- Tony Doris Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
After years of puzzling over skyline heights, road congestion and downtown vitality, West Palm Beach made formal Friday its quest for “a highly experienced qualified master developer” to transform a vacant lot at the city’s Okeechobee Boulevard gateway into a signature work of architecture and urban design.
The Community Redevelopment Agency, which controls the 2.4-acre Tent Site, released the request for qualifications at 9 a.m., calling for a developer with experience with urban transportation, “well-articulated and inspirational architecture” and office and hotel development. The applicant must demonstrate an ability to pay or finance a project of more than $100 million.
The deadline for applications is Feb. 28. Once the agency determines which applicants it considers qualified, it will issue a request for specific proposals for the site.
Developer Charles Cohen, who has completed projects with famed architect Cesar Pelli, has indicated an interest in a Tent Site project. Developer Frank Navarro, about to start redevelopment of the old city hall site, said Friday he plans to look over the request and consider a project. East Coast developer Hamister Group, based in Buffalo, N.Y., also is mulling a proposal.
Because of the prominent location and project’s potential size, city officials frequently have spoken of the major impact it would have, not just on downtown aesthetics but livability. The project also likely will feature in upcoming commission and mayoral races, as an electorate deeply divided into development proponents and skeptics seeks to position candidates who reflect its conflicting views.
The request was delayed for several months while consultants completed a transportation study focused on improving ease and safety of walking, biking and driving downtown. Preliminary results found that a bus hub, trolley terminal, public parking and bike facility could be a good fit for the project’s ground level.
As a result, the city has asked applicants to highlight experience they have with projects that have transportation features blended in.
The city also faces a dire shortage of top-tier office space, which has been preventing companies from moving into the downtown. “A significant component of the eventual project should be Class A office space and experience in developing, operating and marketing upscale office products is required,” the request stated.
Hospitality experience, especially with hotels built above Class A offices, also is a key qualification, particularly because the site is two blocks from the Palm Beach County Convention Center, it said.
Twice the city entertained unsolicited proposals for the site and twice the result proved an embarrassment. In one high-profile debacle, the city gave Digital Domain Media Group approval to build a splashy building on the site to house a film school and digital animation studio and promised $35 million in subsidies. But Port St. Lucie-based Digital Domain filed for bankruptcy court protection in 2012. The city got the land back through the court.
Two years ago, amid political opposition, the city commission rejected a plan by developer Michael McCloskey to buy the site from the city for $13.5 million and build a medical campus. That plan’s rejection came after two years of development negotiations.