ANALYSIS: What tipped vote to reject 25-story waterfront office tower

4:56 p.m Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017 Local
Rendering of One Flagler tower (Provided)

After more than a year of public outreach, political wrangling and contentious debate, it came down to a 3-2 vote by the city commission, killing a proposal by West Palm’s most prominent development team for a 25-story signature office tower on a waterfront lot zoned for five stories.

City commissioners Cory Neering, Shanon Materio and Sylvia Moffett voted against the Related Cos. project, in a packed city hall auditorium as divided as the commission itself.

Proponents included the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches, Business Development Board, Downtown Development Authority, former Mayor Joel Daves, former State Rep. Mary Brandenburg and many other supporters of project by the company that built CityPlace, the CityPlace Tower offices and the convention center Hilton. They heaped praise on the One Flagler proposal for the high quality office space and jobs it would bring, world-class architecture and preservation of a 1920s church designed by an African American architect, the latter a source of pride and inspiration for residents whose support Related hoped to win.

But opponents lambasted the project as an example of spot zoning that would block views, add traffic and trounce a 1996 voter referendum meant to limit the downtown waterfront to low-rise buildings.

The nail-biter of a decision, after more than six hours of public outpouring and commission debate, ended when the three commissioners made clear they liked the project but felt it violated a compact with voters and that it didn’t belong on the waterfront.

Mayor disappointed with result

Technically the vote was on whether to approve an Okeechobee Business District, a zone designed to encourage creation of high-end office space along Okeechobee Boulevard but admittedly spurred by Related’s desire to build on the site next to the First Church of Christ Scientist, near the corner of Okeechobee Boulevard and the Flagler Drive waterfront.

The city has virtually no vacant top-tier office space to attract the many companies that show interest in moving here, supporters said. But in the end, the decision came down to location, location, location — and the process by which Mayor Jeri Muoio’s administration pushed to create the district to benefit one developer’s project.

“I felt uncomfortable with the way this process has played out,” Commission President Neering said. “I don’t think we have been as transparent as we could have been from Day One on this process. It hasn’t felt right to me.”

Muoio said Tuesday morning she was disappointed but would continue to seek ways to encourage quality office construction downtown.

“There was a pretty clear case made that we desperately need Class A office space,” she said. “Part of my job as mayor is to figure out how to provide that. We want to grow businesses here. We want to grow jobs and want to make sure that our children and grandchildren have a place to work when they grow up. We want them to stay here with us.”

Muoio and Commissioner Keith James made forceful appeals in favor of the project, with James calling the vote a historic opportunity. “The economic opportunities it presents are pretty overwhelming for me,” said James, a candidate for mayor in 2019. “If we are going to grow as a city, we have to continue to build on the tax base and provide opportunities for smart, targeted growth.”

Did ‘spot zoning’ come into play?

Commissioner Paula Ryan said she supported the Okeechobee Business District plan because it was more than just one building.

In making the motion for the development, she sought to add to the approval conditions or additional features to incentivize growth, create workforce housing and focus on sustainability. She proposed eliminating a sticking point for some of her colleagues, that the district would limit how much could be built on a nearby city-owned parcel, the Tent Site at Okeechobee and Dixie Highway, which would have reduced the value of the site and its attractiveness to developers.

It was too late to craft the careful wording needed to include such provisions but city staff indicated that if the district were approved Monday, they could be added before the second and final vote on the matter, in coming weeks.

Commissioner Sylvia Moffett, though, flatly said the plan to create the Okeechobee district amounted to spot zoning meant to favor Related Cos. The city’s comprehensive plan favored Quadrille Boulevard, several blocks off the waterfront, as preferred for Class A office space, Moffett added.

Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene is ready to build a 30-story, two-building project already approved for Quadrille and is just waiting for Federal Aviation Administration approval, Moffett said, and Greene confirmed.

Greene cast doubt whether city plans to ease traffic by encouraging walking and bicycling would have any impact on the traffic the Related project would create. “People like to drive their car in Florida,” he said.

He called for the city to stick to predictable zoning rules, rather than letting Related build 25 stories on a 5-story waterfront zone. “I’d like to have a 500 percent increase” for his projects, he said.

Developer: ‘Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ missed

The meeting went on so long, as one resident after another took a turn at the dais, that Greene made his statement, left, showered, had dinner and came back wearing a change of clothes.

Another developer disagreed with him. Al Adelson, developer of The Bristol, an uber-luxury condo tower rising a few blocks away on South Flagler Drive, said business executives who have purchased units in his building are “desperate” to move their companies to West Palm Beach.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he told commissioners. “If you guys blow this, you’re not going to see this again.”

Commissioner Shanon Materio, a likely opponent of James’ in the upcoming mayoral race, pressed as hard against the proposal as he pressed for it.

“This isn’t the end of the world. Another project will come,” Materio said. “I think the building can live someplace else…. Every time we have a difficult decision to make like this, we’re told that if we don’t make this decision, our city’s going to collapse on us. We are a great city. Right now.”

The statement won applause but so did James’ comeback: “We are a great city but we need to be greater.”

In the end the arguments for jobs, historic preservation and a stunning skyline, not to mention the public relations outreach, glossy mailers, testimonials from eminent locals and the filling of auditorium seats by students in blue Okeechobee Business District T-shirts, did not sway the three commissioners’ misgivings about the proposed business district.

“If Related didn’t exist to bring this project forward, would we be here talking about the Okeechobee Business District?” Neering asked the administration’s point man, Development Services Director Rick Greene.

The effort to encourage Class A office construction has been paramount for some time, Greene said. “Probably so.”

Three out of five doubted that.