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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.

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