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Royal Poinciana Playhouse

Our Town with William Kelly: Town Council to address playhouse demolition

The near-total demolition of the landmarked Royal Poinciana Playhouse is expected to be back in the public spotlight at Wednesday’s Town Council meeting.

An “update” on the playhouse is listed on the agenda for the meeting that begins at 9:30 a.m. at Town Hall.

WS Development is renovating the 65-year-old playhouse, shuttered since 2004, for a reopening late next year. The 860-seat theater is being transformed into a 400-seat cultural arts center with a new 200-seat waterfront restaurant and additional retail and gallery space.

WS Development has said it followed plans approved by the town when it razed some exterior walls of the playhouse, along with an extensive interior demolition, as part of the reconstruction of the building this summer.

Wayne Bergman, the town’s zoning director and building official, has concurred, saying in July that the demolition and redevelopment plans appeared to have been reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission and that the demolition was proceeding “per the approved plans.”

But some council members and landmarks commissioners have expressed surprise over the extent of the razing, and some have questioned whether the developer was sufficiently transparent about the scope of the demolition.

Council president Margaret Zeidman said in an interview for this story that she has performed her own review into what might have gone wrong with the town’s oversight process.

“We can’t unscramble this egg,” Zeidman said. “But we must review and adjust our code and administrative process to ensure that landmarked structures are protected and that the Landmarks Preservation Commission has all the information, clearly stated, which would lead to an informed decision.”

The landmarks commissioners are appointed by the council. The commission oversees the town’s historic landmarks program and must approve modifications to the exterior of landmarked buildings through a “certificate of appropriateness.”

The commission issued a certificate of appropriateness for the playhouse renovation in 2022. The certificate had a “defined level of interior and exterior demolition,” Bergman has said.

But WS Development returned to the commission later in the year, on Nov. 16, to deliver a project update.

At that meeting, Alexandra Clark, vice president of asset strategy and experience for WS Development, said subsequent borings by engineers revealed the soil underneath the playhouse to be unstable.

Some exterior walls of the original building had settled and were cracked and would have to be rebuilt “like for like,” she said. A new foundation, with hundreds of pilings, would be needed to support the new building.

The east façade of the playhouse has been preserved and braced until it can be attached to the new support structure. The celebrity room ceiling mural and surrounding infrastructure has been stabilized and protected in place, Clark said.

“We saved what we could, and what is ‘missing’ today is simply because we needed to take [the walls] down and rebuild them,” Clark wrote in an email to the Palm Beach Civic Association last month.

Commissioner: ‘I’d like to know what happened’

The first public objection surfaced at the July 19 landmarks board meeting when Commissioner Brittain Damgard said the extent of the demolition appeared to have exceeded what the board approved.

“The playhouse is virtually gone except for the east facade,” she said. “I’d like to know how that happened.”

The matter was placed on the agenda for discussion at the commission’s Aug. 16 meeting, when Damgard went further, saying Clark was not fully transparent in her Nov. 16 report.

“We were given no plans [to review] ahead of time,” Damgard said. “A picture was put on the [meeting room] screen for two minutes. Nothing was said about total demolition. It all sounded rosy. We were not given the facts. The process that should have been followed wasn’t.”

Clark did not attend that meeting. But in an interview in July, she said, “The demolition is not more than contemplated, it is what we discussed last year and what was subsequently in our building permit.”

At the Aug. 8 council meeting, Harvey Oyer, an attorney representing the Palm Beach Preservation Foundation, said WS Development’s proposed changes to the plan should have been publicly advertised before the Nov. 16 meeting. He also said the project’s certificate of appropriateness should have been modified to include those. But he said none of that happened even though it was required by town law.

In the interview for this story, Zeidman said Chapter 54 of the town code, which governs the landmarks program, provides no clearly defined pathway for amending a Certificate of Appropriateness on a building found to have a structurally deficient foundation.

This is especially problematic when dealing with a building that must meet the highest standard of the Florida Building Code to be deemed safe for the public, Zeidman said.

“That is something the Landmarks Preservation Commission will need to look at with Mr. Bergman, going forward,” she said.

Regarding the Preservation Foundation’s comments, Zeidman said, “We’ve enjoyed a collaborative relationship with the Preservation Foundation, and I do hope and expect that will continue. But I think we have some rough spots to get over. I understand their surprise and that of the community.”

Zeidman said the subject of the playhouse will be back before the landmarks commission at its Sept. 20 meeting.

“They will continue to work on their list of recommendations to make sure that, in the future, what should be preserved gets preserved,” Zeidman said. “This is never going to happen again.”

A long and glamorous history

Designed by architect John Volk, the playhouse opened in 1958 and was a thriving social and performing arts center for decades, when it featured Broadway plays, ballets, and musical performances. During its storied history, it attracted celebrities such as Jackie Gleason, Bing Crosby and Burt Reynolds.

A 1979 property agreement between the town and Royal Poinciana Plaza ownership required that the theater be operated in perpetuity as a cultural and performing arts venue. The playhouse’s closing after the last tenant pulled out in 2004 sparked a long and at times emotional debate about whether it could be successfully revived as a medium-sized theater in today’s market.

Clark has said it took WS Development seven years to identify the right operator for the playhouse. INNOVATE, a publicly held company chaired by Palm Beach resident Avram “Avie” Glazer, will operate the programming for the new cultural arts center.

Glazer has said INNOVATE expects to develop the center into a world-class multi-purpose cultural and performing arts space that will be a major asset to Palm Beach. Year-round programming will include plays, music, dance, films, children’s programming, conferences, and lectures.

“We’re thrilled to be involved,” he said in January 2022. “At the end of the day, I think people will be very happy with what we do.”

Avie Glazer and his wife Jill Glazer, who is a Palm Beach Civic Association director, have been town residents for more than 20 years.

Zeidman said she’s optimistic about the outcome.

“In the end, I think everything will be okay,” she said. “They will build the walls that were taken down to look exactly the way it would have looked and as represented in the original Certificate of Appropriateness drawings. It will no longer be a shell building that sits there empty. The playhouse will once again have life and be enjoyed by the people of this town.”

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