Gulfstream Hotel: A Red Herring in Lake Worth's Building Heights Referendum

Tomorrow, Lake Worth residents will go to the polls and vote on a bitterly contested referendum regarding building heights in the city. Two buildings are emblematic in this fight.

See also:
-Lake Worth's Gulfstream Hotel: Bahraini Petrodollars, the Black Gatsby and Foreclosure

The first is the Lucerne, a six-story condo complex that towers above the city's low-rise (mostly two-story) downtown, architecturally as appropriate as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake. The building went up seven years ago, a product of the build-at-any-cost mentality that's destroyed so much of South Florida.

The other is the Gulfstream Hotel, a graceful -- but empty -- 90-year old structure on Bryant Park at the city's traditional, oceanside gateway. Perversely, the historic hotel is now being used to to re-ignite development mania.

If the referendum on height limits passes tomorrow, building heights would be limited to 45 feet (in the commercial area) and 35 feet (in the residential area) in the three-block wide corridor that runs the length of the city's downtown core. Existing buildings and already approved building permits would be grandfathered in.

Proponents of the referendum say the measure is necessary to preserve the downtown area's human scale and laid-back charm. Opponents say the measure would stifle economic growth. The city has been polarized for years.

Since 2006 (as residents battled over whether or not to allow the tall Lucerne condo to be built with city incentives and freebies), when self-proclaimed anarchist Cara Jennings sought and won the first of two terms on the City Commission, political Lake Worth has been split into two warring camps. Around town, the foes are described as "cavers" (those concerned with conservation and preservation) and "pavers" (the pro-development faction). The cavers grew strong through 2010, cresting with 4-to-1 control of the commission. The pavers flipped those numbers the following year.

Because of years of debate and irresolution, typical of Lake Worth's contentious politics, the city's existing land use regulations are in flux, so that a majority of the city commission can drive a truck, or a crane through them whenever they choose. Additionally, paver control of the commission led to turnover in the composition of the city's planning and zoning board, giving developers the upper hand.

The cavers struck back last summer. To enshrine building heights limits in the city's charter, safe from the vagaries of political currents, they formed the Respectful Planning Lake Worth PAC, which gathered the signatures of 1800 Lake Worth voters, winning the referendum a place on the ballot.

Heights limitations and "small-town, Old Florida feel" having wide popular appeal, the pavers have lately cooked up an equally emotionally compelling argument in reply: "Save the Gulfstream." (The hotel has been dormant since 2005, and in foreclosure since 2010.) They're doing this through a PAC of their own, "Friends of the Gulfstream."

Floating the idea of a high-rise "hotel district" in the city's eastern blocks, the pavers argue that a 45-foot limit will 1) strangle any hope of developing the district--purportedly the cure-all for Lake Worth's economic doldrums -- and 2) snuff out any chance of reviving the Gulfstream as a functioning enterprise.

This fiendishly clever stratagem has been a wonder of doublethink, standing the debate on building heights on its head: The pavers now claim they're the ones defending Old Florida and it's the cavers who represent a "special interest." Devious, but brilliant.

But in all the back and forth -- "Yes" and "No" signs all over town, flame wars on local blogs and in readers' comments in the Palm Beach Post -- no one has pointed out the patent absurdity of the pavers' claims: There's no chance in hell the Gulfstream will ever open its doors as a hotel again. Nor is there any chance of, or need to, create a hotel district in Lake Worth. It's planning and zoning on crack.

Consider the following:

- There is no market. Hotel occupancy rates county-wide, even as the recession fades and tourism rebounds, are estimated to hit 80%, at most. And Lake Worth -- charming as it is -- is simply not a major tourist destination.

- What market there is, is saturated with lodging choices. Just across the bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway from Lake Worth are the miles of hotels and timeshares of Palm Beach, South Palm Beach and Manalapan, with upscale palaces like the Ritz-Carlton and mid-range like the Oceanfront Inn and the Fairfield.

- Low-end tourists and backpackers are few are far between, and Lake Worth has already tried and failed to lure those, as the shuttered Hummingbird Hotel in the city's center shows.

- Anyone who argues that Lake Worth has a shortage of existing lodging available...I invite them to travel a mile either north or south of the city's downtown along Federal Highway and try to keep count of the hotels and motels there--the city already has a "hotel district," and it is sorely underused.

- Beyond all that, there's the Gulfstream's hefty price tag, reputed to be $9 million (The current owners paid $13 million in 2005), not to mention the costly retrofitting necessary to make it into a functioning hotel again. The economics are forbidding.

- Also consider this: The present owners, the Schlesinger family (who run the Ceebraid Signal Corp. which developed the Brazilian Court on Palm Beach), are...hoteliers . They've had the building on their hands for years, and they, for all their experience, couldn't make a go of it.

Save the Gulfstream? By all means. But first get real about what that means. As architecture, it's a gem, a gorgeous keystone at the city's chief, historic point of entry. To "save" it in that regard makes perfect sense, and is mightily to be sought--ground floor restaurant, condos, commercial mixed-use--these are realistic possibilities.

But regarding tomorrow's referendum: while there are many stumbling blocks to the Gulfsteam's revival, building height is not one of them -- and no one can point to a study that shows otherwise. The pavers' claim is a ruse, a cruel exploitation of the sincerely held hopes of Lake Worth's citizens.

What's really behind the resistance to a low-rise downtown is money. The pavers' hastily assembled FoGPAC consists of a coalition of real estate interests, with the means to outspend by 2-to-1 the cavers' Respectful PAC. The cavers' truly grassroots group runs on sweat equity, raising money in dribs and drabs over a period of nine months. FoGPAC in a mere three weeks put together more than $10,000, at $500 and $1000 and $2000 a clip.

One might think the cavers and their Respectful PAC might have avoided provoking the pavers' wrath by exempting the "hotel district" from the proposed low-rise corridor. And if they should lose tomorrow, it would be interesting to see a more limited corridor proposed--if only to test the sincerity of the pavers' argument.

But the pavers proclaimed interest in Lake Worth's special character is bogus; their real concern is maximizing the immediate market value of their individual properties -- the old bottom line. Short-sighted and foolish, it's an approach ripe for tragedy. And in fact it's a tragedy well-known: The Tragedy of the Commons, in which each individual's pursuit of self-interest ends up fouling the nest of all.

Lake Worth, for all its problems, remains the most vital, interesting, and genuine place of settlement in Palm Beach County (like the East Village of yore, to us old school New Yorkers). Its low-rise character is a key element of that, central to the long-term vision of growth that is its only path to sustainable, general prosperity.

We hope for the day we can again visit Lake Worth, sit on the Gulfstream's verandah, sip a drink and look out at the park and the Intracoastal beyond, the strains of a jazz band drifting out from within. There won't be any overnight guests on the floors above us, but the Gulfstream can endure all the same.

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal bite -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.

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