A town board has deferred its review of a property owner’s proposal to renovate the historic Paramount Building and build an adjacent three-story residential development with two underground parking levels on the 1.3-acre site.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission requested at its April 19 meeting that owner Lester Woerner return at its May 17 meeting with a scaled-back design.
Commissioners welcomed Woerner’s plan to renovate the 96-year-old Paramount Building, one of the most prized architectural treasures on the island. The building, which stands at 139 N. County Rd., was landmarked by the town in 1982.
Commissioners and residents said, however, that the residential development would be out of scale with the historic building.
“There are so many things that need buttoning up, I don’t think we are ready to move forward at the moment,” Commission Chairwoman Sue Patterson told Woerner. “I think there is a lot of work to be done. I think you hear that the new building needs to come down in scale and be reworked.”
The three-story residential development would consist of four houses, totaling 31,170 square feet and built over a partially below-grade motor court and a “raised garden level.” It would be constructed on the south side of the Paramount Building where there is now a 46-space parking lot at the corner of North County Road and Sunset Avenue.
The new subterranean parking lot would have 127 spaces.
The Woerner family of Palm Beach bought the Paramount Building from the Paramount Church for $14 million in 2021. The building originally contained the celebrated Paramount Theater, which was renovated into office and retail space after the cinema closed in 1980. (The Palm Beach Civic Association and Palm Beach Police and Fire Foundation are among the tenants located on the Paramount Building’s second floor).
Lester Woerner and his son, Trent Woerner, operating as WEG Paramount LLC, are seeking town approval to modernize the 35,992-square-foot Paramount Building.
The focal point of the renovated building would be a new “public event space” in a portion of the old auditorium area with a maximum occupancy of 250 people. The auditorium area is 2.5 stories tall, according to the town’s landmark designation report.
A 250-member private club would have 72 interior seats and 34 outdoor seats on the first floor, and a private lounge on the second floor with 51 additional indoor seats and 64 more outdoor seats, according to the plans.
Surrounding the existing courtyard would be a new 40-seat public restaurant serving breakfast and lunch. New retail space would face North County Road.
The Paramount’s landmark status protects it from demolition or any exterior alterations unless they are approved by the landmarks commission.
Besides the design review from the landmarks board, the project would require zoning approval from the Town Council. The application, which has not yet been reviewed by the council, includes a site plan review with special exception requests for the private club and the restaurant, square footage, outdoor seating for the restaurant and private club, and shared parking.
Special exception uses are those which are not normally permitted within the applicable zoning district, but which are eligible for town approval provided the applicant meets certain conditions specified in the zoning code.
Woerner is also requesting 20 zoning variances to exceed maximum limits for building height and lot coverage, building length and floor area, setbacks and a two-story building limit within the zoning district.
Woerner is applying for a historic preservation tax abatement for the renovation of the interior space in the Paramount Building, according to his application. Plans call for “substantial interior demolitions and improvements” and alterations to primary and secondary street facing facades.
The landmarks board has review authority over interior renovations to a landmarked building whenever there is a tax abatement application. The commission also makes recommendations to the council regarding the architectural impacts of the requested variances.
At the April 19 meeting, Lester Woerner told the commissioners that he’s assembled a team of experts, including Stantec Architecture and attorney James Crowley of the Gunster law firm, to create a quality project for the town. He said the team will work with the neighbors to resolve their concerns about noise, traffic congestion and any other matters.
“We have worked diligently to come up with a project that is feasible … and to restore the property before it becomes any more of a liability to the town,” he said. “We want to, once and for all, bring this iconic property back.”
Woerner and his team repeatedly heard comments that the residential development would diminish the appearance of the historic theater building.
“Some of the chimneys on the [four new] houses [would be] as high as the dome on the Paramount Theater,” said Jane Day, who was the town’s landmarks consultant for 21 years. “New additions should be subordinate to the size and design of the historic building.”
Aimee Sunny, director of education for the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach, said the organization supports the renovation of the Paramount building but is concerned about the scale and massing of the four homes that would be adjacent.
“It is imperative that the new elements respect and enhance the landmark,” Sunny said.
Resident Anne Pepper called the project a “classic example of redevelopment that is over-scaled. It is detrimental to the residential way of life. It distracts from the Paramount … the walkways need to be wider and the buildings smaller to capture the human scale.”
Commissioner Anne Fairfax said she doesn’t mind the number of residences that are proposed but “they are too big. They don’t fit into our model of what we are used to seeing in Palm Beach.”
There’s an outcry in Palm Beach against intensification of uses, Fairfax said. “Everybody is upset about the traffic.”
Woerner said he has hired the engineering firm Kimley Horn & Associates as traffic engineer for the project.
Some residents called on the landmarks board not to review the plan until after it has been considered by the council.
“It can’t be legally built as proposed,” said resident Anita Seltzer, referring to the 20 variance requests. “They are putting the proverbial cart before the horse. I respectfully ask you to send it to the council so you can concentrate on only the merits of the architecture when the council sends it back to you.”
Attorney Harvey Oyer, representing neighbors of the Paramount Building, and attorney John Eubanks, representing the Palm Beach Biltmore residential building, both said the council should hear the project first. They contended that the proposed new development is so inextricably tied to the renovation of the historic building that it would be hard for the landmarks board to separate the two and focus only on the architecture of the landmarked structure.
“How do you pull these things apart?” Eubanks said. “If the variances aren’t granted, the [project] won’t happen.”
But James Murphy, assistant director of the Planning, Zoning and Building Department, advised the landmarks board to move forward and review the project in its entirety.
“Your purview is to look at the new construction and how that impacts the overall design,” Murphy told the commission. “… This should be taken seriously and [you should] give the applicant some direction, rather than just referring it to the Town Council.”
Landmarks commissioners applauded Woerner and his team for his plan to restore the old theater building.
“This is a difficult building to rehabilitate,” Fairfax said. “Taking this on is a monumental task. Hats off to all of you.”
Commissioner Jacqueline Albarran called it a “wonderful project.” She said she liked the appearance of the proposed exterior renovation of the historic building, which would have awnings and be landscaped with date palms and bougainvillea.
The Paramount Building was designed in the Mediterranean Revival style, with its extensive courtyard patio and rooftop decks, in 1926 by Austrian Architect Joseph Urban. One of the last theaters to have been designed especially for silent films, the theater opened on Jan. 9, 1927.
It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Urban also created the scenery for Florence Ziegfeld’s stage productions in New York and later Hollywood film sets. In Palm Beach, he designed the original Bath & Tennis Club and contributed to the design of Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Mar-a-Lago.
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