Downtown City Place is about density, to lure companies with well-paid employees. Also residents and tourists with money to spend in shops and restaurants to bring it to life.
And now in mid-sized but fast-growing West Palm Beach, a city with more than $2 billion in construction or planned, a proposal to rework the downtown’s most prominent commercial development is stirring debate over how best to achieve that balance.
City Place, working to re-imagine its 20-year-old shopping village amid a challenging retail environment, has proposed a 21-story residential tower on the site that five-story Macy’s left empty last year. The idea is to put more live bodies on the streets.
City planners, though, say the developer wants too much height and density for a site restricted to five stories. The developers could make a case for the height, the planners say, but to be allowed that, they should give the city what it desperately needs in return: apartments that downtown workers who aren’t rich can afford to rent.
Owner City Place Retail, LLC, an arm of The Related Cos., has not submitted drawings for the project but is taking a preliminary step: asking West Palm Beach to change development rules that govern the district. The move is part of Related’s effort to evolve CityPlace from a development seen largely as a retail venue into “an exciting urban neighborhood,” as Related Senior Vice President Gopal Rajegowda put it, with more apartments and offices, plaza-like, landscaped streets and artistic and entertainment features.
Related also wants the city to allow ground-floor offices in the building just north of the old Macy’s, at 477 S. Rosemary Avenue, which houses the Revolutions bowling center. And they want the city to formally end the requirement for Mediterranean architecture, something the city commission already said in a recent work session that it would do.
On Thursday night the city Planning Board, an advisory body, recommended the city commission approve the changes but got stuck on the question of just how many workforce units to require, and how low the rents on those units should be. The commission will weigh the matter in coming weeks.
‘The story of a growing city’
Over the past 20 years, downtown was expected to become more packed with people and development, Rajegowda said in an interview this week. Recession rained on that parade but finally the city is poised for growth, he said. “Bringing more residents and office workers to the city is only going to make the center of the district more exciting and viable …”
It’s also a big selling point to prospective retail tenants needed to refill vacant storefronts, to be able to show them there’ll be more potential customers in close proximity, he said. A rising tide of density floats all boats.
“It’s not only us at CityPlace but it’s the whole downtown,” he said. “It’s the story of a growing city.”
Macy’s, in a nationwide contraction, closed the West Palm Beach store in January 2017. Public records indicate Related paid $7 million to buy out Macy’s lease and regain control of the site last June and converted the 186,000-square-foot building into an art exhibition space called Culture Lab. Starting in November, for several months, part of the ground floor will host Downton Abbey: the Exhibition, based on the British TV series.
After that, City Place proposes to demolish the structure and redevelop the property with 375 apartments above shops and offices.
West Palm staff, in a report to the city Planning Board, said it encourages residential construction downtown and that the area can handle additional apartments. But staff questioned the height CityPlace requested, adding that the building should include more workforce housing. The more affordable units, the more height CityPlace could be allowed, West Palm Principal Planner Eric Schneider said.
Height, as usual, is an issue in West Palm
Height remains a touchy question in West Palm Beach, whose skyline is much lower than Miami’s or Fort Lauderdale’s and whose attraction for many is that smaller scale and to downtown’s connection with its waterfront. Some downtown West Palm districts are limited by voter referendum or city ordinance to five stories. Others allow 15, 20 or even 30 stories, depending on incentives the city approved to encourage offices, hotels or apartment towers in specific areas.
Regulations governing the core area of CityPlace, for example, don’t allow buildings of more than five stories. The broader Downtown Master Plan limits buildings between Rosemary and Tamarind avenues to 15 stories. Not far from CityPlace, though, All Aboard Florida was allowed a 25-story apartment tower next to its new Brightline train station, another building is 18 and another’s going to be 19 stories tall.
Why not us? City Place officials ask. They want 21 stories and a denser development than the rules allow.
The city planning staff determined that CityPlace could handle a 15-story apartment building on Rosemary Avenue, if the developer set it back far enough from the street and contributed other public benefits to offset the impact. It has been increasingly difficult for younger workers and families with household incomes to afford living downtown. City guidelines encourage developers to be part of the solution.
CityPlace is offering to devote 10 percent of its building to units affordable to households that earn no more than 120 percent of the area median income. That comes to $1,732 rent for a one-bedroom apartment. That’s too high, city planners said.
CityPlace countered this week, offering to make 15 percent of the units workforce apartments. With many of those at a more expensive definition of workforce.
City says ‘affordable’ rent should be $1,155/month
The city, though, not only wants City Place to make 15 percent of the units workforce apartments. Also that half should rent for no more than $1,155. The staff also would require the units be distributed throughout the building. No more than half the units on any floor being workforce units.
Planning Board Chairman Steven Mayans, though, said he was concerned that Related might not be able to get a lender. The city guidelines are “aspirational,” other projects in the city have been forced to adhere to them, he said.
“There’s always a middle ground,” Rajegowda allowed in the interview before the Planning Board meeting.
As for the apartment building’s proposed height, “we’re in a corridor of tall buildings,” he asserted. “Right next to us is Parkline,” the 25-story Brightline tower. Across from Related’s proposed building will be an already-approved office building of up to 25 stories that Related hopes to complete in the fall of 2020, called 360 Rosemary.
“We think it makes sense from a contextual standpoint and we want to get as much density as we can. We want to drive more people living in that downtown location.”
Another bit of context, however, has generated animosity toward the prospect of downtown over-development.
That’s the city’s recent creation of the Okeechobee Business District, to encourage commercial development. Okeechobee Boulevard from City Place to the Flagler Drive waterfront. The city acknowledges that it was spurred to create that zoning district by Related’s desire to start yet another project. One Flagler, a Class A office tower near the waterfront corner of Okeechobee and Flagler. The Town of Palm Beach and Palm Beach County have raised strong objections with the state over that district. They say a traffic study should be undertaken first. This will ensure that construction on that corridor wouldn’t block the rest of the downtown or to the barrier island. The city allowed a similar change, allowing ground-floor offices, for the rest of downtown earlier this year.
Likewise, the city commission on Sept. 4 told planners it would be OK to remove the 20-year-old requirement that CityPlace buildings follow a Mediterranean architectural style. The only exception will be the Himmel Theater, which predates CityPlace.
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Thursday’s Planning Board meeting provided a glimpse of how the public will respond to all the changes.
Some who addressed the board insisted the Mediterranean look gave City Place it’s special warmth. Florida shopping center cliche and that it was time to introduce more contemporary facades.
“We were all told it was five-story zoning,” one longtime resident said. “To go from five stories to 21 is obscene. If it occurs, I personally will consider filing a lawsuit. It’s spot zoning and it’s way too much height.”
Author Tony Doris