This story was updated Friday August 18, 2023
The near-total demolition of the Royal Poinciana Playhouse, once thought to be protected by its historic landmark status, has sent a shockwave through Palm Beach – a town that prizes its historic treasures and has a mature program in place to preserve them.
At its meeting Wednesday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission took center stage in a soul-searching community discussion about what might have gone wrong and how to prevent future misunderstandings or mistakes.
The interior and some external walls of the 65-year-old Royal Poinciana Playhouse have been razed by a developer that is reconstructing the long-shuttered theater for a reopening next year as a cultural arts center with a waterfront restaurant and retail and gallery space.
Still standing is the theater’s east façade, preserved and braced for eventual attachment to the new building. The historic Celebrity Room ceiling mural and surrounding infrastructure has also been preserved.
The project was approved last year by the Town Council and the landmarks board, which has authority over external changes to landmarked buildings. That included a variance allowing for demolition of more than 50 percent of the original structure.
But some landmarks commissioners, council members and some residents have said they were shocked last month to see so much of the building razed as part of a town-approved rehabilitation and preservation project.
The 860-seat playhouse stood on the west end of the Royal Poinciana Plaza in a high-profile location near the northern entrance into town.
“I’m having a lot of trouble accepting this,” landmarks Chairwoman Sue Patterson said in an emotional opening to Wednesday’s discussion. “Many will say their hearts were broken. How could this happen?”
Patterson said the loss of most of the original playhouse presents an opportunity to acknowledge a flawed oversight process and create more checks and balances going forward.
“We could spend the next 20 years playing the blame game and we still wouldn’t have a playhouse,” she said. “We need solutions.”
The playhouse is one of three landmarked buildings in town that have recently attracted attention because of the extent of demolition involved in their renovations. The other two are a house on Monterey Road and the town-owned North Fire Station at 300 North County Road.
Patterson said Wednesday’s meeting was only the beginning of a public discussion on how to improve reviews of development applications. But there appeared to be a consensus among at least some commissioners that greater transparency is needed for projects that involve demolition of portions of landmarked structures.
Designed by noted architect John Volk, the playhouse opened its doors in 1958 and thrived for decades as a social and cultural center of Palm Beach. But the building went dark in 2004 after its last tenant, Clear Channel Communications, pulled out.
The playhouse site is part of the Royal Poinciana Plaza, which is managed under a long-term lease by Up Markets. Up Markets is a division of WS Development, the developer performing the reconstruction of the playhouse.
Following the landmarks board’s approval of the playhouse renovation in February 2022, the town issued a “certificate of appropriateness” for the work that included a defined level of demolition, according to town Zoning Director Wayne Bergman.
But borings by geotechnical engineers last year revealed several feet of muck in the soil beneath the playhouse. Engineers also found some of the theater’s external walls were structurally compromised, according to WS Development.
Alexandra Clark, vice president of asset strategy and experience for WS Development, appeared before the landmarks board in November to report the soil problem and inform the board that a deep foundation system, with hundreds of pilings, would have to be built to provide safe structural support for the new building.
“We are in a tricky situation as it relates to our goal of making sure this building stands the test of time,” Clark said at the Nov. 16 meeting. “The existing building has settled, and the walls are in distress.”
She also said the walls and roof needed to be “adjusted” to offer adequate sound attenuation. “So, we are beefing up these walls and re-roofing to accommodate the best performance space that will last for many years.”
The landmarks board accepted the report and there were no questions from commissioners or the public about the changes. But at least one commissioner and others in the community are now questioning whether Clark and the WS Development team were fully transparent about the extent of the demolition.
Landmarks Commissioner Brittain Damgard raised the issue at the commission’s July 19 meeting, when she said the scope of the demolition appeared to her to have exceeded what was approved by the town.
“I’m sorry to say I don’t think there was real transparency [by the applicant],” Damgard said Wednesday. “We were given no plans [to review] ahead of time. 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 Wednesday’s meeting. But in an interview last month, she said, “The demolition is not more than contemplated, it is what we discussed last year and what was subsequently in our building permit.”
Town Zoning Director Wayne Bergman, in a July 20 email responding to questions from the Palm Beach Civic Association, wrote, “The original Certificate of Appropriateness approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission had a defined level of interior and exterior demolition. The [November] presentation expanded the extent of demolition after the building walls and foundations had been evaluated. All of the demolition conducted to date appears to have been reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, Palm Beach Preservation Foundation representatives said the foundation and the public was robbed of an opportunity to review and comment on the expanded level of demolition because of a lack of transparency and public notice.
Harvey Oyer, the attorney representing the foundation, said there was insufficient public notice when Clark informed the commission in November that additional demolition would be needed. The subject was listed on the meeting agenda as an “progress update,” but the changes were not properly advertised, as required by the town code, he said.
Oyer also said the Certificate of Appropriateness – the final level of approval – was never modified to reflect the expanded demolition – another code violation, according to Oyer.
Amanda Skier, president and CEO of the preservation foundation, said the failure to notify the public amounted to a lost opportunity to save the playhouse. She called for a more transparent review process.
“There has been a breakdown in the required code process that resulted in the over-demolition of the Royal Poinciana Playhouse and caused irreparable loss to this community,” she said.
WS Development was represented at Wednesday’s meeting by project architects Keith Spina and Nelo Freijomel, from the architectural firm Spina O’Rourke + Partners, and by attorney James Crowley of Gunster Yoakley.
Crowley said WS Development was fully transparent about the demolition and complied with town law. He said Bergman issued a stop-work order at the playhouse construction site on July 19 after Damgard sounded the alarm about the degree of demolition.
“We showed him the demolition plans and that stop-work order was subsequently lifted,” Crowley said. “So, the law was followed.”
Councilwoman Julie Araskog asked Town Attorney John Randolph if there was legal compliance.
Randolph, who was participating remotely, said, “Julie’s question does not have an easy answer. There may have been mistakes made. No one did it intentionally.”
Commissioner Bridget Moran said she was disappointed that people have been so surprised even after Clark updated the commission.
“She did say it,” Moran said. “I think the reason we are here today is the shock of seeing it, not of not knowing it.”
Alternate Commissioner Alexander Ives said the commission has received more than 100 emails about the demolition, including some alleging trickery, fraud and corruption.
“I’m disturbed by the anxiety and irrational fear in the community,” he said. “I really hope this rabble-rousing can be calmed down by this meeting.”
Cultural Arts Center
The playhouse reconstruction is scheduled for completion and a reopening in late 2024.
INNOVATE, a publicly held company chaired by Palm Beach resident Avram “Avie” Glazer, will operate the programming for the new 400-seat cultural arts center, which Glazer has said will have art exhibitions, films, music, dance, plays, conferences and lectures.
Avie Glazer’s wife, Jill Glazer, is a Palm Beach Civic Association director.
Michael Pucillo, chairman and CEO of the Palm Beach Civic Association, and a former Town Council president, said in a written statement Wednesday that, after so many years with a shuttered playhouse, the town is fortunate to have found someone willing to bring the playhouse into the modern era.
“While the degree to which the older structure has been removed may be disappointing to many, it is not surprising given that this building sat without air conditioning for nearly two decades,” Pucillo said. “Having seen the inside of the playhouse after years of neglect, I cannot help but think there was little that could be safely salvaged. Kudos to the Glazers for taking on this project. I wish them well.”
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