, said, “these luxury high-rises are a dime-a-dozen. They dot the waterfront of Fort Lauderdale and Miami, and that’s where they belong.”
He said many First Baptist congregants oppose the sale and the development, which he called “not a very Christian or neighborly thing to do.”
Resident and architect Timothy Frank said a legal challenge “is likely to be upheld.”
Former city commissioner Jim Exline said he’s previously opposed the tower on many points, but now believes developers’ concessions make it palatable.
But former commissioner David Smith called the waivers “too extreme” and told the panel, “don’t pimp the city.”
June 27, 2010: About 500 members of First Baptist Church vote 247-216 to sell waterfront Chapel-by-the-Lake property. Church later agrees to sell property to developers for $23 million.
July 16, 2013: After a five-hour meeting, West Palm Beach planning board rejects project. Developer later drops plans by four stories.
Sept. 16: After six-hour meeting, commissioners give initial approval but warn they’d likely reject plan as shown at final vote on Sept. 30.
Oct. 7: Developers propose two towers; vote delayed to end of month.
Oct. 28: After three-hour meeting, developers ask commissioners not to vote but to let them come back with new plans; poll later suggests commissioners would have rejected project.
Dec. 4: Developers hold “town hall” meeting with residents.
Dec. 18: Mayor Jeri Muoio reveals developers plan to submit plans cutting project by 20 percent and returning to one tower.
Jan. 8: Developers submit new plans; they and church spokesman confirm price reduced but don’t elaborate.
Jan. 16: Developers hold second “town hall.”
Tuesday: City commission takes final vote