Periodically the question pops up: Is West Palm Beach’s biggest property owner ever going to build on his land or is he all hat, no cowboy?
The answer, Jeff Greene says: he’s herding his projects forward, he’s not banking land to flip it. The process takes time to do it right, that’s all.
So what’s dragging it out?
One site needs Federal Aviation Administration approval, another needs Downtown Action Committee approval. For yet another, the city needs to redesign the adjacent park and extend a road. His biggest project won’t get built at all if the city changes the rules and allows a competitor to build where he shouldn’t be allowed to, Greene says. And by the time all his approvals and other preparations line up, market conditions will have to be favorable, too, he says.
But, “I’m moving forward,” the Palm Beach billionaire insists.
Biggest project would have tallest buildings in West Palm
His pet project, the Greene School, opened last fall at 2001 S. Dixie Highway and is expanding. The innovative private school, currently pre-K to 6th grade, breaks ground this month on a 29,000-square-foot addition, scheduled for completion in February. The $7 million project will house a middle school, video production lab, library, gym, virtual learning lab and a fabrication lab that combines woodworking with artificial intelligence.
Click for details
Map by Mahima Singh
The biggest project on Greene’s drawing board is the $250 million One West Palm, at 550 N. Quadrille Blvd. It’s two towers will hold 209,000 square feet of offices, 328 luxury apartments, hotel, retail. It has has the green light for construction but because the 30-story towers would be the city’s tallest, it needs FAA approval.
“I got ahead of myself and spent close to $4 million on plans and permits and I’m told I still need to wait for the FAA,” Greene said, adding that he doesn’t anticipate problems with it.
One complication could kill the project, Greene says: Related Cos. of New York is pushing the city to allow it to build a competing 25-story tower near the waterfront on a site currently zoned for just 5 stories. If the city allows that, “I probably won’t” go ahead with the project, he says. “I don’t feel like competing with a building right on the water,” unless he gets a big tax break to compensate, he says.
Micro-apartments will offer lower rents
Two downtown apartment projects he’s planning, like One West Palm designed by Miami’s glitzy Arquitectonica firm, also have obtained most approvals they need to come out of the ground.
One, a 12-story building at 550 Banyan Blvd., with 348 micro-apartments of about 450 square feet, has won accolades from many who feel squeezed out of downtown living by high rents. Various city boards have bought into the concept, adjusting the rules to allow the undersized apartments and reduced parking space requirements, part of a nationwide trend. The developer has agreed to contribute monthly to city’s trolley costs, part of West Palm’s push to encourage public transit and downtown livability over streets crowded with single-occupant cars.
The apartments would all be under $1,000 per month.
A block away, his Clematis Place also is nearly set to go. The apartment building would step up to 12 stories, on a site stretching from the 500 block of Clematis Street on its north side to Datura Street on the south and Rosemary Avenue on the west. The trick will be to get all the approvals on both Clematis Place and the micro-apartments done so that he can save construction money by building both at the same time.
But whether Clematis Place comes out of the ground also depends on how well other similar projects do, in particular The Alexander, an apartment tower under construction by a competing firm at Fern Street and Dixie Highway. If that project, which will have better views than his own, can’t achieve the rent levels he would need to do well at Clematis Place, then he’ll have to rethink Clematis Place, he says.
High hopes for Currie Park neighborhood
Greene made a dramatic entry into the downtown apartment market in April, paying nearly $25 million for the Whitney Building’s 139 units. The 10-year-old building had undergone substantial renovation because shortly after completion it found to have been built with Chinese drywall that turned out to be toxic. Because he bought it at a discount compared to current construction prices, he plans to rent out the building at rates competitive with nearby apartments about to go up. He has already rented out two of its penthouses, he said.
One of the places where Greene has the potential to have the biggest impact is the Currie Park neighborhood, where he has assembled about 25 vacant acres near Northwood Road with waterfront views over the park. An initial redesign plan for the park, by urban planner Carlo Ratti, advanced in May, with an agreement with the city to extend Northwood Road eastward, across North Flagler Drive, creating a landscaped linear park down the center of two lanes of traffic toward the park, while Greene would launch his project, with a 500-unit condominium. The park would serve as a front yard for Greene’s property.
Greene, who usually goes out of his way to compliment the city administration, says he’s frustrated at the city’s pace at Currie Park and wants to start developing quickly. “They’re going to have to move at a much faster pace or I’ll build now,” he said. “I already own the site. It’s not like some guy who’s just tied up the land…. Once you buy the land you build or pay taxes on it. I’m eager to get these things moving.”
Jon Ward, executive director of West Palm’s Community Redevelopment Agency, has been working on the government side to get the park redesigned but that public processes take time, particularly because the park work may include adding a marina, which would require years of state permitting.
“The problem is that Jeff is an independent business person who can pretty well do things as quickly as he wants to. He makes a decision, doesn’t have to report to a board, he decides what he wants to do and proceeds with it. But anything that relates to government means there’s a whole process, a very public, transparent process that we have to go through that moves at a much slower pace.”
That’s why, for example, the city agreed to have Greene design and build the Northwood Road extension past his project and to reimburse him afterward — because he can get it done faster than the government, Ward said.
“I want to do everything I can to help get him started,” he added. “It’s frustrating for us, so I know it makes the private sector crazy.”
Opera Place site is gateway to the city
To be sure, Greene doesn’t seem to spend much time twiddling his thumbs. In addition to the projects mentioned above, he has two more properties lined up, which he plans to develop as the market allows.
At the former Sail Club, a decrepit abandoned low-rise project he demolished much to the city’s relief in 2016, he owns 11 acres facing downtown along Clear Lake, where he is considering high-rise apartments. The Sail Club project would cater to a relatively affordable market, he said.
Arguably his most prominent property, the Opera Place site at the Okeechobee Boulevard gateway to the city, is also ripe for development and the city should take that into account when studying how to improve traffic flow, he says. Once considered, as the name reflects, for an opera house, and then for a massive condo development, Greene has no plans yet for the 3.1 acres, at 419 Lakeview Ave.
He’d like to put a five- or seven-star hotel there but to support that the city would have to grow out of being a seasonal location, he says. As it stands the site, which he bought in 2015 for $24 million, is zoned for twin towers with 1 million square feet of offices, residences, hotel rooms and shops.
“I’m definitely going to build it,” he says. “Do I have plans right now? No.”
Have a West Palm Beach news tip? Contact Staff Writer Tony Doris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-820-4703.