The Palm Beach Post

CityPlace owners want to make it a downtown

Related wants to raze old Macy’s, replace it with 375 apartments.

- By Tony Doris Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

They’re starting by asking West Palm Beach to approve a 21-story residentia­l tower on the site of the former Macy’s store.

WEST PALM BEACH — Downtown is about density, to lure companies with well-paid employees, and residents and tourists with money to spend in shops and restaurant­s — to bring it to life — but without overpopula­ting streets with cars or blocking sun and water views with walls of glass and concrete.

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.

CityPlace, working to reimagine 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 CityPlace 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 Ave.,

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.

‘Growing city’

Over the past 20 years, downtown was expected to become more packed with people and developmen­t, Rajegowda said in an interview last 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 is Rajegowda’s theory.

“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, CityPlace 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.

Question of height

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? CityPlace 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.

But it has been increasing­ly difficult for younger workers and families with household incomes of, say, $70,000, to afford living downtown, so 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. There already are plenty of apartments being built at that rate, they said.

CityPlace countered this week, offering to make 15 percent of the units workforce apartments, but with many of those at a more expensive definition of workforce.

‘Affordable’ rents

The city, though, not only wants CityPlace to make 15 percent of the units workforce apartments, but also that half should rent for no more than $1,155.

The staff also would require the units be distribute­d throughout the building, not segregated, with 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 to finance the project if too many units had to be for workforce housing. The city guidelines are “aspiration­al,” not mandatory, and no other projects in the city have been forced to adhere to them, he said.

Member Gregg Weiss proposed a tiered system, with different apartments at different price ranges, to ensure there would be some available for people at lower income levels.

Ultimately the board compromise­d, reluctant to box Related in without knowing the financial impact of a hard-and-fast requiremen­t, and left the exact numbers subject to further study and negotiatio­n.

“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, to drive more people living in that downtown location.”

Matter of style

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 on Okeechobee Boulevard from CityPlace 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, saying a traffic study should be undertaken first, to ensure that constructi­on on that corridor wouldn’t block access to the rest of the downtown or to the barrier island.

City staff did not object to CityPlace’s request that it be allowed to put offices on the ground floor of the building north of the old Macy’s, as long as the space be mostly transparen­t and for active uses. Translatio­n: They don’t want a dead spot interrupti­ng what’s supposed to be a lively sidewalk scene.

CityPlace told West Palm planners that it had been difficult to rent out that space for shops in the past and that if the bowling alley left, CityPlace would be hardpresse­d to find retailers to fill that big a space. 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 Harriet Himmel Theater, which predates CityPlace.

Thursday’s Planning Board meeting provided a glimpse of how the public will respond to all the changes: They’ll be all over the board.

Some who addressed the board insisted the Mediterran­ean look gave CityPlace its special warmth. Others said the look had become a Florida shopping center cliché and that it was time to introduce more contempora­ry facades, with a diversity of styles.

Still others looked at it pragmatica­lly, arguing that if that look was attracting people, CityPlace wouldn’t be asking to change it.

Some said Related had done enough quality developmen­t in the city to have earned the benefit of the doubt on height. Others said the height, particular­ly at that central location, would block views from existing apartments and spoil the feel of the place.

“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.”

 ?? CONTRIBUTE­D ?? An artist’s rendering of 360 Rosemary, the office tower planned by Related Cos. for a space near the Macy’s building in CityPlace, and which the developer hopes to complete by 2020.
CONTRIBUTE­D An artist’s rendering of 360 Rosemary, the office tower planned by Related Cos. for a space near the Macy’s building in CityPlace, and which the developer hopes to complete by 2020.
 ?? LANNIS WATERS / THE PALM BEACH POST ?? Murals by British artist Michael Craig-Martin cover the walls of the old Macy’s building in CityPlace late last year. The owners of the developmen­t want to raze the building and erect a 21-story tower.
LANNIS WATERS / THE PALM BEACH POST Murals by British artist Michael Craig-Martin cover the walls of the old Macy’s building in CityPlace late last year. The owners of the developmen­t want to raze the building and erect a 21-story tower.

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