Singer Island beach front high-rises back on track after decade delay [9-16-15]
Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post
By Wayne Washington
Published September 18, 2015
RIVIERA BEACH — After a decade-long delay, a giant resort and spa project is back on the drawing board for Riviera Beach’s Singer Island.
The Wellness Resort and Spa complex would be composed of two 20-story towers along North Ocean Drive, less than a mile north of Blue Heron Boulevard. It would generate millions in tax revenue and create thousands of temporary jobs and hundreds of permanent jobs.
But the project, delayed by the economic downturn until its recent approval by the city’s Planning and Zoning Board, also raises questions about the balance coastal communities must strike between economic development, guarding against beach erosion and limiting the risk of damage from hurricanes. There also are questions about its size, which is larger than when it got its original approval in 2004.
The Planning and Zoning Board met to discuss the project last month. At the time, Tropical Storm Erika was on a track to strike Palm Beach County as a Category 1 hurricane.
“As we enter the height of hurricane season and now tracking Tropical Storm Erika, it is a reminder of the real possibility of Florida being within its path,” the Singer Island Civic Association wrote in a letter of opposition to the zoning board. “No one can predict the aftermath or impact a storm will have on Riviera Beach’s fragile coastline.”
Some in the area have painful memories of the damage wrought by hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, which struck within three weeks of each other in September 2004.
The storms ripped off chunks of the facade of the Tiara condominium complex, which sits next to where the proposed resort and spa would be built.
The Tiara was declared uninhabitable after the storms, sparking a decade-long legal battle over insurance claims. Tiara residents, who claimed the building was under-insured, ultimately lost their legal battle to force the insurance broker Marsh USA to pay $35 million in claims.
The Tiara was repaired and residents returned — three years after they were forced to leave. Each resident had paid $146,000 in special assessments to cover hurricane damage and were hoping to recover about $100,000 of that amount.
Even with Tropical Storm Erika looming, the hurricane threat was not a factor as the Planning and Zoning Board heard a presentation on the resort and spa project.
South Florida developer Jim Brown, whose work includes St. Lucie West in Port St. Lucie, showed a video detailing how he worked to overcome objections to the Wellness project.
In the video, Julie Botel, chairwoman of a group of Tiara condo owners, said she and others were concerned about construction noise. Tiarra residents had other worries, too.
“We were also naturally concerned about the ocean view from our northern units in the Tiara,” Botel said.
Brown altered the plan so the towers don’t block the view of Tiara residents. Other changes were made to make the project more attractive and modern, he told Planning and Zoning Board members.
Those changes eased the concerns of Tiara owners, but the Singer Island Civic Association still has problems with the project.
One of those problems is the size of the towers. Original plans called for a pair of connected towers, one nine stories tall and the other rising 20 stories.
Now, plans call for a pair of unconnected, 20-story towers with 359 rooms and suites and 30,000 square feet of spa and wellness facilities.
“If the recent history predicts the future, we can all look around at the oceanfront buildings on Singer Island,” Marie Davis, vice president of the Singer Island Civic Association, told Planning and Zoning Board members. “They are massive and in your face, built too close to the roadway. We want development on Singer Island, pleasing to the residents, aesthetically pleasing, not massive, not this proposal.”
Drew Martin, conservation chair of the Loxahatchee Group of the Sierra Club, has environmental concerns with the project.
“Sea level rise may impact any new buildings,” said Martin, noting that his group is opposed to additional coastal development on Singer Island. “This risk of damage could lead to higher insurance rates for all of us.”
Robert Gonstead, a member of the Singer Island Civic Association and president of Protect Our Beaches, said the project is too close to the ocean.
Earlier this year, Riviera Beach adopted the state’s coastal construction line, which was established in 1997. That 1997 line is further west than the previous line, which was established in 1979.
But because plans for the resort and spa had been approved before the city adopted the state’s 1997 line, the developer is being allowed to build east of the 1979 line, which is closer to the ocean.
Gonstead said that’s a problem.
“I don’t think it’s fair to other developers,” he said.
Gonstead said he’s also worried that the state and federal governments, which help pay for beach re-nourishment, could decide Riviera Beach isn’t serious about protecting its beaches.
“If you start to let people build close to the beach, you could threaten your funding source,” he said. “The state could say, ‘Hey, why haven’t you enforced the 1997 line?’”
Jeff Gagnon, Riviera Beach’s planning and zoning administrator, recommended that board members reject the resort and spa plan.
The original plan was approved with a set of variances, and Gagnon argued that, because the new plan is significantly different, those variances should no longer apply.
Gagnon made no argument about the project itself.
Several people connected to the project praised it to board members.
Riviera Beach could see its annual property tax collection for the property go from $53,000 to $3.17 million, said Don Delaney, president of Strategic Development Initiatives, a community redevelopment firm that studied the economic impact of the project.
The city would also collect $3.2 million in impact and various other fees as the resort and spa is being built, Delaney said.
Over a 10-year period, the city would collect $38 million in fees and property taxes from the project, he said.
“I will tell you, as a public economist, that’s a large enough number to help relieve some of the pressure that local elected officials have in trying to provide the services for the community without having to raise the tax rate,” Delaney said. “These are significant numbers.”
Also significant, Delaney said, are the numbers of jobs that will be created — more than 3,000 during construction and 659 permanent jobs once the resort and spa is built. Those 659 jobs would have an economic impact of $43 million, Delaney said.
Planning and Zoning Board members voted 6-1 to approve the plan, which could be taken up by the Riviera Beach City Council in October.
“I want to see this development start as soon as we can get the City Council to approve of it,” Planning and Zoning Board Member Julius Whigham said. “The reason for that: We will be getting good tax dollars. The second reason: People will have jobs in two and a half months after it’s built, and that’s a big thing right there. And plus, this project, once it’s completed, will help put us on the map as what we are and for the people that come to our beaches, our marina and different things around our city and enjoy themselves.”