Palm Beach never sleeps – not even during the summers while seasonal residents are away.
This year’s off-season was especially eventful, Town Council President Margaret Zeidman told a Palm Beach Civic Association audience on Tuesday.
More than 150 people gathered for the Civic Association’s “Welcome Back Community Forum” at the Mandel Recreation Center. Zeidman and Sean S. Suder, lead principal and founder of ZoneCo, the town’s zoning consultant, were the two speakers.
Zeidman touched on major developments of the past few months, including:
- The council’s adoption of a new budget that cut the property tax rate while putting more police officers on town streets.
- A new town parking management plan that enables residents to buy a decal instead of paying for parking spaces with the ParkMobile app.
- A costly rebuild of the historic North Fire station that has spiraled beyond early budgetary expectations, and
- The near-total demolition of the landmarked Royal Poinciana Playhouse that caught many residents by surprise in July.
In September, the council adopted a nearly $105 million budget for 2023-24 that is 7.5 percent larger than the previous year’s $97 million spending plan, Zeidman said. The new spending plan took effect Oct. 1.
The budget included a 9 percent across-the-board pay increase for employees that was tied to the inflation rate in South Florida. The increase was divided into a 2 percent raise and a 7 percent lump sum payment to reduce the impact on the town’s pension program.
Taxable property values on the island increased by 13 percent to an island-wide total of $29 billion. That enabled the council to trim the property tax rate to $2.61 per $1,000 of taxable value – 3 percent less than the previous rate of $2.69 per $1,000 – and still collect $6.1 million more in revenue.
This is the sixth consecutive year that the council has cut the tax rate, Zeidman said.
The additional revenue is funding four new police officer positions, with authorization to hire additional officers if needed.
“We heard from a lot of you about public safety” concerns, Zeidman said. “The world is different. It’s much more polarized.”
There are currently 68 sworn police officers in town, down from a high of 82 in 2005, Zeidman said.
She said the town’s goal is to have 75 police officers and add more than that if needed.
North Fire Station
The council learned during the summer that the cost of renovating the landmarked North Fire Station rocketed upward from $11 million to $17 million, Zeidman said.
Town officials have said the contractor did not realize the extent of deterioration until they began demolishing the interior of the fire station, which is nearly a century old. Large portions of the building, including the roof, could not be salvaged.
The town has also blamed soaring construction prices for the cost increase, which has mushroomed from an original budget of $6 million.
“We did not realize just how bad that station was – there was mold, and it was structurally unsound,” Zeidman said. “There were pilings of books [discovered within the interior walls] just to hold up the ceiling.”
Zeidman said the town is drawing on reserves to pay for the renovation, which began in 2022 and is scheduled for completion next year.
Royal Poinciana Playhouse
The extensive interior and exterior demolition of the landmarked playhouse sent a shockwave through the town in July, when residents crossing the Flagler Memorial Bridge noticed only a few exterior walls standing at the high-profile site.
“This created a lot of problems during the summer because it was a shock to everyone,” Zeidman said.
The demolition phase is part of the reconstruction of the playhouse, which is scheduled to reopen late next year with a new cultural arts center and waterfront restaurant. The INNOVATE, Palm Beach will handle programming for the 400-seat cultural arts center.
Designed by John Volk in the Regency style, the playhouse opened in 1958 and was a major cultural and social hub in the town for decades. But it has been shuttered since 2004, following the departure of its last tenant, Clear Channel Communications.
Zeidman said the extensive demolition was necessary after two geotechnical engineering companies found that the original foundation of the playhouse could not support Florida Building Code rules for public building of its class. The exterior walls, floors and ceilings had to be removed to make way for a new foundation supported by more than 200 pilings.
The Town Council, Landmarks Preservation Commission and town staff have responded by strengthening the town’s landmarks ordinance to improve the protection of historic landmarks whenever demolition is involved, Zeidman said.
“Having gone through this process, we are in better shape than we have been,” Zeidman said.
Zeidman’s presentation included two images of the playhouse – one a stark photograph of the mostly demolished building in July, and the other an artistic rendering of the playhouse as it will appear when reconstruction is complete. The new building will still have the original east façade and contain the historic celebrity room mural.
“Don’t lose hope,” said Zeidman, referring to the rendering. “That’s the playhouse of the future.”
Inflation has driven the estimated total cost of the townwide utility burial to $132 million, but it could go as high as $150 million, Zeidman said.
A 2019 estimate placed the cost at $120 million.
Zeidman said the town is going to cover the overrun with surpluses from the Town Marina, which has thrived since reopening a year ago following a complete modernization.
“The marina is going to fund this,” Zeidman told the audience. “The marina is going gangbusters. You’re not going to get a bill.”
Palm Beach is considering two sources of potable water after its water supply contract with the City of West Palm Beach expires in 2029. One option is to continue to buy water from West Palm Beach; the other is to buy water from the City of Lake Worth Beach.
In either case, Town Council members have said the town’s future water supply must be treated with membrane technology – a state-of-the-art process for removing contaminants.
West Palm Beach relies on surface water and does not have membrane technology at its water treatment plant on Banyan Boulevard.
Lake Worth Beach draws its water from two sources – the shallow or surficial aquifer, and the deep Floridan aquifer. Its water treatment plant cleanses the water through reverse osmosis, which is a high-pressure membrane system. But the plant’s membrane capacity would have to be expanded to accommodate Palm Beach customers.
Zeidman said the town has hired Phillip C. Gildan, an attorney with the Greenberg Traurig law firm who specializes in utilities, to help it “create a water authority where we have a seat at the table. We are two years into this process.”
At the town’s request, the U.S. Coast Guard has agreed to temporarily reduce the number of rush-hour drawbridge openings on the Flagler Memorial Bridge, so drivers have an easier time getting on and off the island, Zeidman said.
The openings have been reduced to one per hour, instead of twice an hour, on weekdays from 7:30 a.m. until 9 a.m. and from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m.
“We have asked them to extend this to the Royal Park Bridge and the Southern Boulevard Bridge,” Zeidman said. “They are looking into that.”
Looking ahead, Zeidman said the council will be faced with development applications for 11 commercial projects during the next two to four years. The sites include the Palm Beach Synagogue, Wells Fargo bank site, and the landmarked Paramount Theater building (home of the Palm Beach Civic Association offices), to name a few.
For the council, it’s a balancing act that includes honoring the rights of the property owners, following the law and protecting the community.
“It’s important to understand what can and cannot [legally] be done, and also the council must think about traffic congestion in the town,” she said.
Michael Pucillo, chairman and chief executive officer of the Civic Association, thanked Zeidman for her “candid and unvarnished” presentation.
The forum was sponsored by Northern Trust, represented by Chris Storkerson, a vice president and senior wealth strategist at the bank. Storkerson is a Palm Beach Civic Association director.
(The Palm Beach Civic Association will produce a second Our Town article focusing on Sean Suder’s zoning presentation at Tuesday’s forum.)