|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.|
|“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.”
“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.
Photographs by Augustus Mayhew