West Palm Beach’s Downtown Action Committee voted resoundingly against a plan that would let office developers crash through the 5-story height cap on the city’s waterfront and go as high as 30 stories.
Dozens of residents poured into the city hall auditorium to oppose the plan, saying it would jam downtown roads, block views and kill development elsewhere downtown.
It ain’t over yet, though. The plan comes before the Planning Board for its recommendation tonight, Tuesday, and goes to the city commission for an initial vote on Nov. 7.
The plan, drafted by city development staff, aimed to preserve a handful of historic churches by letting them sell off doubled development rights attached to their properties. Developers buying the rights could apply them to sites on other properties from Datura Street to Okeechobee Boulevard, east of Olive Avenue, and build 30-story towers where current zoning only allows 5 stories. The idea is to create an incentive to build luxury office towers, which business development officials say the city sorely lacks.
City staffers said the new buildings would be taller but thinner, and in most cases would have less square footage than what’s currently allowed.
But many at the meeting, including developer Jeff Greene, who is planning two towers several blocks back from the waterfront, said the dramatic change would hurt the city’s charm and gridlock roads in the most trafficky part of the city. It would block condo views and their property values, they said.
The change also would kill voters’ desire for lower buildings close to the waterfront and harm prospects for developing areas farther back, where city incentives already have attracted two luxury office projects, including Greene’s at 550 Quadrille, which he said is just three months from laying its foundation.
A handful of speakers supported the project. “I’m not afraid of the height or the growth,” said Realtor Samantha Curry. “We need a thriving downtown, we need Class-A office space. Change is a good thing. We need to be adjusting with the times.”
But she was far outnumbered. “Do we need to change the feeling of our waterfront,” one said, “and add additional hi-rises there that will just congest it and take away from beauty of the waterfront, when we want to bring people in?”
The Downtown Action Committee voted 6-1 against the height change, with only member Brian Cheguis voting for it. Some who voted against indicated their reason was not opposition to hi-rises but that the city had not done enough to inform residents about the project or given them time to voice their opinions on it.
The board’s chairperson, Roger Janssen, was absent but submitted a letter that was read into the record, opposing the proposal.
While the board considered incentive districts and Downtown Master Plan (DMP) amendments in the past, Janssen wrote, “this request to allow 30-story structures in a 5-story district is extremely excessive and is in blatant disregard to the DMP.”
He noted that the original language of the Downtown Master Plan sought to “ensure that building construction is predictable in order to secure real estate value, that new buildings be compatible with each other and within the existing urban fabric while also relating to the pedestrian.”
“If we entertain such drastic changes…at the request of developers, we risk undermining the predictability that has been created by the DMP,” Janssen wrote. ” We will have both current property owners and potential investors question whether they want to buy, hold, or wait for the next 600 percent height limit increase.”