NEW: Despite traffic concerns, West Palm set to OK Okeechobee district


Mayor Muoio pledges West Palm to plow forward on Okeechobee Business District despite traffic concerns

The city commission will move ahead with its final vote Monday to create an Okeechobee Business District, despite strong criticism from the state transportation agency, Palm Beach County and the Town of Palm Beach.

“We didn’t receive any objections from any state agencies,” Mayor Jeri Muoio said. The plan drew “comments but they were not objections,” she said.

The proposed zoning change would alter the land use rules for Okeechobee Boulevard, from CityPlace to the waterfront, to encourage construction of the top flight office buildings the city wants to attract high-end employers.

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The county and town have been among the harshest critics, saying it could snarl traffic and hinder hurricane evacuations and emergency vehicles on a crucial thoroughfare that links Interstate-95 to downtown West Palm Beach and the Royal Park Bridge to the barrier island. To that tinder, the Florida Department of Transportation this week urged the city to hold off on the approval to allow time for traffic study.

“The city has not demonstrated through data and analysis, the long-term adequacy of transportation facilities to meet established acceptable levels of service,” Stacy Miller, FDOT District Four director of transportation development, wrote in a letter to the city’s development services director on Aug. 7. “This information is vital to plan for needed facilities and services and to formulate policy recommendations… to avoid adverse impacts,” she wrote.

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The city argues the zoning change would reduce what could be built in that area. The new district would require new buildings to include provisions encouraging mass transit and other alternatives to automobile use, including features to promote biking and walking.

The change in the city’s comprehensive plan requires a go-head from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which in turn solicits comment from the Department of Transportation and other agencies.

The DEO told the city recently that, while it had no objections, the city should be mindful of any criticism from other agencies as that could subject the change to legal challenges.

Asked about that, Muoio said the city would take the comments into account, as it moves to implement recommendations from its recently completed study of its transportation options. “We will as we get to that point,” she said.

FDOT’s Miller said what’s needed is a transportation analysis that the city, county, town, her agency and the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency agree upon.

Likewise, in an Aug. 3 letter to the city, Assistant County Administrator Patrick Rutter, called the Okeechobee proposal short-sighted and said the city hasn’t shown how creating the high-rise district would benefit the entire downtown or surrounding areas.

“Downtown West Palm Beach is truly a regional-serving downtown,” Rutter wrote. “The downtown does not exist in a vacuum, and the urbanization of Palm Beach County beyond the downtown has been no less transformative than the downtown itself. The attraction of the downtown grows in sync with the remainder of the region, and so too does traffic volume entering and departing the downtown,” he said. “…Yet the magnitude ad impact of that growth is belittled and outright neglected by the city, as is the significance of sustained growth in the downtown and region on roadway operational performance.”

After rejecting the proposal last September, a commission altered by March elections took it up again and passed it in June, despite public concerns about traffic, blocked views and that it was impelled by developer The Related Cos.’ desire to build a 25-story, Class A office tower 400 feet off the waterfront. The commissioners cited the change’s potential to spur construction, spawn high-paying jobs and stimulate economic opportunity to attract Millennials and keep the city’s sons and daughters from moving elsewhere to pursue careers.

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