West Palm Beach commissioners took a key vote Monday to create a new focal point for future office towers, the Okeechobee Boulevard corridor from CityPlace to Flagler Drive, dismissing concerns the zoning measure would result in clogged roads and blocked water views from existing condos and offices.
The commissioners cited the change’s potential to spur construction, spawn high-paying jobs and stimulate economic opportunity to attract Millennials and keep the city’s sons and daughters from moving elsewhere to pursue careers.
The unanimous vote to create the Okeechobee Business District came nine months after the board narrowly rejected a similar proposal because of concerns about traffic the district could generate, particularly near the critical Royal Park Bridge to Palm Beach, and the plan’s appearing to favor one developer, The Related Cos., which sought the measure to build a 25-story tower in a five-story zone along the Intracoastal Waterway.
“This is very good for our city,” Mayor Jeri Muoio said Tuesday night. “We expect that the establishment of the Okeechobee Business District will encourage the creation of more Class-A office space and also, a series of transportation demand management strategies that will reduce the traffic that has been projected on the Okeechobee Boulevard corridor.”
The district, which requires state approval for a change to West Palm’s comprehensive plan, will return to the commission after that for final city approval, likely in mid-August, Development Services Director Rick Greene said.
Opponents say they’re ready for a battle
While the commission approval is assured, plan opponents vowed to fight.
The owners of the Esperante office tower said they’d block the change in court. Attorney Nathan Nason said the proposed Related tower would block Esperante’s views and reduce its property value. Investors have a right to expect the zoning on which they based their project to remain intact, he said.
Esperante filed a complaint Monday with the Florida Commission on Ethics against West Palm Beach Planning Board member Gregg Weiss, for recusing himself from a vote on the matter in May. Without him the Planning Board voted 3-2 to recommend the city commission approve the district.
Esperante alleged that Weiss’ stated reason for recusing himself didn’t rise to the level of a conflict of interest under state law and that Weiss was obligated to vote. Weiss is a candidate for county commission.
Weiss said he recused himself because he and the First Church of Christ, Scientist, which owns the property that would be rezoned in front of the 20-story Esperante, use the same financial adviser. He said he brought the potential conflict to the attention of Assistant City Attorney Samuel Thomas, who told him that, “in an abundance of caution,” he shouldn’t vote.
Weiss had no comment on the complaint.
The district was proposed by Related last year but carried forward by Mayor Jeri Muoio and her staff. The city has little vacant Class A office space available to attract new employers, they’ve argued, adding that city incentives and project approvals for Quadrille Boulevard had not borne fruit.
Opponents countered that projects are approaching development in the Quadrille zoning district, including one near CityPlace by Related and another at 550 Quadrille by Palm Beach developer and candidate for governor Jeff Greene.
Related has not stated publicly whether it would revive its One Flagler project if the Okeechobee rezoning passes but it is widely expected that it would take advantage of the opportunity to build the top-tier office tower it proposed, 400 feet from the waterfront.
“At this point, Related Cos. does not have anything to share regarding plans outside the CityPlace neighborhood,” a spokesperson said Tuesday.
Supporters say revised plan addresses concerns
After the measure failed in September, the city added elements to the plan for the district to encourage use of trolleys, bicycles and other transportation alternatives, and to meet environmental standards. Another big change from September: Two of the three “no” votes left the commission after the March municipal election and the third, Cory Neering, said Monday the revised plan addressed his concerns about spot zoning, transportation and impact on the rest of the city. He and the two new commissioners, Kelly Shoaf and Christina Lambert, joined Paula Ryan and Keith James in supporting the proposed district.
Neering added he didn’t want to wait for Quadrille Boulevard projects to arrive.
“I wish tonight we would be talking about more groundbreakings throughout our city but the reality is, we’re not,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair to hold the city hostage, paralyze the city, based on what-ifs and maybes. That’s not my role, I refuse to do that.”
City officials say the district, by reducing density limits on some parcels, would not add to the overall density of what’s allowed in that area. That raised a concern Monday from Cohen Brothers Realty, which is negotiating with the city for the right to build a major project on the tent site on Okeechobee. The new district would limit what could be built on that site and the viability of the project, a restriction that didn’t exist when Cohen applied to develop the site, a Cohen official said.
The Town of Palm Beach opposed the project, with officials there saying it would snarl traffic at the foot of the bridge, making for daily delays and interfering with hurricane evacuations.
On Monday, Palm Beach County, with an eye toward its planned doubling of the convention center on Okeechobee, urged the city not to change the zoning before updating traffic study of boulevard operations. Data used to evaluate conditions there are 20 to 30 years out-of-date, he said.
“We greatly admire what the downtown has become and are proud that we have anchored facilities that have helped the downtown become what it is. We just want to make sure the permanence of those investments isn’t forgotten as we look to the future,” said Eric McClellan, director of Facilities Development and Operations strategic planning for the county.
“It’s looking to strike a balance between those investments that have already been made downtown and those to come,” he said. “It is not our position that there should be no further development. It’s all about intensities and scale of development and finding balance.”
Follow West Palm Beach reporter Tony Doris on Twitter at @TonyDorisPBP.