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Four Arts_Site Plan_Future

Our Town by William Kelly: Four Arts seeks zoning change for ‘transformative’ renovation

The Society of the Four Arts is preparing for a major renovation that it says will allow for better exhibitions and performances and a new and larger space for its Children’s Library.

The plan calls for an upgrade and expansion of the Rovensky Administrative and O’Keeffe Gallery buildings on the west side of the Four Arts’ 10-acre campus.

The O’Keeffe building is home to exhibition galleries and the 700-seat Gubelmann Auditorium, where most of the Four Arts’ concerts, films, performances and speaking engagements are staged.

The Rovensky building contains the Children’s Library, which would be relocated onto the first floor of an addition to be built where there is now a staff parking lot adjacent to the building’s north façade.

The Four Arts’ board of trustees plans to fund the project, estimated at between $120 million and $150 million, through donations from the trustees and members of the non-profit organization, Harvey Oyer, an attorney representing the Four Arts, told the Town Council in January.

The Four Arts has hired the architectural firms Beyer Blinder Belle of New York City and Spina O’Rourke of West Palm Beach and has invested two years and millions of dollars on the design, Oyer said.

“It’s going to be transformative,” Nathaniel Rogers, a project designer with Beyer Blinder Belle, said during a recent tour of the Four Arts campus. “The priority is to celebrate and enhance the character and qualities that make this campus so wonderful.”

The Rovensky and O’Keeffe buildings were designed by architect Addison Mizner in the 1920s and modified by architect John Volk in the 1940s. The Four Arts, which was founded in 1936, purchased the O’Keeffe building in the 1940s and the Rovensky building in the 1990s.

“These buildings have been adapted over the years but have never really suited the Four Arts’ purposes, so that’s where our work is focused,” Rogers said.

Town approvals required

The project must, however, clear several regulatory hurdles before construction could begin. It requires approval from the Town Council and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has authority over exterior changes to the Rovensky and O’Keeffe buildings because they are town landmarks.

The Four Arts is also requesting a zoning change from the town that Oyer has said is necessary for it to obtain approval for the project. The Four Arts is located within a single-family residential district. It is asking the Town Council to establish a new zoning district specifically for cultural institutions that would include the Four Arts, Flagler Museum, and possibly other cultural organizations.

On March 5, the Planning and Zoning Commission voted unanimously to recommend council approval of the zoning change after hearing residents, including neighbors of the Four Arts, speak in favor in favor of it.

The Palm Beach Civic Association, Citizens’ Association of Palm Beach, Garden Club of Palm Beach, Flagler Museum and Palm Beach Day Academy have all endorsed the zoning change.

The matter is on the agenda for council consideration at its meeting on Wednesday, which starts at 9:30 a.m. at Town Hall. The new district would have to be approved as an ordinance, requiring two council votes. An amendment to the town’s comprehensive land-use plan would also be necessary.

Rovensky renovation

The proposed addition to the Rovensky building would be two full floors with a partial third floor, Rogers said. The new Children’s Library on the first floor would be about 50 percent larger than the existing one and would have a dedicated entrance facing the Palm Mall.

The Children’s Library is currently on the Rovensky’s second floor. The first-floor location will improve the library’s visibility and will be more secure for young library users, Rogers said.

“The expansion and relocation of the Children’s Library is going to create a much better facility for children’s programming and access to literature,” Rogers said.

The second floor of the addition would be dedicated to offices. Plans call for a boardroom with an outdoor terrace on the partial third floor.

“We want to design something that’s compatible but not identical,” Rogers said. “There’s an idea here that this site has evolved for about 100 years, and we want to be the next chapter in that book.”

Beyer Blinder Belle is also replanning the layout of all three floors in the existing Rovensky building, he said. The new Children’s Library would extend back into the first floor of the existing building. The entry lobby and administrative space would occupy the remainder of that floor.

Both the Rovensky and the O’Keeffe buildings would be brought up to modern life safety and ADA compliance standards.

Under the plan, the footprint of the Rovensky building would increase by about 5,000 square feet to a total of around 12,000 square feet, Rogers said.

O’Keeffe renovation

The O’Keeffe renovation and expansion would improve the overall patron experience, create new backstage space to allow for a wider variety and higher caliber of performances, increase the quality of art displays and allow for a broader range of high-quality exhibitions, Rogers said.

The exhibition galleries would be redesigned to be about 20 percent larger with improved circulation and lighting and a new HVAC system.

“It’s long overdue for an overhaul,” Rogers said. “We’re not currently able to provide climate and environmental conditions that are appropriate for art, and that limits the kind of art that we can borrow from other institutions.”

Above the drop ceiling in the gallery space is an original Addison Mizner-designed pecky cypress ceiling. “One of our goals is to be able to expose that again and restore it,” he said.

In the Gubelmann Auditorium, plans call for improving the acoustics and changing the rake of the seating to create better sight lines, Rogers said. A new crossing aisle would connect the auditorium’s three seating areas, and sound vestibules would be created at the two main entrances to create a buffer from the lobby. The tradeoff would result in a net loss of about 50 audience seats.

Since the auditorium was constructed in 1947, Rogers said, it has undergone a series of mostly cosmetic changes, none of which addressed its undersized stage and essentially nonexistent backstage. The new design would finally correct that fundamental problem.

An addition on the west side of the building would provide an expansive backstage area that would include a green room, dressing rooms, storage space, and a loading dock.

The new facilities will represent a dramatic improvement and enable the Four Arts to attract the best performing artists, Rogers said.

“The [existing] backstage is woefully inadequate and in need of a major overhaul,” he said.

Circulation would be improved in the building lobby, which is often congested before and after performances. The built-in ticketing desks and other furniture would be moved into a new box office space immediately east of the lobby entrance.

Plans call for upgrading mechanical equipment and infrastructure on the building’s second floor to provide a modern ventilation and air-conditioning system and additional space for storage, treatment, and handling of art works.

“It’s all back-of-house space today and will remain so in the renovation,” Rogers said of the second floor. “The purpose of expanding there is to support what is happening on the ground level in the public-facing spaces.”

On the building’s north facade, a portico was designed by Volk and built in the 1940s to emphasize what had become the new main entrance facing the parking lot and Palm Mall.

Under the new design, open-air colonnades would flank the portico to emphasize the north façade’s function as the building’s front.

“We are extending the logic and the language of what was placed here by John Volk, and creating outdoor space that will be useful during inclement weather,” Rogers said.

Under the plan, the footprint of the O’Keeffe, currently about 20,000 square feet, would expand by 50 percent to nearly 31,000 square feet.

Zoning change

The Society of the Four Arts was placed in a single-family residential zoning district by the town more than 40 years ago. Palm Beach does not have a zoning district dedicated to cultural institutions.

The new district would have guidelines that are appropriate to the characteristics and needs of cultural institutions, Oyer told the council in January.

To accomplish that, Oyer, who is with the law firm Shutts & Bowen, has submitted proposed amendments to the town’s comprehensive land-use plan and its zoning code for the council to consider adopting into law.

The Four Arts has asked town officials for a cultural-institution zoning redesignation since at least the 1990s, Oyer said. But, until now, it has never brought the initiative forward as a formal request before the council. Oyer said town officials have been sympathetic to the concept over the years, but the discussions never led to a zoning redesignation.

Without the zoning change, the Four Arts could accomplish only a portion of the project it is proposing, and even that would require “a whole bunch of variances,” Oyer told the council.

Oyer said he is focusing on the Four Arts and Flagler for inclusion in a new cultural institution district because both of those are in the same single-family residential zoning district.

“We need to finally create a zoning district that is appropriate for those two institutions and perhaps others,” Oyer said. “It’s high time we stop subjecting them to needless unnecessary variances every time we make changes at these campuses because, inexplicably, and not because we requested it, we were lumped into an inappropriate zoning district over 40 years ago.”

In exchange for the new zoning designation, the Four Arts will voluntarily give up its existing right to build more than 30 homes, Oyer said.

“The only thing we would be able to do are cultural uses, storage facilities that support them, and limited residential units that support the cultural institutions, including the groundskeeper or visiting artist or lecturer,” Oyer said.

Some town officials said at the January council meeting they would prefer to consider the Four Arts’ requested zoning change after the town completes a review of its zoning code and an update of its comprehensive land-use plan. The review began in 2022 but isn’t expected to be completed before late this year or sometime next year, according to Zoning Director Wayne Bergman.

At the January council meeting, Councilwoman Julie Araskog said she couldn’t support any zoning changes until after the town’s zoning review and comprehensive plan update has been completed.

“I have a real problem with changing anything within our comprehensive plan or zoning code until we have finalized it,” she said. “It’s putting the cart before the horse.”

Bergman said town staff, and the town’s zoning consultant, Sean S. Suder, support the concept of a new zoning district that would include cultural institutions but might also include other civic buildings. But he agreed that the Four Arts should wait for the town to finish its zoning code review.

Oyer said the Four Arts has waited long enough and that it’s important for it to move forward while it has a board of trustees willing to fund the expensive renovation.

“We have been patient and patient and patient, and we want to fix this, and right now we have a board that is willing to reach into their own pocket and spend between $120 million and $150 million of their own money,” he said.

Civic Association support

The Palm Beach Civic Association’s Executive Committee recently reviewed the Four Arts renovation. In a February 22 letter to Mayor Danielle Moore and the council, Michael Pucillo, chairman and CEO of the Palm Beach Civic Association, expressed the Executive Committee’s support for the renovation plans and for the zoning change.

Pucillo noted that the Four Arts has served as an important cultural center in Palm Beach for many decades. He wrote that the renovations would allow it to better serve the community in the future.

“The [O’Keeffe] building is clearly in need of updating and the proposed renovation will, in our view, significantly enhance the user experience,” Pucillo wrote. “Similarly, the proposed changes to the Rovensky building, particularly to the Children’s Library, will significantly benefit our community, particularly for families with young children.”

Pucillo wrote that residential zoning does not seem appropriate for a 10-acre parcel that has no residences and that is only a community-serving cultural institution. The residential designation leads to multiple zoning variances that could seriously impair the renovation project.

“In our view, that cumbersome variance process, and the potential for delay it carries with it, will not serve the community’s best interests,” Pucillo wrote. “Accordingly, we support the concept of [a] civic/cultural zoning district for the Four Arts property.”


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