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Push for downtown offices leads to push-back over traffic, views

A city incentives plan to encourage luxury office development downtown has residents protesting that lining a waterfront zoned for 5-story buildings with 30-story towers would block condo views, grid-lock streets and destroy the city’s small-town ambience.

What’s more, while the proposal benefits one major developer’s plan for a waterfront tower, a rival developer months away from breaking ground on two towers a few blocks off the waterfront threatens to scrap his $250 million project if the city approves the proposal.

City and county business development officials, though, say the plan would encourage construction of sorely needed luxury office space, keep corporate prospects from slipping away and preserve several landmark buildings and open space along the waterfront.

Two city boards are scheduled to consider the plan Tuesday and the city commission is slated to vote on it Nov. 7 initially, with a final vote set for Dec. 19.

Under the proposal, a dozen buildings, in exchange for agreeing to be designated as historic or landmarks, would get the right to sell the development rights that go with their properties. A developer could buy those rights and apply them to another site on the waterfront or on other downtown sites where the city has a development incentive program.

A developer who owned property in what’s called the Flagler Waterfront District, now zoned a maximum of 5 stories — east of Olive Avenue, from Okeechobee Boulevard north to Datura Street — could apply those purchased rights to his site and build as high as 30 stories.

Among the potential development sites 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.

The city has fielded many requests from financial industry executives in the Northeast, many of whom have second homes in Palm Beach County, who want to move their companies to West Palm Beach, said Kelly Smallridge, president and CEO of the county’s Business Development Board.

“They’re coming from Manhattan and Greenwich and Boston, so they wanted an environment where they could bring customers and it would be a first-class experience to mirror what they have in the Northeast,” she said. “Two or three weeks ago, a gentleman walked in and said, ‘I’m buying a condo at the Bristol, can you find me temporary office space for now, but when the Related building goes up, I want to be there,’” Smallridge said.

“We have heard from the county, the city and the market for years that there is tremendous demand for first-class office buildings with smaller floor plates and unobstructed water views,” said Gopal Rajegowda,the senior vice president who heads Related’s development areas in the region. “If the city moves forward with the Flagler Financial District plan, we would be thrilled to be a part of it and help answer the demand and bring more jobs to the area.”

The city has been trying for several years to get developers to build more offices downtown because its luxury towers are filled to the brim, costing West Palm Beach a chance at landing new companies.

Two projects are in the works.

US Hospitality Group and PrivCap Holdings have filed plans for an 18-story tower on Gardenia Street between Quadrille Boulevard and South Dixie Highway that layers luxury office suites and a hotel. Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene, the city’s biggest owner of development sites, has two 30-story towers planned for 550 Quadrille Blvd. that he says are just three months from breaking ground.

Greene, until now highly complimentary of the administration, said Friday he’ll kill his project if the city blows out the waterfront zoning.

“My whole pitch about West Palm Beach, why I’m excited about it, is it has a small town feeling with big city amenities. If you cause the traffic jams to be unbearable…it means the city is acting irresponsibly and it’s no longer going to have a competitive advantage to attract tenants from Palm Beach Gardens, Fort Lauderdale and Miami,” he said.

Likewise, at a city hall meeting Thursday to solicit public input, nary a voice spoke for the proposal. Many rose to the mic to oppose it.

Nancy Pullum, who heads a development watchdog group called Citizens for Thoughtful Growth, said the fact that the approval meetings are set already means the incentive plan is a fait accompli. “You have a public meeting but what was that for if you’ve already got it fast-tracked?”

Others slammed the city for pushing ahead without solving the problem of massive congestion at rush hour and other times that already snarls Flagler Drive and Okeechobee Boulevard and blocking the Royal Park bridge to and from Palm Beach and prevents office tenants from exiting.

“We don’t need any taller buildings,” one woman told city officials at the meeting. “We can’t handle the traffic we have.”

Others noted that residents previously voted to hold the height limit to five stories in that area. “Three different times voters have overwhelmingly said we don’t want that. Now they’re asking us for public comment,” a woman said. “We’ve already commented.”

Two city commissioners who attended the meeting, Paula Ryan and Shanon Materio, agreed that the city needs to address traffic before adding to the problem by approving more office towers. A “mobility study” of downtown traffic and pedestrian safety is months from completion.

“When we have the information to help us understand the extent of our problem and the possible solutions, then we can start looking at making changes,” Ryan said Friday.

“You can never guarantee a view,” Materio said, “but when someone purchases a condominium, they’re doing it with the predictability of the plan that’s in place at the moment in time that they purchase it. If we keep on moving that chess piece around the board, there is no longer any predictability….We have five stories or less east of Olive, which the people voted on and we cannot forget that.”

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