Thursday, February 19, 2009

Palm Beach Real Estate Roulette

If renowned architect Ann Beha’s master plan is approved, only the Royal Poinciana Playhouse's original decorative east elevation would remain,as an entrance feature into a waterfront garden park.
By Augustus Mayhew

As the Royal Poinciana Plaza and Playhouse's redevelopment concept plan enters a new arena after years of contentious hearings and lawsuits, Palm Beachers must wonder whether the complex is any closer to staging a comeback, however much the mid-1950's mixed-use ensemble of buildings is unlike anything else on the island, there is apparently strong support to keep the property unchanged.
The Town of Palm Beach's Landmarks Preservation Commission. L to R. Charles Roberts, Eileen Bresnan, Patrick Segraves, Gene Pandula, William Hanley, Robert Eigelberger, Hazel Rubin and D. Imogene Willis.
On Wednesday February 18th nationally-renowned architect Ann Beha and landscape architect Morgan Wheelock presented Sterling Palm Beach LLC’s master plan for the Royal Poinciana Plaza and Playhouse to the Landmarks Preservation Commission in a five-hour informal format.

This follows the Town Council’s 3-2 vote in November landmarking the playhouse and the entire 12-acre shopping plaza over the protest of Beha and the developers who only wanted to historically designate the two bookend arcade buildings At that time, the councilman and the town’s leading preservationists encouraged the developers to take their plan to the Landmarks Preservation Commission and receive their input.
Architect Ann Beha’s preservation portfolio includes Boston’s Old North Church and Symphony Hall. Her presentation met with a considerably more favorable response at the Landmarks Commission than she received at the Town Council meeting. Catherine Truman, associate architect with ABA, Ann Beha Architects.
As I arrived for Wednesday's SRO morning session, newly-elected Town Councilman William Diamond was directing Terry Alan Kramer to a seat, while an angry gentleman at the microphone was threatening to sue the Town of Palm Beach if it approved the plan. Obviously, he is unaware that threat doesn’t go far in PB.

Nonetheless, just in case the prolonged emotional battle over the fate of the shopping center and theatre became unruly an armed uniformed Palm Beach policeman stood guard at the back of the hearing chamber.
Along with an animated imagineered short of her proposed plan, Ann Beha presented a model to the LPC.
Ever since last April when Palm Beach resident, Lee Munder, and his twin sons, Adam and Ryan Munder, along with Brian Kosoy, formed Sterling Palm Beach LLC, and leased the shopping plaza and playhouse from owner Sidney Spiegel, whose previous attempts at redevelopment failed, they have found themselves at odds with formidable opponents, most vocally, The Palm Beach Theater Guild, who seek to operate the theater as it exists, and the neighboring Palm Beach Towers condominium association, who do not want condominiums blocking their water views and claim that Beha’s plan, “Put their backyard in our front yard …and their development will decrease the value of every apartment in the Palm Beach Towers.” More than 185 of The Towers' 277 residents oppose the plan and have vowed to take every legal means possible to block it.

Sterling Palm Beach LLC proposes to demolish all but the playhouse’s east façade, build a new 350-seat theater, demolish the Gucci building, Hibel building and the Slat House, enhance the existing shopping plaza, construct a four-story parking garage with “vegetative walls,” and add at least two five-story condominiums amidst a waterfront park ambience. At the November meeting, Lee Munder said he had already spent $1 million on the development plans and was ready to spend $100 million to complete the complex.
Nicole and Ryan Munder. Adam Munder.
Sterling Palm Beach managing partner, Brian Kosoy, right, with his consultants entering the hearing.
The plaza's matching buildings would be enhanced and returned to their original mid-1950's plan as designed by architect John L. Volk.
The Palm Beach Theater Guild proposes to lease and operate the 900-seat theater, shut down since 2004, for plays, opera, ballet, symphony and film events. Under the vigilant direction of Patrick Henry Flynn, the Guild’s supporters include a Committee of Stars, Christopher Plummer, Dina Merrill, Sally Ann Howes, Edward Albee, Arlene Dahl, among them.
Patrick Henry Flynn, president of the PB Theater Guild, and Brad Kenney, a Theater Guild consultant and managing director of the Ogunquit Playhouse.
John Grosskopf, general manager of the Palm Beach Towers, and Henry Goldsmith, president of the PB Towers condo association.
Gene Pandula, Landmarks Preservation Commission chairman, and Jane Day, preservation consultant for the Town of Palm Beach.
“Fantastic, we are blessed to have the Munders…”said Charles Roberts, a landmarks commission member.

Commission chairman Gene Pandula remarked on Beha’s “deep understanding” and the need to confront” the purity of preservation with the viability of the present.”

Bob Eigelberger, LPC member and former chairman, whose wife's family, the Phipps family's Bessemer Properties, built and developed Royal Poinciana Plaza and Playhouse.
“A brilliant job,” said Bob Eigelberger of Beha’s proposal.

“Earth rotates, life evolves, a brilliant plan,” said Hazel Rubin. “A win-win,” she added.

Despite all the praise, Lorrie Volk, vice-president of the John L. Volk Foundation, was greeted with some applause when she described the LPC hearing as “capricious” and that the Sterling Palm Beach LLC only sought “the development rights to sell to someone else."

After everyone was heard, “What next?”

“I don’t know where to go,” said Mr. Kosoy, inferring that he would meet with his partners and attempt to come up with a game plan to maneuver the project through an unprecedented approval maze.

"I only go to the plaza for matzo ball soup when I am sick," said Laurel Baker, director of the PB Chamber of Commerce, "Let's get this thing started," she encouraged.
Not seen taking the elevator, Sue Henderson, representing the Chamber of Commerce's directors,who favor the project, and PB Civic Association's Stan Rumbaugh.
A former commissioner in the New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services, William Diamond was recently elected to the Town Council; his free parking certificate in the front window of his black Bentley convertible must be the best perk in town.

Photographs by Augustus Mayhew

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