The West Palm Beach planning board voted 6-0 to recommend against replacing an outdoor worship center with the city’s tallest building.
The action came after a five-plus-hour emotional debate over rights and financial benefit versus a perceived loss of aesthetics and lifestyle.
First Baptist Church, which owns the 3.2-acre Chapel by the Lake waterfront amphitheater site at 1112 S. Flagler Drive, has a deal in place to sell the site for $23 million for a proposed 29-story, 384-foot condo complex.
The sale wouldn’t close until the city commission gave the project final approval. The city would have to rezone most of the property to allow the tower, which would host 96 units ranging in size from 3,800 square feet to 7,000 square feet and selling for $4 million to $8 million.
“I believe that we don’t belong in the church’s business and I don’t believe the church belongs in the city’s business,” board member Jeffrey Kotzen said at Tuesday night’s board meeting.
Board member Virginia Dominicis said she was concerned the tower is “not compatible with the skyline,” adding, “I have a hard time seeing the hardship as to why we should grant that waiver.”
Board Chairman Steven Mayans stressed his board has no say in whether the church sells the property and can’t stop it from building something there, “so take it off the table.” But, he said, “I find the scale just too overwhelming.”
In a 122-page memo for Tuesday’s meeting, principal planner John Roach recommended the planning board OK the rezoning, with various conditions.
Land planner Kieran Kilday, principal at Urban Design Kilday Studios, said that, when occupied, the 96 condos would have a taxable value of $416 million, which would generate $3.4 million a year in property taxes to the city. And city planner Roach told Tuesday’s meeting the project would create nearly 1,200 construction jobs and more than 100 permanent jobs.
Speakers drew alternate rounds of cheers in the chamber, filled with church staff and their spouses as well as members of a new group called Citizens for Thoughtful Growth that opposed the project.
Opponents said downtown has plenty of empty condominiums and that their one big beef is that this would be east of Flagler Drive.
“If this requires a referendum, then so be it, but no more buildings east of Flagler,” resident and 26-year church member Warren O’Brien said.
“That’s why all these people are here,” Margie Yansura said. “That’s our front yard.”
Attorney and church member Nancy Vorpe Quinlan said the amphitheater was created as a sanctuary, and “should be respected and honored as such.”
But Stephann Cotton, who lives at One City Plaza and isn’t connected with the church, told the board, “It seems like it’s a perfect opportunity for the future of West Palm Beach.”
Resident and attorney James Eisenberg recommended the church and developers build their condo closer to Olive Avenue. Of the amphitheater, he said, “the parcel of land is important to everyone, and not just the financial interests of the First Baptist Church.”
When the church asked members in 2010 to allow a sale of the property, the vote was 247-216 in favor.
“We need funding to do the business we are in, which is reaching people,” attorney Daniel A. Thomas, who’s on the church’s legal committee, said. “It was the right thing then. It’s the right thing now.”
The crowd was so large the fire marshal asked those standing against a back wall of the chambers — capacity 172 — to move to an adjoining room and watch the meeting on closed-circuit television. Most did, and that room — capacity 191 — filled as well.