S. Dixie residents soundly reject bigger projects near neighborhoods

April 18, 2018
Robert McClary, of Valencia Road in West Palm Beach, demonstrates the difference in scale between house heights in his neighborhood and the mixed-use buildings that could be built next to them under the proposed zoning change. (Tony Doris / The Palm Beach Post)

For the city of West Palm, it looked like a great idea and compromise: a plan to blend shops, housing and offices but ease traffic and parking.

But residents of historic neighborhoods off South Dixie Highway saw the opposite. They called it a developer giveaway that would clog their streets and allow tall, bulky buildings that stare down on their backyards.

The residents won that battle Tuesday.

Faced with a City Hall auditorium filled with opponents, the Planning Board voted 6-1 against recommending the plan to create a mixed-use zoning category that would allow developers who provide public benefits 33 percent more building than currently permitted in general commercial zones east of I-95.

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“If this is truly right for the city, the case has not yet been made for it,” Chairman Steve Mayans said. He noted that not one of the more than two dozen audience members who weighed in favored the proposal.

The board’s recommendation against the plan must go to the city commission for a final decision. It could be placed on a commission agenda as soon as next month.

Development Services Director Rick Greene wanted to encourage the right kind of development in commercial areas while addressing concerns.

The challenge the city faces on South Dixie Highway, for example, is cars patronizing restaurants and other businesses have been parking on residential side streets.

“We were trying to find solutions to that,” he said. “We’re talking about trying to get a trolley to the south end of the city. So one of the incentives we were proposing was a mandatory contribution that would have to be made, to enhance the trolley system and move it down to the southern area. We can’t mandate that when developments come in but the thought was, if we offered that as an incentive….”

He insisted the proposal was not crafted for the Carefree Theatre site, as some area residents have intimated.

However, he used the Carefree site, owned by developer Charles Cohen, as an example of how the proposal might work. Under the new proposal, Cohen could build up to 39,000 square feet more than current rules allow. That’s less than he originally proposed for the art theater, apartments and restaurants he wants to build, but more than the city now allows.

The idea from the city’s point of view, Greene said, was to give the developer that additional square footage in exchange for more parking available to the public, trolley enhancements and road improvements, not to mention the kind of mixed-use development that benefits the area.

“We give you something but in turn you give us something back that’s going to benefit the residential neighborhoods,” Greene said. “That was the thought going into this.”

The proposal would have allowed owners of 298 general commercial parcels east of I-95, mainly on South Dixie, 45th Street, Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard and Belvedere Road, to apply for a new zoning category called Commercial Mixed Use. Most are small — only 42 are bigger than an acre.

The new category would establish strict height limits, something that doesn’t exist under current zoning. Currently the sites’ density is restricted but there’s little to stop a developer from building a tall, skinny building, as long as the building is far enough from its property line.

But those new limits weren’t short enough to satisfy residents of historic single-family neighborhoods like El Cid, near the Carefree site. Buildings that back up to houses could be as high as 65 feet (six or seven stories); Those next to apartments could go to 85 feet. Those adjacent to commercial properties in the rear could go to 105 feet.

“Please protect us from this,” one resident pleaded with Planning Board members. “Stop the greed. I don’t know where this is going to end. Is this just going to be another New York?”

“Where’s the traffic going to go?” asked another. “It’s all going to go into the neighborhoods.”

Others said South Dixie was already turning itself around, with new restaurants and beautified storefronts, without needing to give developers a gift. Projected images of what buildings could look like under the new zoning drew groans.

“I don’t think we need any help making the city great,” said one opponent. “It’s becoming what it wants to become on its own. Why are we even doing this? We can do this on our own. I know visually what makes a city great: It’s all about scale. That’s what makes it appealing. It’s embarrassing to see these images.”

One board member, architect Peter Pivko, rejected the complaints as uninformed and exaggerated. The city needs to give residents a less abstract understanding of proposal, he said.

Mayans, the chairman, told Greene the plan likely would work well for most of the city. But staff should consider ways to address concerns of its compatibility with historic residential neighborhoods, he said.

As sympathetic as most members were to the concept, they weren’t prepared to approve a proposal so uniformly opposed by residents they were appointed to represent.

“I do support mixed use. But I do as I listen to the residents, you’ve done your homework, your research,” board member Debora Raing said. “It’s worth having staff go back and look at it again. The residents did say they are willing to work with you. That’s what I would like to see. Both groups coming together.”