Will third try be charm for art movies, apartments at Carefree site?

Updated Aug 24, 2018
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Carefree Theatre redevelopment. Aerial view.

Nearly three years since prominent New York developer and part-time Palm Beach resident Charles Cohen bought the West Palm Beach property where the Carefree Theater once stood on South Dixie Highway, the land sits bare.

Two go-rounds with city officials and citizen opponents lie in the dust, including one effort by Cohen to build an art theater/movie house/apartment/restaurant venue bigger than zoning allows next to the residential neighborhood the site backs, and one Okeechobee Business District-like effort to change zoning citywide to let him to build something smaller but big enough to make financial sense.

But here comes round three, as Cohen’s cohorts are scheduled back before the city commission Monday, asking the board to tweak rules to make it worth his while to try again, even if for something smaller still.

Neither Cohen nor his land use consultant, Jon Schmidt, could be reached for comment and Cohen’s West Palm attorney, Greg Young, declined to address the issue before Monday’s initial vote on the zoning and land use changes.

Developer Charles Cohen 

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The property, four parcels at 2000 to 2100 S. Dixie Highway, is well known to West Palm residents as the site where the Carefree Theatre operated from the 1930s to 2005. Cohen demolished the vacant structure shortly after he bought the three northernmost parcels for $3 million in September 2015. He bought the adjacent site, between Barcelona and Cordova roads, in February 2016, for just under $3.2 million. The parcels total about 2 acres.

Though Cohen Brothers Realty is known for developing attractive buildings, and the West Palm project fit both the Mediterranean aesthetic of the neighborhood and the mixed-use approach city officials encourage for South Dixie, residents of historic El Cid and other surrounding single-family areas feared patrons would clog local streets while its buildings, as high as 96 feet in their first incarnation, would cast shadows and invade the privacy of their yards.

What is proposed Monday is to change the zoning and land use designations on two of the four parcels to make it consistent, as the site has multiple designations, making it difficult to build one, unified mixed-use project.

Cohen hasn’t filed a plan or released renderings of his proposals. However the details work out, the project will have to be smaller this time, to fit within the proposed designations, said Linda Louie, a planner for the city.

In technical terms for describing the density of a project, the original proposal had a floor-area ratio of roughly 2.3. Under the requested zoning, the limit will be 1.5. That allows a maximum of about 32 apartments per acre. But again, the developer hasn’t presented any plans, so how many apartments, theaters or whatever will be proposed is unknown.

Still, the president of the El Cid Neighborhood Association, Steve Simpson, sounded hopeful.

The vacant lot once hosted the popular Carefree Theatre, shown here in 1987.  Photo: Shaun Stanley / The Palm Beach Post

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“We think this is what they should have done three years ago,” said Simpson — clean up the zoning within the site and propose a project that fits it, rather than shoot for the moon and seek approvals for a project twice as big as the rules allow. “Don’t ask for waivers or variances,” added Simpson, a Realtor.

“The El Cid neighborhood wants to see the site developed,” he said. “We are pro-Dixie Highway development and anxious to see the vacant lots and blighted properties turn around. But you can’t expect us to sit back and be quiet while some developer wants to do something almost two times as big as the zoning would allow.”

Any development on that site, however, is a concern for residents.

One is that any project take into account the “road diet” the city is considering, a plan to reduce the number of travel lanes on South Dixie High to slow cars and provide more room for bike lanes, turn lanes and wider, landscaped sidewalks and medians. Traffic slows substantially when there’s an accident on I-95 and people use Dixie as an alternative. Imagine what might happen with a busy theater on that corner, especially if Dixie is narrowed, in Simpson’s view.

Others question whether Cohen’s desire for an art theater will saddle the city with an empty building in 10 years. West Palm quiets down during the off season and even during busy season it’s not a bustling New York or Paris with big crowds lining up to see independent or foreign films, Simpson said. CityPlace’s cinema even has a hard time filling seats for Superman or Batman, he said.

He recommended devoting less space to theaters at the Carefree site, or putting them in the tent site property on Okeechobee Boulevard instead. Cohen is also in negotiations with West Palm over what he might develop on that city-owned site at the gateway to downtown.

Follow Tony Doris on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TonyDorisPBP