After 18 months of study, public hearings, debate and a September vote supposedly killing the proposal, the city commission Monday night gave its final approval to create the Okeechobee Business District after all, overriding concerns the plan to incentivize office construction would paralyze downtown traffic and allow a 25-story luxury tower in a waterfront area that West Palm Beach voters had limited to five stories.
The commission voted unanimously to designate the busy section of Okeechobee Boulevard from CityPlace to Flagler Drive as a district with rules that encourage office and hotel construction.
Despite urgent missives from the Florida Department of Transportation, Palm Beach and Palm Beach County, that the city wait for a state study to evaluate the zoning change’s potential traffic impact, the commission went forward at Mayor Jeri Muoio’s urging, arguing that the plan — by limiting development on the downtown tent site — would actually reduce what could be built in that area under current rules.
Development Services Director Rick Greene told commissioners that downtown traffic is not as bad as many people think, with rush hour trips from I-95 to Flagler drive taking seven-and-a-half minutes, within tolerable standards for a downtown, in his view. The city hall auditorium was barely half-full, likely reflecting opponents’ view that after so many months of debate, commissioners’ minds were made up.
Still, some pressed the board to back off, describing the plan as spot zoning because it was sparked by proposal last year by The Related Cos. to build a Class A office tower called One Flagler, 400 feet back from the waterfront at the intersection of Okeechobee and Flagler Drive. The site had been limited to five story buildings.
New developments within the district would have to abide by rules encouraging mass transit and alternative forms of transportation, city officials noted.
But opponents doubted the proposed alternatives to automobiles, like bicycling, walking or expanded trolley service, would help. Among them, former county commissioner Priscilla Taylor, who is running for mayor against city commissioners Keith James and Paula Ryan, who supported the district.
“The suggestion by the city that promoting bicycling will reduce the traffic impacts of the zoning change is ridiculous,” Taylor said.
County Administrator Verdenia Baker indicated Tuesday morning that her staff has recommended challenging the district plan at the state level, as any such changes to the city comprehensive plan require approval of the state Department of Economic Opportunity.
The mayor, however, asserted that traffic is part of city life and that people should recognize that when they choose to live downtown.
Downtown has such a shortage of Class A office space that it has been hard to recruit companies and attract high-paying jobs, she added. She mentioned an upcoming meeting with a financial industry company that wants to move to West Palm, with 50 or more employees. But with only 4 percent of the city’s Class A office square footage available, there are no 5,000-, 8,000- or 12,000-square-foot continuous spaces for rent, she said.
“I’m going to sit down with these people and what am I going to tell them?” she asked.
As for fears of congestion, she said: “When I hear about traffic in the city, I’m sort of happy we have traffic in the city. I want to increase the number of people living downtown and jobs downtown, so people can walk or take a trolley to work. We’re talking about the future of our city. To wait and not move forward is not good for us.”