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Our Town by William Kelly: Town defers Paramount restoration plan amid neighbors’ opposition

A modified plan to renovate the historic Paramount Theatre building, with the addition of retail space, four homes and underground parking, stalled before the Town Council at its January 10 meeting.

The council voted unanimously to defer the project until its March 13 meeting after hearing opposition from residents who voiced concerns about the height of the proposed residences, traffic congestion and proposed uses, including a 250-seat banquet facility and 225-member private club.

Jerry Zaro, president of the neighboring Sun & Surf One Hundred Association, said its 240 homeowners are deeply concerned about the size of the project and about traffic, which he said is already gridlocked.

Zaro said the Sun & Surf residents applaud efforts to restore the historic Paramount Theatre under existing zoning rules but can’t support applicant/owner WEG Paramount’s existing plan, which would require 20 zoning variances.

“The applicant wishes to develop a project far in excess of what is permitted under your own ordinances,” Zaro told the council. “One wonders why the town even has ordinances if an applicant can simply discard and disregard those ordinances 20 separate times.”

The plan’s residential component calls for four homes, totaling nearly 26,000 square feet, to be built where there is currently a parking lot adjacent to the theatre building.

Zaro disputed the project team’s claims that the homes, which would range from two to three stories tall, would complement the historic building. “It overwhelms, diminishes and obscures the Paramount Theatre,” he said.

Theodore Babbit, whose Sunset Avenue townhouse is adjacent to the Paramount property, said he’s concerned about the scale of the project and the duration of the construction, which the project team has said would take between three years to complete.

“If this is allowed to go forward, I’ll be a prisoner in my own house,” Babbit said. “I’ll never be able to get out during lunch time, when people are leaving the club.”

Babbit said he’s concerned about pedestrian safety on Sunset Avenue, which is a popular walking route to the beach. The owner/developer, WEG Paramount, proposes to build a two-level underground parking structure beneath the four new homes. Drivers would enter and exit the subterranean lot from Sunset Avenue (currently, drivers can enter the surface parking lot from Sunset but are required to exit onto Sunrise Avenue, on the other side of the lot).

“Cars will go up an incline and crest without seeing the sidewalk,” Babbit said.

Resident Gene Bernstein had this to say: “I think there must be other ways for the investors to get a [financial] return that’s decent [and] that doesn’t drown this whole area.”

Located on the southeast corner of North County Road and Sunrise Avenue, the Paramount was designed by architect Joseph Urban and built in 1926. After the cinema closed in 1980, the auditorium was gutted and the building renovated for office and retail uses. It was landmarked by the town in 1982 and reopened in 1985.

In 2021, Palm Beach resident Lester Woerner and his son Trent bought the theater from the Paramount Church. The Woerners paid $14 million through their company Woerner Holdings LP.

With a total of 35,992 square feet, including an extensive courtyard patio and rooftop decks, the building stands on a 1.3-acre lot, which includes the parking lot at the corner of North County Road and Sunset Avenue. It currently has about 20 tenants, including the Palm Beach Civic Association and Palm Beach Police & Fire Foundation.

Lester Woerner has said he would like to restore the 1920s-era movie palace to its former grandeur, though not as a cinema.

Last year, the town’s Landmarks Preservation Commission welcomed Woerner’s initiative to restore the building, but said the proposed residential component was too large and should be reduced so it’s in scale with the historic building.

The developers modified the plan with changes that were presented to the council at the Jan. 10 meeting. The modifications include:

  • Elimination of proposed special events with a new proposal for a 250-seat banquet facility and 225-member private club and a 200-seat house of worship with a maximum occupancy of 412 people.
  • Elimination of a previously proposed public restaurant.
  • A 4.5 percent increase in green space, to 2,617 square feet.
  • Size reduction for the four new houses, to 25,887 square feet instead of the previous 27,687. One of the houses would be reduced to two stories instead of three.
  • Maximum building height has been trimmed to just under 37 feet, down from 38 ½ feet (the maximum height of the domed theater building is 61.4 feet, according to project documents).
  • A valet-only underground parking area with 162 spaces, up from 130 in a previous plan.

 
James Crowley, an attorney with the Gunster law firm who represented the Woerner project team, said the focal point of the renovated theater will be the private club. More than 50 percent of the club’s members will be town residents, ensuring it is a town-serving use.

The private club is a permitted special exception use, meaning it is allowed provided the applicant meets certain criteria in the town code. The plan provides adequate parking for the club, and the parking spaces are grandfathered, Crowley said.

The renovated theater area will continue to host religious services as it has in the past, he said.

The proposed use of a private club and valet-only parking would not add to the current congestion on North County Road and Sunrise and Sunset avenues, according to Chris Heggen, traffic engineer with Kimley-Horn & Associates, which is a consultant to the developer.

Much of the space surrounding the exterior courtyard and at the northwest corner of the building would be developed into the new private club. Retail space would be added along North County Road.

The renovation plans call for uncovering and restoring the Paramount building’s faceted stained wood ceiling, said Daniel Lobitz, a partner with the project architect, Robert A.M. Stern Architects in New York.

“Our approach will allow us to reveal the few remaining original interior features,” Lobitz said. “The second-story club lounge will highlight the previously hidden ceilings and chandeliers while the original colonnades will be integrated into the main spaces.”

The plan requires zoning approval from the council in the form of a site plan review and special exception with variances for exceeding size and height limits, for reduced setbacks, club use, construction of three stories instead of the two stories allowed, and more.

Regarding the 20 variance requests, Crowley said the Paramount is already a nonconforming building.

“I don’t think you can just focus on what the code allows, because we are already exceeding a lot of what the code allows,” he said.

Aimee Sunny, director of education with the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach, said a 1980s renovation of the Paramount damaged portions of the interior.

“The historic theater is an important landmark, and it is greatly in need of appropriate renovation efforts,” Sunny said.

Councilman Lew Crampton said the project’s architectural design is “world class,” and he noted that the project team has tried to engage with the community and hear neighbors’ opinions.

“But I think the massing of the homes overwhelms the work that you’re doing on the building,” Crampton said. “If you could limit the height of homes to two stories instead of three, and get involved with us on a declaration-of-use [agreement] to manage the club, then I would be more inclined to approve this project.”

Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay encouraged Sun & Surf residents and the Woerner project team to continue talking to iron out differences or concerns.

Lindsay agreed the houses are too big and said they should stay within the two-story limit set in the zoning code.

“Some commercial and retail use is good here,” Lindsay said. “It is a walkable area.”

 

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