Relations between Palm Beach County and its capital city took a sharp downturn this week, as county commissioners said they would urge the state to reject West Palm Beach’s high-priority push for an Okeechobee Boulevard business district, saying traffic studies were needed to ensure it wouldn’t snarl county convention center access and interfere with expansion plans.
The board lambasted the city for what members described as its refusal to consider county traffic concerns, cooperate with county desires to enlarge downtown courthouse facilities or even allow the county to repaint faded parking lot stripes.
“The city’s unwillingness to engage leaves county staff no option but to recommend that we escalate our concerns to the state,” Audrey Wolfe, the county director of Facilities and Operations, told the commission Tuesday.
County Commissioner Hal Valeche said the letter to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity should go beyond the city’s proposed zoning change “and talk about the recalcitrance of the City of West Palm Beach.”
West Palm Mayor Jeri Muoio has pushed for a year to create the Okeechobee Business District, to encourage Class A office construction along the boulevard. The plan would allow construction of a 25-story tower in a five-story zone near the bridge entrance. The plan was approved by the city commission June 18 but requires state authorization for a change to the city comprehensive plan.
County officials have repeatedly opposed the plan, saying the city should vet its implications for traffic on the boulevard, the busiest entry to the city and the Town of Palm Beach, across the Royal Park Bridge. The plan does incorporate traffic-easing principles of a recent city mobility study but county officials said that’s not enough.
Muoio rebuffed the county complaints.
Creating the Okeechobee Business District would reduce the amount of construction allowed under current rules, she said. As a result, the plan would reduce the number of cars, she said.
What’s more, a recent state traffic study showed that congestion on the boulevard isn’t as bad as critics portray, she said. During the morning traffic peak, it takes 9.5 minutes to go the two miles from Interstate 95 to the bridge, and 6.5 minutes during the afternoon rush hour, the study showed. “So people are not sitting there for 45 minutes.”
Beyond that, under an agreement between the city and county several years ago, called the Transportation Concurrency Exception Area, the city has the capacity to build 5 million square feet more commercial and retail space.
“So all of their arguments are unsubstantiated,” Muoio said.
Wolfe spoke at a West Palm Beach mayor/commission work session June 25 to outline county concerns, after the mayor declined to meet with the full county commission.
Among other objections to the Okeechobee Business District, Wolfe said that if the city cannot win approval for a new railroad crossing at Fern Street, Okeechobee traffic would mount. That, on top of the city’s traffic plans not being vetted, is a recipe for trouble, Wolfe said.
She also renewed a request the city allow the county to build as high as 12 stories on a downtown county property called Block D, near the courthouse, to allow for eventual expansion of judicial facilities on a site now limited to five stories. And she requested permission for repainting stripes on a county lot at 810 Datura St.
“We can only question how the city has repeatedly initiated changes to the height restrictions but can’t figure out how to move our proposal forward,” Wolfe told Muoio and the city commissioners.
Muoio said the city gave the county options to get the amount of building space requested for Block D, rather than having to rezone that area. The county could sell its historic courthouse’s air rights and transfer those rights to enable additional square footage on Block D, the mayor said. By selling the air rights, the county could make $4.5 million, Muoio added.
She rejected the county’s striping request. The lot would need to be restriped in compliance with updated city code, not just painting over the same lines, she said, adding that all property owners are required to comply.
The county could use some of the $4.5 million from the air rights to re-line the Datura lot, the mayor said. “It’s in our downtown. It looks like crap,” she said. “Why is it OK for them to have a crappy parking lot and other people have to make their parking lot look nice?”
City and county relations have been fraught for years. The city has spent millions of dollars fighting off a county plan to extend State Road 7 for two miles between Ibis Golf and Country Club and Grassy Waters Preserve, as a traffic-reliever to Northlake Boulevard. The city also battled the county over required contributions to the county Office of Inspector General. And the city continues to fight the road impact fees the county charges for projects built downtown, because the money invariably goes to pay for road projects outside downtown.
Palm Beach County Mayor Melissa McKinlay said Wednesday most of the hostility the city has toward the county is related to the State Road 7 project and she wishes both parties could move past that.
“It’s unfortunate because the county and the city have so many big issues that we need to work together on,” she said, adding she hopes for a healthier relationship with the city.
County Vice Mayor Mack Bernard, whose district includes downtown West Palm Beach, said Wednesday his goal is to bridge the differences between the city and the county to make the city better and the county flourish. He was more concerned over the mayor’s decision not to meet with the county than with details of the Okeechobee Business District, he said. “If they’re going to act a certain way then we’re prepared to do the same.”
There have been initial conversations regarding building a second Hilton near the convention center and the county will be asked to contribute dollars to bring it in, Bernard noted.
“We want the second hotel, but it’s going to take cooperation between both the city and the county to make that happen,” he said. “If they aren’t prepared to work with us, then we’re not going to work with them. ”
Muoio saw it from a different perspective.
“We would very much like to get along, to work collaboratively with them,” she said. “Their definition of working collaboratively is to agree with them.”