Is 25-story waterfront office back on table despite height concern?

Updated May 04, 2018
(Artist’s Rendering)

The battle lines over downtown waterfront development have re-formed.

Fresh off last year’s 3-2 defeat of the Okeechobee Business District plan, Mayor Jeri Muoio has told staff to study the rezoning effort again, to help attract desperately needed Class A office construction downtown. Two of the three city commissioners who voted against the plan are gone, raising the prospect that yeas will out-number nays this time around.

At the heart of the fight last year was The Related Cos.’ proposal to build a top-flight, 25-story tower 300 feet from the waterfront, in a zone that currently allows no building taller than five stories. Muoio’s staff proposed the new zoning district ostensibly to promote office construction generally but it was clear the only project on the table that it would immediately promote was Related’s, the city’s most prolific development firm, and that stirred opposition.

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A bloc of residents fearing blocked views and traffic logjams on Okeechobee Boulevard, Flagler Drive and the Royal Park Bridge, fought the city and the firm, despite the promise of jobs, attractive architecture and an endowment to preserve the historic, African American-designed First Church of Christ, Scientist. Town of Palm Beach officials expressed concerns over the project’s potential to impede access over the bridge.

But at a mayor-commission work session Monday, during a discussion of a consulting team’s just-completed “mobility study” of downtown traffic solutions, the mayor turned to her director of development services and urged him to try again.

The city needs to make sure it has places for people to live and work, the mayor said. It has plenty of the former, with several apartment buildings about to come on line, but not enough Class A offices, she told Development Services Director Rick Greene.

“If they can be working downtown, that cuts down the use of cars, significantly…. I would like to ask my staff to take another look at the Okeechobee Business District and see if we can work this through, including recommendations that are in the mobility study…. Let’s look at how we can bring more jobs into the city by having more Class A office space.”

Within days, the district was on the agenda once again, for the city’s Planning Board to consider. That meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m., Tuesday, May 15 at City Hall. Groups that opposed the District proposal the first time are urging members to show up in force.

It’s unknown how the revived proposal will differ from the original, and whether it will gain be drawn to include the Related site, which was roundly criticized as “spot zoning” last time. The new plan has not been made available to the public.

City Commissioner Paula Ryan, whose district includes downtown, said Friday she was open to creating an Okeechobee Business District if it was more than just a redrawing of zoning lines. The city should see it as “an innovative district” whose provisions include incentives for connectivity with surrounding neighborhoods, transportation alternatives to connect people with their offices and other destinations, and affordable housing, she said. With the right provisions, it could help transform the area into “a massively connected mixed-use corridor,” Ryan said.

CityPlace officials have not said whether they would revive their One Flagler office tower project, which they spent many months designing and trying to sell to the community, only to lose the chance when the commission voted the district down.

Gopal Rajegowda, senior vice president of The Related Cos., said recently that for the moment the company is focused on starting another downtown office tower. That 18-story tower, 360 Rosemary, is slated to rise at the corner of Rosemary Avenue and Evernia Street, possibly as soon as later this year.