Editorial: West Palm wrong to ignore traffic concerns with One Flagler

When the county, the state, your partner city and a substantial bloc of residents say you’re making a mistake, maybe you should think twice.

And when one of your own hand-picked advisers warns of potential lawsuits alleging illegal “spot zoning,” maybe even three times.

But the West Palm Beach City Commission isn’t listening. It’s pushing forward on the once-defeated Okeechobee Business District (OBD) despite a chorus of predictions of endless traffic bottlenecks at one of the city’s most important flow points.

The city says it wants to encourage office and hotel construction along Okeechobee Boulevard from CityPlace to Flagler Drive and the Royal Park Bridge, which crosses the Intracoastal Waterway into Palm Beach. West Palm Mayor Jeri Muoio maintains the plan would actually reduce what could be built in that area under current rules.

Pardon our skepticism, but it all seems designed to benefit one developer, the Related Cos., which yearns to build a gleaming 25-story office tower fronting the water, in a zone now limited to five stories.

The city is ramming this thing through even though no traffic studies have been completed – a reversal of normal procedures that defies not only common sense, but Muoio’s own, oft-stated devotion to thoughtful traffic planning.

If this seems a familiar story, that’s because we engaged in the same debate almost exactly a year ago. Last year, too, the mayor and allies were pressing to change the city’s Downtown Master Plan to carve out an Okeechobee Business District that would pierce the five-story height restriction, despite years of popular sentiment to the contrary.

Heeding the public, the city commission rejected the business-district plan last Sept. 25 with a narrow 3-2 vote. That seemed to doom the office tower, dubbed One Flagler.

But in March elections, one of the three commissioners who had voted no were defeated and another opted not to seek re-election. A month later, the mayor instructed city staff to revisit the OBD. And in August, the commission voted 6-0 to create the new district.

The OK flew in the face of strong pleas from the Florida Department of Transportation, Palm Beach County and the town of Palm Beach to wait for a state study to evaluate the zoning change’s impact on everyday traffic, hurricane evacuations and emergency vehicles.

Muoio, however, says: “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.” And the city’s development services director, Rick Greene, asserts that reports of gridlock are exaggerated, the rush-hour trip from I-95 to Flagler Drive taking just 7 1/2 minutes.

But Stacy Miller, the FDOT director of transportation development for our area, has the right idea. She wants a transportation analysis that the city, county, town, FDOT and the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency all agree upon.

The county is so unhappy that it is planning to file an objection with the Florida department that reviews master plans. County Administrator Verdenia Baker wants to be sure the changes to this key site are carried out in orderly fashion. “My concern,” she said, “is we have no idea what the impact is going to be.”

That’s not the only concern. The owners of the Esperanté Corporate Center office building, which would lose its water views if One Flagler is built, has taken legal actions against the city for allegedly approving “spot zoning,” a rewrite to benefit a single property. And they allege that officials repeatedly bent city rules to rush this approval through — for instance, not waiting 12 months before reconsidering the application for the OBD.

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Downtown West Palm is in the midst of a building boom, with $2 billion to $2.5 billion worth of new residences, hotels, restaurants, and expansions of the Kravis Center and Norton Museum in the works. It’s dazzling. But the vitality of the emerging downtown will be severely undermined if the eastern end of Okeechobee Boulevard becomes a choke point that drivers despise.

We don’t contest the need for more Class A office space in this downtown mix. But there’s a proper place for that. Arguably, along Quadrille Boulevard in the heart of downtown, instead of at the foot of an indispensable bridge into, and out of, Palm Beach.

West Palm officials can still head off what looks increasingly like a mistake. If only they’d listen.

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