Editorial: 25-story One Flagler too much for West Palm waterfront

It looks beautiful in the drawings. The proposed One Flagler in West Palm Beach — designed by renowned architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, of New York’s Freedom Tower — is less an office tower than a work of art: tiered, slender, luminous, yet restrained.

The tower’s developers, The Related Cos., admirably intend to preserve the handsome and historic First Church of Christ, Scientist, and to memorialize the long-neglected African-American architect Julian Abele.

But they want to put their 25-story building on a waterfront site zoned for five stories. To accomplish this, the West Palm Beach City Commission is being asked on Monday to carve out a glaring exception to the city’s Downtown Master Plan by creating an “Okeechobee Business District” that will allow 25-story buildings to benefit, basically, this one property.

However attractive this tower may be, the contortions being done to the city’s zoning rules are ugly. So are the political strong-arm tactics employed to dampen opposition, such as the abrupt removal of a veteran member of a key planning board who had asked pointed questions about One Flagler.

West Palm residents have said many times that they don’t want their city to mimic Miami’s wall of tall buildings along the water. In a 1996 referendum, 60 percent of voters approved the five-story limit after a buildings averaging 18 stories sprouted along the waterfront. Agree or disagree with the restriction, it was sealed by a city ordinance and years later included in the Downtown Master Plan.

As recently as June, a citywide poll commissioned by One Flagler opponents found that 62 percent of 300 randomly selected West Palm Beach residents “strongly opposed” changing the five-story maximum; another 9 percent “somewhat” opposed it.

Worsening traffic, mobility

Anyone who has ventured near the proposed building site — at the point where Okeechobee Boulevard meets Flagler Drive and the Royal Park Bridge at the Intracoastal Waterway — knows that traffic knots up terribly there and at nearby intersections. Mayor Jeri Muoio is so familiar with the problem that she commissioned a $579,000 mobility study this year for downtown West Palm.

But the study’s traffic projections for future growth, and its recommendations for fixes, are not yet in; they’re due later this fall. Yet such is the Muoio administration’s eagerness to approve this building that it wants the commission to act without waiting for the mobility study’s findings.

Kenneth Himmel, Related’s president and CEO, is a major figure in the remaking of downtown West Palm. He is the force behind CityPlace. He told the Post Editorial Board that he sees One Flagler as an “opportunity to build a very high-quality property … the premier office building in the whole Southeast U.S.”

Himmel said One Flagler will command top prices and cater to elite tenants — in financial services, private equity, hedge funds, wealth management and family offices — attracted by relatively small offices and sparkling water views.

We don’t doubt him.

But why, other than for the higher rents Himmel can charge, must this Class A building go on this particular site? The Downtown Master Plan already provides for a zone for tall office buildings and the commercial zest and city tax revenues they bring: the “Quadrille Business District,” where business towers can connect CityPlace with Clematis Street and take advantage of the forthcoming Brightline station.

The Master Plan has a nice logic about it: lower buildings by the water, taller ones in the heart of downtown.

Spot zoning concerns

The proposed Okeechobee Business District ostensibly permits “all parcels east of Olive Avenue” between Okeechobee and Lakeview, to rise to 25 stories. But as Planning Board member Michael Bakst said at a July meeting: “That’s really disingenuous because there is only one property” that fits all the requirements. A court may well view this as invalid “spot zoning,” plunging the city — and taxpayers — into yet another costly legal battle.

Moreover, the district includes the undeveloped “Tent Site” between Quadrille and Federal Highway on Okeechobee. The site would be “voluntarily” limited to 25-story height, though they have no such limit now. Why endorse a potential loss of value to city-owned property?

In sum, what is being proposed is an office tower for the very rich that will add to the daily traffic miseries of thousands, a project that will have been approved with blithe disregard for a master plan that took years to formulate.

One Flagler, if built, will be a great monument to its developer. Muoio will chalk it up as a major achievement. But many people in West Palm Beach will forever view the tower as an example of their government’s disdain for ordinary citizens.

A 25-story tower is wrong for the location. The city commission should say no to the land-use change that would allow it.

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