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Our Town with William Kelly: Landmarks board looks to strengthen demolition reviews

The commission responsible for protecting the town’s historic landmarks is looking at ways to improve its oversight of renovation projects that involve demolition.

With the Town Council’s blessing, the Landmarks Preservation Commission discussed at its Wednesday meeting new and tougher requirements for applicants seeking town approval to demolish portions of landmarked buildings.

The commission and town zoning staff are responding to the extensive demolition of the landmarked Royal Poinciana Playhouse, which surprised and upset many commissioners, council members and residents in July.

Some landmarks commissioners have objected that the razing of some of the playhouse’s exterior walls surpassed the scope of demolition approved by the commission when it issued a certificate of appropriateness for the redevelopment project in February 2022. The commission has authority over any changes to the exterior of landmarked buildings.

The project developer, WS Development, is renovating the 65-year-old playhouse, shuttered since the last tenant pulled out in 2004, for a reopening late next year. It will be reborn as a 400-seat cultural arts center with a waterfront restaurant and additional retail and gallery space.

WS Development said soil borings, performed by geotechnical engineers at the playhouse site after the certificate of appropriateness was issued, showed the soil to be unstable and some of the walls to be cracked. Structural engineers determined that a new support structure, with more than 200 pilings, would have to be built and some of the exterior walls razed and reconstructed.

Alexandra Clark, vice president of asset strategy and experience for WS Development, informed the commission of the findings during a project update at its Nov. 16, 2022 meeting. There was no public comment and commissioners had no questions following the brief presentation.

A certain level of demolition was expected and included in the plans when the project was first approved. In fact, the Town Council approved a zoning variance allowing more than 50 percent of the playhouse to be razed as part of the redevelopment.

But some commissioners have said that, upon discovering the extent of the demolition in July, they realized that it far exceeded their understanding of what was to be done. Very little of the original 34,517-square-foot building at 70 Royal Poinciana Way still stands. The east façade has been preserved and braced until it can be attached to the new support structure. Also preserved is the theater’s celebrity room ceiling mural.

Some commissioners have said WS Development should have been more transparent in its Nov. 16 presentation, both verbally and through documentation and drawings, about the demolition expansion.

Clark and Jamie Crowley, the lawyer representing WS Development, have said the expanded scope of demolition is within the guidelines of the project’s building permit, approved by Wayne Bergman, the town’s building official and zoning director. Bergman and Town Attorney John Randolph have concurred.

Clark, Crowley and Bergman have all said the exterior walls will be reconstructed per the approved plans, at the same location and to the same elevation.

Bergman has said that, while historic preservation is important, safety must come first. He said it is his duty as building official to make sure renovated buildings will meet current state building code guidelines. Those standards are even in tougher in cases where the building will be open to the public, as the new playhouse will be.

Bergman said Wednesday the town code should be amended so it is clear when modifications to a development project require the certificate of appropriateness to be amended. He said he and Town Attorney John Randoph are drafting an ordinance to that end for council consideration.

Commission Chairwoman Sue Patterson said at the commission’s Aug. 16 meeting that the loss of most of the original playhouse presents an opportunity to improve a flawed review process and create more checks and balances going forward.

“We could spend the next 20 years playing the blame game and we still wouldn’t have a playhouse,” she said. “We need solutions.”

On Wednesday, Patterson presented a list of new oversight “checks and balances” for the commission to consider. Any amendments to the town code would also have to be approved by the council.

Her suggestions included amending the town code to include a better definition for when applicants need to return to the commission and request modifications to their certificates of appropriateness.

Her other suggestions:

  • Require the commission chairperson to approve agenda updates like the one Clark gave to the commission on Nov. 16.
  • Call for applications for demolitions above a certain percentage of the landmarked structure to include more detailed plans, in a clear format with before-and-after images of the area to be demolished and reconstructed.
  • Require demolition requests to be voted on separately instead as part of the overall construction plans.
  • Mandate closer oversight of construction work to ensure compliance with the certificate of appropriateness in cases where demolition is being performed on larger landmarked buildings.
  • Give the landmarks commission authority to hire a structural engineer, at the expense of the property owner, to evaluate the opinion of the property owner’s structural engineer, whenever the commission deems necessary.

Alternate Commissioner Alex Ives was among those who cautioned against adding too many layers of bureaucracy to application reviews.

“We want to be welcoming to an applicant who is trying to be a steward of a property,” he said.

Ives said the commission should allow landmarked properties to evolve. One such example is the playhouse itself; Ives noted that the commission embraced WS Development’s plan to add windows to the reconstructed playhouse’s west façade to take advantage of lakefront views.

Commissioner Alex Griswold called Patterson’s suggestions “great,” and said the need for clearer plans is understandable considering the shock in the community over the extent of demolition at the playhouse, North Fire Station, and other buildings.

But he warned that property owners could become less willing to restore historic buildings if they believe they may have to temporarily shut down construction while repeatedly returning to the commission for updated approvals.

Historic buildings always present surprises after renovation work begins and the walls are opened, he said.

“I do have major concerns about red tape,” Griswold said. “Anytime something shocking happens you can swing too far the other way and then you have a separate set of unintended consequences.”

Councilman Ted Cooney, who is a former chairman of the landmarks commission, said he shares the concerns about “overburdening the review process or slowing it down.”

But he, too, has said the extent of the demolition at the playhouse was surprising and makes it clear that closer oversight is needed.

“It’s a tough balance to strike,” Cooney said.

Cultural arts center

INNOVATE, a publicly held company chaired by Palm Beach resident Avram “Avie” Glazer, will operate the programming for The INNOVATE cultural arts center at the playhouse.

Glazer has said the center will be a world-class, multi-purpose cultural and performing arts space that will be a major asset to Palm Beach.

“The playhouse has languished vacant for far too long and we are very excited to be able to be part of its rebirth,” Glazer told the Palm Beach Civic Association in January 2022.

Glazer’s wife is Jill Glazer, who is a Civic Association director.

At its Sept. 13 meeting, the Town Council heard from Cheryl Mendelson, the recently appointed executive director of the cultural arts center that will operate at the playhouse.

Mendelson said she is thrilled to bring her 23 years of experience with the arts into her new role and to help the Glazers realize their vision.

Mendelson said she has spent the last three months on a “listening tour,” gathering the perspectives of arts and civic leaders and residents.

“Throughout these conversations, one consistent message has become very clear,” she said. “Now is the time to reimagine the poinciana playhouse into a world-class cultural center and new symbol of pride for Palm Beach, where community and culture will converge.”

Dave Lawrence, president and CEO of the Cultural Council for Palm Beach County, said a cultural needs assessment last year showed there is a great need in the area for space where artists can rehearse and perform.

“This beautiful gift the Glazers are providing to the community is going to provide just that,” he said. “It is perfectly positioned in the beautiful town of Palm Beach, and it is something that is needed now.”

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