Planners hold first community meeting on floating plaza project

Plaza still years away from any approvals

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Currie Park in West Palm Beach could be on the verge of a major make over. The project involves a floating plaza, where you can literally walk out onto the intracoastal to shop and eat.

But first, planners want to hear your voice.

It was standing room only on Tuesday at the first ever community meeting on this floating plaza project, which developers say is unlike any other in the world. The Rio De Janeiro Olympics tried to build it but ran out of time.

"We need a change and we need to do it quick. Let's get started," said Gerald Shields, who lives nearby the park in Northwood.

The project is a public/private partnership between the Community Redevelopment Agency and billionaire developer Jeff Greene, who is building luxury condominiums across the street. In addition to the floating plaza across from Currie Park, the project also involves revitalizing the waterfront, rehabbing the park and constructing underground parking garages within man-made hills.

"It will be a place that people will come to from all over the country, all over the world. And that will only be great for economy because that's job creating and it's crime reducing," added Greene.

Our story back in November helped fuel a lot of interest in this so planners decided to give people the chance to sound off this week. Emotions were mixed during the meeting, which was led by Jon Ward, executive director of the CRA.

"We are very, very concerned about a huge parking garage," said Eileen Brown, who lives in the nearby Portofino North community. "We directly butt that park and that most likely would block our view of the water."

Brown said she and her neighbors are concerned about her neighborhood becoming louder than she's comfortable with.

"Mainly because of the noise level, that would impact our residents morning noon and night," she said.

Her friend and neighbor, Hugh Harrison, is concerned about construction work compromising the seawall and how the plaza can even withstand hurricanes.

"My concern is we won't have any protection once they take the wall out and it could just wash out all the fill that was put in over the years," he said.

All of these questions were discussed at the public meetings on Tuesday.

"Is it going to be safe? Is going to be well lit? How do I park there? Is it going to interfere with something that I love doing now? Those kinds of things are always important and something we factor into it," said Ward.

Ward said engineers will figure out how to make the plaza safe against hurricanes.

"Obviously we know it happens. Just the engineering for it -- all the store fronts would be impact resistant. So yes, we live in Florida and yes, we've been through hurricanes and we know how to plan for them, so all of that will be factored into it," he said.

Carl Flick, a local urban planner and Northwood resident, said he wants to make sure that the planners preserve the integrity of Currie Park.

"I think my major concern is to make sure the park remains a park and doesn't remain a commercialization vehicle," he said. "Making sure the water views are maintained, making sure that the historic features in the park like the triple row of royal palms dating back to the 1920s is not obliterated, and making sure that the MLK memorial is not in any way disrespected."

Business owners like Will Davis, who owns the Day By Day Shoppe on Northwood Road, believe the plaza could revitalize the neighborhood.

"Waterfront dining is becoming extinct in Florida, especially South Florida," said Davis. "Everyone keeps on complaining that there's not enough density, we can't have a supermarket. And without enough population, we aren't going to have these things that we want."

His husband, Matthew Chambers, who co-owns the business, believes the plaza could rope Northwood into downtown activity.

"As a small business owner, we can't even afford to stay open late at night because we don't have enough destination in the area," he said. "I think by making Currie Park a destination you'll extend the city from downtown West Palm Beach all the way to Northwood Road."

Others believe the project could clean up the area.

"Right now, the only thing that you have is it's teeming with homeless people or you have people hanging out. Everyone's afraid to walk through that park, especially in the early evening. You don't wanna get down there," said Shields.

Shields, who is from New York City, compared the project to revitalization in parts of the Big Apple.

"It's amazing what Bloomberg did in Brooklyn. The place is teeming with people. It used to be an unsafe area until he opened that up and spent money. That's what we need to do here," he said. "The more people that build here and do things, the more viable the waterfront will be."

The land for Currie Park was donated by former mayor, George Currie, nearly 100 years ago -- with the condition that it only be used as a public park. His great grand-daughter said the family has been kept out of the planning process, but she hopes that changes after confronting the CRA during the meeting on Tuesday.

"We're not 100 percent for or against anything. We want to be included in the planning process so our wishes -- and his wishes -- are heard," she said.

Newell said although she feels the floating plaza is a stretch, the family hopes the planners can preserve the park as much as possible.

"I think this might be a little grandiose for West Palm Beach, it's not Central Park...If they keep the green space, if they keep some open space for soccer fields, tennis courts -- I think they could meet the letter of his intent," she said. "The park needs to be improved, it's not what my great-grandfather envisioned and it's not what we envisioned."

The cost is one of the major sticking issues with people who live in the area. There isn't an exact figure yet on how much it will cost taxpayers.

"We're scratching our head about cost, but cost in a vacuum is a non-starter. In other words, whatever the number will be -- it will be a big number. So the question is, what is the return on the public's investment? Is this something that the public wants? Is this a great benefit for the public? Is it a long term investment?"

Ward says the luxury condos across the street could off-set the cost to taxpayers with increased property values.

"Everything we do comes from tax payer money. This is certainly going to come from property taxes. But looking at this, because we do this park in a really highly successful way -- if we attract the kind of high quality development across the street -- I'm telling you, Mr. Greene's project is almost like building Northwood all over again," said Ward. "He will almost in many ways, self fund this by the tax increase."

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