Bad planning decisions haunt West Palm Beach waterfront

The bad planning decisions of the past shouldn’t dictate the future of our city’s most precious asset, its waterfront. Unfortunately, the Palm Harbor Marina project, with its very regrettable waterfront parking garage, may be approved by the commission Tuesday without substantial changes to the original plan approved at first reading.
Past articles and background about the project.


Guarantee this will not look as good as the rendering
Guarantee this will not look as good as the rendering


Years ago, the city entered into a long term land lease and granted rights to develop the current surface parking lot. This parcel of land is exempt from the Downtown Master Plan as it was encumbered by this land lease. From the Palm Beach Post:

The city’s 100-year lease with Leisure Resorts dates to 1968…The marina is exempt from a five-story restriction that voters approved in 1996 and can build as high as 75 feet, though it must allow a view of the water between Banyan Boulevard and Second Street.

To my knowledge, meetings held have only included the residents at Waterview Towers, the developer, and Commissioner Mitchell; trying to arrive at a consensus to make a project happen.  Ana Maria Aponte, City Urban Designer, to her credit has made the project better from what could have been built as of right under CC-2 zoning. But ‘better’ is far from ideal, and at a prominent site on the waterfront such as this, we should accept nothing short of excellent.

Several options are available to remove the parking garage from the waterfront or at least to wrap the garage with active uses. I previously wrote in April (“A better way to develop the Palm Harbor Marina Site”):

Rather than providing on-site parking, the developer could provide spaces in an off-site parking facility, such as the Old City Hall redevelopment site. The off-site parking option would remove an ugly, dead use from the public waterfront,  while activating it with a hotel and restaurant, making the waterfront more valuable in the process. It would also be consistent with CRA plans to extend and activate the public waterfront northward. The developer could build in the entire footprint where there is now a parking garage, allowing for more rooms and higher yield on cost, and eliminating the need for a costly structured garage with expensive car lifts. Good for the developer. And more rooms for our downtown merchants. Lastly, and importantly, there is no reason this project should go above 75 feet in this scenario. It’s a win-win scenario.

As a second alternative approach, a parking podium could internalize the parking in the hotel, and wrap the parking with active uses (such as waterfront restaurants) to effectively hide the parking. It appears this approach has been rejected, as there are objections about going from 75 feet to 92 feet in height.

Had this project been entitled and approved under the current Downtown Master Plan regulations, any parking would be required to be screened, and design requirements would ensure a quality public realm where the building meets the street.

Unfortunately, these past planning mistakes hang around our neck like an albatross. Rather than a reasonable compromise to line the parking structure with active uses, effectively hiding the parking and making for lively ground floor uses, the public will get a dead use – a parking garage – along our public waterfront. Attempts to mitigate this by screening with a green wall help marginally, but cannot change the fact that this is a horrible use of the downtown waterfront. From Project for Public Spaces, a well-respected urban planning organization: Mistake #1 in waterfront design is ceding the waterfront to automobiles instead of people:

The waterfront should be one of the main destinations in any city, not a place to pass through in a car. Yet many cities…have greatly hindered access to their waterfronts by capitulating to the auto. Raised freeways, wide roads, and parking lots dominate waterfront views, cutting people off from what should be a wonderful public asset.

We only get one chance to get it right. We can do better.

[Share your opinion with the commissioners. Write them here, and show up to the commission meeting on Tuesday].

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