West Palm lures big-league architects — but is the city ready?


Not since the 1920s have so many world-class architects tried their hand at designing new developments planned for the West Palm Beach area.

Yes, it’s been nearly a century since the likes of Maurice Fatio and Addison Mizner designed mansions for the Palm Beach elite. The great architecture even flowed across the bridge to West Palm Beach, where Horace Trumbauer designed the First Church of Christ, Scientist, built in 1928.

Now, thanks to wealthy developers who appreciate design, the city once more is seeing world-class architects at work.

In fact, “the city has five of them on our doorstep,” said Harvey Oyer, a West Palm Beach lawyer and local historian.

These architects have produced plans for office towers, condominiums, cultural centers and a school. They include the following luminaries:

  • Norman Foster, the British Pritzker Architecture Award-winner who designed the $100 million expansion of the Norton Museum;
  • Allan Greenberg, one of the most influential architects of the classical movement, who drew a proposed redevelopment of the Carefree Theatre;
  • Helmut Jahn, a renowned contemporary architect out of Chicago, who designed the proposed redo of the Prospect Place office center into a five-condo complex dubbed 3111 S. Dixie Highway;
  • David Childs, who designed the One World Trade Center (the Freedom Tower) in New York, and who designed a proposed 30-story office tower along Flagler Drive, next to the First Church of Christ, Scientist;
  • and Bernardo Fort-Brescia of Arquitectonica, whose creative designs helped usher in the “Miami Vice” era and who designed the cube-like, 30-story twin office/hotel/apartment towers for Palm Beach investor Jeff Greene.

“It’s a game changer, an opportunity for West Palm Beach to go from being one of the best mid-sized cities to a great mid-sized city,” said Rick Gonzalez, of West Palm Beach’s REG Architects. REG is working with Greenberg on the Carefree Theater.

But is West Palm Beach ready for this surge of bold, artistic design?

Perhaps not.

In recent weeks, some city residents have expressed dismay, and even hostility, to two projects being proposed on South Dixie Highway south of the downtown.

In June meetings to discuss the Carefree and and 3111 S. Dixie Highway projects, some residents, instead of being swayed by the lofty names tied to these monied projects, were highly critical.

“I’m not impressed, or unimpressed, by the fact the Carefree went outside of Florida to get design talent,” said Kevin Lawler, an El Cid resident.

Lawler, a real estate developer, said he supports revitalizing South Dixie Highway, but only if it’s done appropriately. In his view, both projects are oversized.

Several residents talked of fear at potential traffic and parking problems, as well as dismay at the projects’ large size.

Resident India Foster described being “horrified” at the scale of the redesign of the old Carefree Theatre, at 2000 and 2020 S. Dixie Highway.

Under the direction of Charles Cohen, a New York developer and prominent film aficionado, the old Carefree would be transformed into an art house theater featuring six auditoriums, 94 apartments and retail space, in a complex rising as high as seven stories.

Cohen and his team said they’ve taken pains to fashion the neo-Mediterranean complex in line with the historic neighborhoods of El Cid and Flamingo Park.

But Foster derisively called the design “an enormous hulk of a building,” with no green space or respect for the single-family homes that surround it.

“The most fundamental part of classical design is proportion,” said Foster, an interior designer.

A raucous neighborhood meeting

Some area residents also were vocal in their dislike over the nearby 3111 S. Dixie Highway complex. The June 29 meeting with Time Equity representatives was described as contentious by those who attended.

“People were hooting and hollering in there,” said Santo DiGangi, a West Palm Beach resident and board member of Citizens for Thoughtful Growth, a residents’ watchdog group.

The redesign of the nearly vacant Prospect Place office center would feature five, 15-story condos rising 170 feet, retail stores along Dixie Highway, a parking deck facing the train tracks, and a mini-park in the project’s interior, including benches, plus play and splash areas for children.

Prospect Place is owned by Time Equities’ Francis Greenburger, a respected developer known for his vision in redeveloping neighborhoods.

But the reputation of Jahn and Greenburger didn’t sway some residents, who believe the 3111 S. Dixie Highway is simply “too big, too tall,” DiGangi said. “People are not OK with it.”

Well, some people are.

“Change is something that some people are always opposed to. However, when change is done in such a positive way and the neighborhoods all around prove so much, everyone wins,” West Palm Beach resident Gary Goodwin wrote a city official in May.

Goodwin, a designer and space planner, particularly lauded the architect. “Having the world-famous Helmut Jahn is wonderful.”

Keith Spina, of West Palm Beach firm Glidden Spina + Partners, agreed.

Spina marveled at the opportunity to work with Jahn, whom he studied in architecture school.

It seems Jahn still is teaching Spina.

“When Helmut came up with this design, it caught me off guard,” Spina said. “But he’s someone who is a visionary, who takes a new and different perspective.”

Jahn’s goal for the project

Jahn said the project’s challenge was to create an attractive space that would draw people to the urban core. “It’s making a part of the city, which is now nothing, into a place where people will want to be,” Jahn said “It’s what cities are supposed to do.”

Of course, architects design to the specifications of their developer patrons.

And in most of the proposed projects, developers have sought to build as much as they can to recoup high land costs.

For instance, a proposed office tower on land next to the Christian Science Church would rise 30 stories.

The developer, New York-based Related Cos., is trying to work a deal to buy the land from the church, but the price is said to be steep for the water-view land at Flagler Drive and Lakeview Avenue.

So the tower, said to resemble a lighthouse in its tapered design, must to be tall to garner space from the site.

The deal has been described as a way to provide needed maintenance money for the church, built in the Classical Revival style of architecture.

But the tall building has galvanized opposition from residents who own residential units atop the very tall Esperante office building to the land’s west.

Room for compromise?

Residents such as DiGangi say they’re not opposed to redevelopment of properties.

In fact, DiGangi said he’s happy about the arrival of world-class architects to town: “I welcome it. I love it.”

But unlike major cities, which can accommodate large, daring designs, West Palm Beach still is small enough to require a lighter touch.

In other words, DiGangi said, designs “need to be to scale.”

Residents shouldn’t expect any changes by developers to shrink the South Dixie Highway projects.

Plans for both Carefree and 3111 S. Dixie have been submitted for city review. And the city will be the one to make recommendations from now on, officials said.

“Some people wish it could be shorter or less, but it can’t, because the design is the design,” said Robert Singer, director of development for Time Equities.

Gonzalez remains hopeful the great architects brought to town will see their creations realized.

If this happens, Gonzalez said, “You’re going to get the reputation that this city values culture through arts and architecture.”

Alexandra Clough writes about the economy, real estate and the law.


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