Friday, January 21, 2005

A camel is a horse ...

...designed by committee.

We went to the Planning Board meeting at City Hall last night. They were to consider approval of the Watermark project, the construction of 26 two-thousand square foot luxury condominium units with transient rental licenses in four buildings on the site of the former Jabour's Trailer Court in the Historic Waterfront District.

The meeting began at 6 PM. The Watermark application was 7th on the agenda. There was a quick move by someone to postpone the Watermark application to a special meeting or to the Board's next meeting, and when that failed to get a motion, to take up the Watermark project first. That was rejected by a vote of the Board. (The City Planner made an interesting comment here in favor of maintaining the planned agenda. He said that he is bringing another huge -- his word -- project to the Board in February, and that having those both on the agenda would not be a good idea. I'm curious about what the new project might be.)

The Board quickly and efficiently disposed of the first six agenda items. Just before 7:00 o'clock, Watermark was taken up.

The application was introduced by City Planner Ty Smirkoski. He reviewed the history to date and read into the record some of the statements of support and objection of neighboring owners. The City Attorney, Bob Tschinkel offered to summarize the Board's options later in the meeting, following all testimony.

I left at 10:40 PM (Janet wore out an hour earlier and went home) as the Planning Board members were still trying to craft a motion that could gain support for a recommendation to the City Commission. The chair of the Board, Patricia Peables, called in sick. The Board's remaining four members, led by co-chair Richard Klitenick, listened for over three hours to testimony from proponents and opponents.

A motion to deny the project failed on a 2-2 tie vote. The subsequent motion, to recommend approval of the project with conditions, was being written on the fly when I left. The Board members, assisted by the City Planner and City Attorney, were trying to stipulate what conditions would be attached. I read in the paper this morning that the board deadlocked again on the second motion, thus delaying a decision until their February meeting.

The issues revolving around the project are these:

Does the project conform to the city's comprehensive plan, land development regulations, and historical area guidelines?

Is the project required to conform to an arcane measurement known as FAR -- Floor Area Ratio?

Are the buildings within the height limits prescribed in the City Charter?

Is the design of the project compatible with the architecture of the surrounding neighborhood?

The opponents, led in the presentation to the Board by Attorney Robert Goldman, presented the opinions of four local architects and other expert witnesses, backed by voluminous documentation, architectural renderings, and a scale model of the project. The chair of the Historical Architecture Review Committee, which previously approved the project on a divided vote, offered his own opinion that HARC made a mistake in approving the plans and has been joined in that opinion by a HARC member who voted to approve.

The ebb and flow of discussion was, at times, difficult to follow. The sound system in Old City Hall is sub-par. Some of the board members had a tendency to ignore the microphone while speaking. Mostly, though, one had to pay very close attention to grasp the technicalities being discussed, and to listen for the nuances of statements made by the participants in the discussion.

For example, although the two motions made might seem to be merely opposite sides of a single idea -- approve or deny, there were in fact subtle differences. The motion to deny the application included a set of proposed "findings" that would indicate to the City Commission on what basis the Planning Board recommendation was given. That motion addressed the technicalities of Floor Area Ratio, roof pitch, landscaping, but it also included that the Board found the project to be incompatible with the surrounding area. The second motion, to recommend with conditions, did not say anything about a condition to make the design compatible. Attorney Goldman scored a point when he produced a brochure for another project of Cortex Development, developer for Caroline Street Partners of Watermark, which offers on the mainland another of their developments of "Key West-style condominiums". The mainland project had much more of the look and feel of Key West architecture, unlike Watermark which is described by some as having all the charm of a prison, and by others as fitting in well in Boca, or Lauderdale, but not in Key West.

So, the battle continues. The opponents, a confederation of project neighbors, the Key West Neighborhood Association, and other citizens vow to continue to fight the project until it is brought into full compliance with all requirements of the law, both in letter and in spirit. The applicants, represented by two local residents who are principals of Caroline Street Partners, assisted by property law powerhouse Jim Kendrick and architect Robert Craig, are no doubt eager to get their project underway.

I'll try to follow this closely, and to delve into some of the issues at a micro as well as a macro level. The outcome of this is seen by many as an indicator of whether historic and neighborhood preservation are to be the direction in which Key West goes, or if the developers are gaining more control.

Some time back I commented on the offer by a developer to purchase the entire Key West Bight from the City. I felt then and I feel now that such a scheme is still a possible outcome. There's a truism in economics: Land always goes to it best and highest [economic] use. If these developers are allowed to build what is in absolute essence a commercial property, financed by the investors, who will rent their luxury apartments for a day, a week, or month to those who can pay the thousands of dollars those rentals will bring in, if that's what we get on our waterfront in our historic district, if that's what the developers leave us when they walk away with whatever profit they manage to eke out of their investment, then maybe the Conchs who went to Ocala were right. Take the money and run. Get out while the getting's good.

Me, I just live here. I want to stay. To live and die in Key West, that's my dream.

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