Our Town with William Kelly: Landmarks panel returns Paramount project to drawing board

William Kelly  |  Our Town  |  July 21, 2023

The Landmarks Preservation Commission reviewed on Wednesday a modified plan to renovate the historic Paramount Theater building and add an adjacent residential and retail component with subterranean parking.

Commissioners said the design is moving in the right direction, but that the applicant needs to further reduce the mass of the residential development to be less imposing and more in scale with the historic theater building.

The applicants, owner Lester Woerner and his son, Trent Woerner, operating under the name WEG Paramount LLC, are requesting commission approval for the renovation and adaptive re-use of the landmarked theater building at 139 N. County Road.

The Woerners are also seeking the commission’s approval of their architectural design of the residential component, which is four three-story townhouses with retail on the first floor. It would be located 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. A 127-space parking lot would be built underneath it.

The project was last before the landmarks board in April, when commissioners told the Woerners to reduce the height and scale of the townhouses so they would not overshadow the historic building.

On Wednesday, the Woerners’ attorney, James Crowley, and the project architect, Daniel Lobitz of Robert A.M. Stern Architects, presented a revised plan showing the height of the four townhouses had been lowered by an average of three feet, with setbacks introduced on the third floor.

According to the building plans, the height of the townhouses appears to be at or around 56 feet, measured from the street to the top of the chimneys. The top of the dome on the Paramount building, its highest point, is 61.4 feet.

The residential development is about 30,000 square feet in total. The Paramount Theater building is 35,992 square feet, according to the plans.

Most commissioners said the townhouses are still too massive.

“I am in favor of the fact that you are improving the Paramount building,” Alternate Commissioner Ann Metzger said. “I think the townhouses are too big.”

Commissioner Brittain Damgard said the townhouses were originally designed at 8,000 square feet each and are now around 7,200 square feet – a step in the right direction.

“The more I see the project, the more I like it,” she said. “But I would like to see [the townhouses] smaller. They are still a little too big in my opinion. I hope you can work on that. I really would like to see this project happen.”

Commissioners also said they liked the architect’s suggestion of building arcades in front of the residential buildings along North County Road to improve the pedestrian experience and complement the character of the town.

The commission deferred the application until after the Town Council can review it and act on the applicant’s 21 variance requests, six special exception requests, and site plan review.

The panel also requested that the owner’s application for a historic preservation tax abatement be made available for concurrent review with the design plans before it decides whether to issue a certificate of appropriateness, which is required for the development to proceed.

The Woerner family of Palm Beach bought the Paramount Building, which sits on a 1.3-acre site, 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 building’s tenants). The building was landmarked in 1982.

The building was designed in the Mediterranean Revival style, with its extensive courtyard patio and rooftop decks, in 1926 by Austrian architect Joseph Urban.

Renovation of the historic 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.

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 that aren’t approved by the landmarks commission.

Zoning approvals are needed from the Town Council. In addition to the site plan review, the special exception requests are for the private club and the restaurant, the square footage, outdoor seating for the restaurant and private club, and shared parking. The zoning variances would enable the project 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.

Mixed opinions

The commission heard Wednesday from two former chairmen of the landmarks board, Gene Pandula and Rene Silvin, each of whom spoke favorably about the plans.

This would be the first time the theater building has been renovated in more than 40 years, when most of the auditorium space was converted for other uses, Pandula said.

“It hurt people to cut the heart out of this building,” he said. “This is an opportunity to give this building its life back. It has been neglected. We have an opportunity to make it a part of the community that [architect] Joseph Urban designed it to be.”

Silvin, who was retained as a historical consultant for the project, said the owners are prepared to go far beyond what other developers would do to restore the Paramount to its original grandeur.

“You must set aside the very real concerns of traffic and density and leave those to Town Council,” he told the board. “You must apply your trained designer’s eye to the best way to restore this historic landmark.”

Jane Day, who was the town’s landmarks consultant for 21 years, said the residential development in its current design would detract from the theater building. She described it as “one huge mass of concrete that butts up to the neighbors and is really out of scale with the very lovely building, an important building, that Joseph Urban designed.”

Aimee Sunny, director of education for the Palm Beach Preservation Foundation, also called for further reductions to the height and square footage of the townhouses.

John Eubanks, an attorney representing the Leverett House condominiums at 120 Sunset Ave., and the Palm Beach Biltmore, 150 Bradley Place, said the townhomes still appear too tall and massive.

James Gavigan Jr., the attorney representing the Sun and Surf Condominiums, which abut the east side of the Paramount property, said the three-foot reduction in the height of the townhouses is modest.

“Everyone wants to see the Paramount Theater Building come back to life,” he said. “What we oppose is the massing and height of these buildings. The four houses still significantly overwhelm the landmarked structure.”

Gavigan said Sun and Surf is also opposed to the private club because of concerns about noise.

John Metzger, the attorney representing Ted and Jessica Babbitt, who live in a townhome immediately east of the Paramount parking lot, said his clients’ home would face a massive east elevation of the new residential development with no setbacks from their property. The Babbitts would lose their privacy and be subjected to exhaust vents and daily garbage collection close to their home.

“It ignores their property rights and will destroy their way of life here in Palm Beach,” Metzger said.

Tony Cummings, speaking on behalf of WEG Paramount LLC, said the project team will continue to reach out to neighbors to address their concerns.

“We only want what’s best for the community,” Cummings said. “We are not going to win everyone over. But everyone deserves to be heard.”

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