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Our Town with William Kelly: Town Council: Zoning code review must precede retail study

The Town Council has shelved a study of retail conditions in Palm Beach, preferring to focus first on zoning code reform.

The council arrived at the decision amid reports of a banner year for sales on Worth Avenue.

“The entire avenue has been doing well,” Councilwoman Julie Araskog said. “We are in a pandemic. We need to do this retail study at a time when things are a little different.”

Mayor Danielle Moore and several council members said they continue to believe the town needs a strategy to confront the challenges facing its retail sector – vacant store spaces and competition from the online shopping market.

But zoning reform, with an eye on the intensive residential redevelopment that is impacting neighborhoods, is the higher priority, council members said. A top-to-bottom redo of the zoning code, described by town officials as a bewildering and outdated patchwork of amendments, could take years to complete.

When the council approved the retail study in February, there were reports of empty storefronts and consensus among town officials that shopkeepers faced an uncertain future. The $94,500 study by Cincinnati-based Yard & Co. was greenlighted to begin in November.

Then, the unexpected happened: Worth Avenue, which was to be the main focus of the study, reported that business was booming.

Meanwhile, the town has been preparing to hire a planning consultant to advise it on how to update the zoning code. Zoning Director Wayne Bergman said staff was concerned about duplication in the work of the planning and retail consultants.

Another wrinkle: Yard & Co. said it would rely on zoning staff to contribute 40 to 80 hours of work in support of the retail evaluation. Some council members said they were concerned it could be too much to ask of the employees.

“At the staff level, it makes sense to keep the two firms on a separate track … to eliminate overlap,” Bergman told the Planning and Zoning Commission in August.

Bergman said the council could cancel the retail study, reduce its scope or postpone it.

A divided zoning board voted 4-3 to recommend deferral of the retail project until after the zoning recommendations are in hand.

Zoning Chairman Michael Ainslie, who was among the dissenters, said the retail review is too important to set aside.

Ainslie wrote a letter to the council detailing his point of view prior to the council’s Sept. 14 meeting, when it voted to shelve the retail review. In it, he conceded that the retail sector has experienced a recovery since the spring.

But Ainslie wrote that a strategy is still needed to keep shops competitive with Amazon and other web-based operations. He also noted the abundance of empty retail space in town, including the now-shuttered Neiman Marcus site on Worth Avenue.

“We have a vacant department store that will never be a department store again,” Ainslie wrote. “We have other retail spaces that have been vacant for years. We have second and third floor spaces above retail that lie empty, failing to contribute to the vitality of our commercial areas.”

Council President Margaret Zeidman said she recently shopped for shoes at a Worth Avenue store and noticed she was the only customer on the second floor.

Zeidman said she doesn’t think the town is large enough to support all of its commercial districts – Worth Avenue, Greater South County Road, Royal Poinciana Way and the Royal Poinciana Plaza.

Moore said many of the empty stores on South County Road belong to a single out-of-town property owner who doesn’t appear to be interested in leasing them.

Although they ultimately voted with the majority, council members Lew Crampton and Ted Cooney both said the town should stay on track with Yard & Co.

Crampton said some of the vacant stores have filled with art galleries and other ventures that may not remain in Palm Beach for long.

The competition from Amazon is keen, he said.

“Worth Avenue is one of our crown jewels,” Crampton said. “We don’t want it to wither away under pressure from competition from other places. This study will inject some fresh ideas into our planning.”

Crampton and Cooney both noted the town already is under contract with Yard & Co.; Cooney said he looked forward to hearing their recommendations.

“We were able to source a uniquely talented firm with great expertise in this area,” Cooney said.

But Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay said the town needs to tackle the zoning code first, then integrate those reforms with a retail strategy.

Moore agreed. “The time for this retail study is in conjunction with code reform,” she said.