Voters said ‘no’ to waterfront towers, so why is one in the works?


West Palm Beach weighs change that would allow office tower in 5-story zone near waterfront

Despite a voter-approved ban on building skyscrapers on West Palm’s downtown waterfront, the city is pressing forward with a plan that would allow one developer — Related Cos. of New York — to do just that.

Related in April submitted an application to create an Okeechobee Business District that would allow the CityPlace developer to build a 25-story office tower 300 feet from the waterfront. The city, pressed by a citizens’ group last week about how a developer could create a district that governs other people’s property, said it planned to return the application and initiate the change itself.

The move puts the city in the position of reworking its state-mandated long-term growth plan, known as a comprehensive plan, to suit a developer, using the developer’s application as a guideline, to advance a city goal of adding much-needed office space.

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What about the 5-story limit? A court precedent from a few years ago, stemming from city efforts to redevelop the old City Hall site, said voter referendums can’t dictate the city’s ability to set its zoning, according to Development Services Director Rick Greene.

The city commissioners would have to approve the plan for it to be enacted. Greene and his staff are working on its wording and expect to place it before the five-member board by the end of the year.

Vision is to ‘create a distinctive skyline’

Related officials, along with land use attorney Harvey Oyer III, have spent months trying to sway opponents to support their project, known as One Flagler. It would rise next to the First Church of Christ, Scientist, about 300 feet west of Flagler Drive.

They’ve boasted about hiring the One World Trade Center architect to design it, about their plan to preserve the historic church designed by a vaunted African-American architect and to help the city with solutions to downtown congestion.

The new business district that would include Related’s site is meant to serve as a center for high-paying jobs and to encourage high quality, innovative design “to create a distinctive skyline,” according to Oyer’s application. The district would add consistency and predictability to an area currently subject to “a hodgepodge of varying zoning regulations,” he wrote.

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The plan “ensures the perpetual public view of the waterfront by restricting buildings within 300 feet of the west right-of-way line of Flagler Drive,” according to the application.

“It’s nothing new that the city wants more Class A offices, whether this building or any other office tower in the city,” said West Palm’s economic development director, Christopher Roog.

On July 20 Roog will keynote a luncheon of the Florida East Coast Chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America, an event sponsored by Related.

“Our presenter will talk about Related’s project and its impact on the construction economy as well as the City of West Palm Beach,” said a flyer for the event. “It’s not an endorsement of the Related project,” Roog told The Palm Beach Post. “We want them all. We don’t have any capacity.”

What does the public think?

Nancy Pullum, who heads watchdog group Citizens for Thoughtful Growth, said the interaction between the city and developer has the public confused.

On the one hand, Related has spent months making elaborate presentations before groups of residents, the city Planning Board and Downtown Action Committee, selling the project and having Oyer craft the Okeechobee Business District plan to create a high-rise corridor from Rosemary Avenue to Flagler. On the other hand, the city, rather than acting as an independent evaluator of the proposed project, says it is initiating the plan for the district, which clearly was invented to allow Related’s tower.

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Is this the city’s plan, the mayor’s plan or Related’s plan? Pullum asks, “Who’s pushing this anyway?”

One architect of the 5-story limit, lawyer Reginald Stambaugh, said there’ll be a political price if the city ignores the people’s will.

“The waterfront was protected and has remained protected with the referendum intact,” said Stambaugh, who drafted the original language of the referendum question. “If the city representatives want to change that, then they’re up against the residents, who overwhelmingly voted to limit the heights along the waterfront.”

Height restrictions not carrying weight

Development Services Director Greene said that just because his department is drafting an Okeechobee Business District plan doesn’t mean his boss, the mayor, will endorse it or commissioners will vote for it.

And it’s not unusual for the city and a developer to work together, he said. The Related application was meant to help his staff understand what the developer wanted, so staff could take it into consideration as they draw up the city version, he said.

“We asked Related to submit the application but realized they could not get owners’ consent for all the properties within the proposed corridor, so the city thought it best for us to move forward with the application.”

Related attorney Oyer confirmed that.

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The city followed the same procedure on a number of occasions, Greene said. For example, it did so with developer Jeff Greene’s (no relation) One West Palm project, a proposal for two 30-story towers on Quadrille Boulevard, several blocks west of the waterfront, which also required a zoning change and a change to the city’s comprehensive plan for downtown.

The city incorporated some of what that developer liked and “tightened up the language,” Rick Greene said.

“It happens more times than you would think,” he said of the cooperation between the city and a developer.

That may be so but developer Jeff Greene has threatened to cancel his $250 million project if the city rewrites its height rules to allow Related’s competing tower with waterfront views he can’t match.

This is the second time in the past year that the city has moved to create a district that would allow high-rises in the 5-story area.

First the city crafted a plan to designate a Flagler Waterfront District, a north-south section of downtown where it would ease height limits to encourage top-flight office construction. Despite support for the district from the chamber of commerce, Business Development Board and Related, downtown residents flocked to public meetings to complain that 30-story towers there would block condo views, grid-lock streets and destroy the city’s small-town ambience.

“We are now ‘going back to the drawing board’ to rethink how to add this office space in the Flagler Financial District while keeping in mind our stakeholders’ feedback,” Mayor Jeri Muoio said in November after the city’s Downtown Action Committee recommended against the plan.

The latest plan, the Okeechobee district, amounts to “trying to do a work-around,” in watchdog Pullum’s view.

The two districts, the old north-south one and the new east-west one, have just one property in common: the site where Related wants to build.

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