By Dan Moffett
Developer Gary Cohen and two of his lawyers spent more than an hour trying to persuade the South Palm Beach Town Council to vote on a charter amendment measure that might allow him to build his condo project 5 feet higher on the old Palm Beach Oceanfront Inn site.
It didn’t work.
“We would beg of you to make a motion and have a vote,” Mitch Kirschner, an attorney for Cohen’s Paragon Acquisition Group, said during the May 24 town meeting.
Council members sat silently and then moved on to the next item on the agenda.
The council’s cold shoulder is because building heights are a “hot-button” issue in South Palm Beach, said Vice Mayor Joe Flagello. Officials remember the angry outcry from residents six years ago when the property’s previous owner, Pjeter Paloka, wanted to build a 14-story condo. Voters responded by overwhelmingly putting strict height limits in the town charter.
“This is through no fault of your own. It’s with the previous history. We get that. We know you’re not the previous group,” said Flagello, who told Cohen he should understand why the town is “gun shy” about height. “But you do know the history and what has occurred in this town. And it is a very hot-button issue. There are people who are very passionate on both sides of the fence.”
Flagello told Cohen that he should take the other route that remains available — bypass the council and go directly to the town’s voters and get the petitions needed to put a charter change amendment on the November ballot. To do that, Paragon would need to collect signatures from 15 percent of the town’s registered electorate, roughly between 150 and 200 voters.
Cohen said afterward he was undecided about what his next step would be. “It’s something we will discuss internally,” he said. He called the prospect for getting petitions “certainly feasible.”
Paragon has admitted that the original architect for the project miscalculated the height for the six stories with 30 condominiums that would sit above the parking garage, failing to include the 5 feet needed for five floor plates. Cohen has said the building must have 10-foot ceilings to be competitive in the luxury condo marketplace, requiring a minimum height of 65 feet, not 60.
“We have a problem that makes our project unmarketable in 2016,” Kirschner said.
Cohen has partnered with DDG, a New York-based real estate investment group, to help sell the project. Prices start at about $2.3 million for a 2,900-square-foot unit with two bedrooms and three baths. The dispute between council members and Paragon also has caused friction with Town Attorney Brad Biggs.
Councilwoman Stella Gaddy Jordan proposed seeking outside applicants to take over the town’s legal work, saying the council needed more advice and information than Biggs was providing. Councilman Woodrow Gorbach seconded her motion. He said Biggs “can be hard to get a hold of.”
Flagello was solidly on Biggs’ side: “He has my full confidence.” After first abstaining, Councilman Robert Gottlieb voted with Flagello.
Mayor Bonnie Fischer, after a couple minutes’ hesitation, rejected Jordan’s motion, which failed 3-2. Fischer said the council was likely to take up the Biggs matter again at the June 28 meeting, however.
By Dan Moffett