Carefree Theatre site gets initial rezoning nod, but what will it be?


West Palm commission takes first of two votes on rezoning old Carefree Theatre site on South Dixie Highway

The owner of the former Carefree Theatre property on South Dixie Highway gained initial clearance Monday to rezone the site to make way for a new development.

The four parcels within the 2-acre site were zoned differently, as a result of the progression of West Palm Beach development over the past century, making a new mixed-use project difficult.

The city commission voted unanimously to unify the zoning under a category known as Commercial East, which would allow residential and commercial uses of the site. The spot has housed an ice cream parlor, coin laundry, grocer, car dealer, fruit packer, bowling alley and the popular theater.

The parcels now are owned by an affiliate of Cohen Bros. Realty, controlled by New York developer and part-time Palm Beacher Charles Cohen. Cohen previously proposed an art theater, with apartments, garage and restaurant, but it was much bigger than allowed, as was a revised version.

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For his third attempt, Cohen has not detailed what he would put on the rezoned property. That troubled a handful at the commission meeting, who argued the board shouldn’t vote to rezone the property without knowing what the developer has in mind.

“We need to know what’s going to be on this property before giving it carte blanche zoning approval,” land use attorney Santo DiGangi said.

Nancy Pullum, leader of Citizens for Thoughtful Growth, said the developer should conduct more outreach to neighborhood groups.

RELATED: Will Carefree Theater dilemma lead to bigger buildings on South Dixie (2017 story)

“Lack of information breeds fear and fear breeds more misinformation. So it would be helpful to have more neighborhood-wide meetings,” She said. “To marginalize the community never comes to any good.”

Greg Young, an attorney for Cohen, said the developer had held community meetings but that the El Cid Neighborhood Association had been unwilling to meet.

READ: Readers’ memories of the Carefree Theatre — for decades it was ‘the place’ for entertainment

Residents of historic El Cid and other surrounding single-family areas feared patrons of the development would clog local streets while its buildings, initially proposed to be as high as 96 feet, would cast shadows and invade the privacy of their yards. However the details work out, the project will have to be smaller this time, to fit within the proposed designations, said Linda Louie, a planner for the city.

The property, at 2000 to 2100 S. Dixie Highway, is well known to West Palm residents as the site where the Carefree operated from the 1930s to 2005. Cohen demolished the vacant structure shortly after he bought the three northernmost parcels for $3 million in September 2015. He bought the adjacent site, between Barcelona and Cordova roads, in February 2016, for just under $3.2 million.

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