Renovation work nearing on West Palm’s historic Sunset Lounge

March 02, 2018
Joann Harrison and son, Alan Button, are among those being displaced by the Sunset Lounge neighborhood project. (Tony Doris / The Palm Beach Post)

Renovations to Sunset Lounge, where Basie and Ellington once played, are moving forward as a catalyst for revitalizing the city’s Historic Northwest.

Jon Ward, executive director of the Community Redevelopment Agency, said Friday the project is on target for completion by June 2019.

While the the old music hall gets renovated, the city will add a 6,000-square-foot annex with kitchens and elevators.

The city bought the 30’s-era jazz lounge at 609 Eighth St. and six surrounding parcels in 2016 for $2.4 million.

Old apartments across the street have been cleared away, making way for a park tied to the Sunset project. Construction of the park could start within two months and should be complete at least as soon as the lounge.

The next piece of the puzzle is called Styx Alley, a strip of properties across from the park, on 7th Street, where old houses will be razed to make room for small buildings that look like traditional shotgun shack homes but which will house local businesses. They’ll help create “a little business destination,” near where the Queen of Sheeba restaurant already operates, a business itself expanded with agency help.

The concept is to polish a run-down neighborhood by focusing on its history as a center of African American culture since the city’s early decades.

A few in the neighborhood have been forced to move because of the demolitions near the Sunset. Joann Harrison, a 56-year-old woman on disability who lives with her 33-year-old son, Alan, at 614 7th St., for example, says her landlord gave them six days to move out, offering an alternate apartment on a dangerous block, which she rejected.

But Ward said the city has had more than 1,000 one-on-one meetings, public sessions and other communications with neighborhood residents to discuss the project and solicit their input, and to help relocate those displaced by the need to tear down old buildings. The agency has worked closely with neighborhood churches and other community groups, he said.

In 2016, the agency won a $171,650 Knight Cities Challenge grant based on its plan for engaging residents in the revitalization effort, Ward noted.

“We don’t evict anybody,” he said.

The city doesn’t yet own Harrison’s building, he said. When Ward learned of her complaint, he said the city would delay the purchase for 90 days to give her more time to relocate. “We have time to do this thing properly.”

Rev. Gerald Kisner, of the neighborhood’s Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, confirmed that in orchestrating the Sunset Lounge project, the agency reached out to the public. “In one of the richest counties in the country, we shouldn’t have a homeless problem,” he said, but the Sunset project hasn’t contributed to it and is giving attention to a neighborhood long neglected.

“What the CRA is trying to do in terms of refurbishing and making this part of the Northwest a nice place is something we all should be behind and be in favor of.”