FL: Eastward Ho or No? Panama Hattie's Plan Shows Limits of Smart Growth

Twenty years after Florida's Eastward Ho! initiatives tried to slow suburban sprawl, a proposal to replace Panama Hattie's with a hotel, condos, offices, shops and restaurants is showing the limits of shoe-horning "smart growth" into trafficky, urbanized areas.

The concept of condensed coastal development is one thing, the reality another, as the developer, PGA Partners 100 LLC, is essentially conceding by slashing the project's size before even getting to the first public workshop with the city's Planning, Zoning and Appeals Board on Tuesday.

PGA Partners has optioned 7.95 acres on the south side of PGA Boulevard at Ellison Wilson Road, along the Intracoastal Waterway. The firm has applied to annex the site into Palm Beach Gardens, raze the restaurant and build its mixed-use project, initially valued at $175 million.

The problem, as neighbors are quick to point out, is traffic exacerbated by frequent openings of the PGA Boulevard drawbridge, which snarls roadways in all directions for as much as a half-hour at a time. Adding hundreds of cars coming and going from condos, restaurants and a hotel will make matters worse, neighbors told project planners at two presentations, June 26 and 27.

"At that particular site, there are some traffic constraints that can't be mitigated for," City Council Member David Levy said Tuesday.

"One is the bridge. It's very difficult at the current traffic level. The second thing is intense development next to residential neighborhoods to the south. I don't know how they're going to address the compatibility issue. But we already have failing traffic levels."

The project is in the early stages of the approvals process, and Levy said he is required to keep an open mind until traffic engineers and project planners complete studies and present findings. But "the project's got some hurdles to jump," he said.

Eastward Ho! gained currency as a planning concept during the 1990s, when state, regional and local officials saw South Florida's post-Andrew development advancing rapidly westward, eating up land as it approached the Everglades, putting stress on roads, water supplies and other municipal services.

By adjusting regulations to steer growth eastward, near existing transit and residential hubs, efficient and sustainable communities would evolve. The density of such redevelopment would provide more customers for mass transit and improve quality of life by having more people live closer to work.

The concept still has merit but "every site has to be looked at on its own," said former county commissioner Karen Marcus, who's keeping an eye on the Panama Hattie's project as a consultant to the Lost Tree Club golf community, just east of the bridge on Jack Nicklaus Drive. "They have a lot of concerns."

Part of the charm of the site is that it rests along the old Juno Ridge, with its elevation dropping steeply from Ellison Wilson Road to the banks of the waterway, beside the bridge. The reconstruction would fill and elevate part of the property, "just flatten it," she said. "It would change the look of the area."

Cars present the main problem in the area, which has little bus service or any other mass transit, Marcus said. "I just think it's too big, and traffic needs to be realistically dealt with."

Critics say emergency vehicles need to be able to cross the intersection freely and spillover traffic can't clog neighborhoods to the north, or crowd the south near The Benjamin School.

Dodi Glas, project planner for PGA Partners, said there's little the developer can do about existing traffic on adjacent roadways.

Turn lanes will be built into the property to ease traffic flow, and it will have a three-lane entry and a separate service entrance, she said. County traffic engineers have begun to study the area around the bridge, PGA and Ellison Wilson to see what else might be done.

The initial plan submitted to Palm Beach Gardens, calling for 150 condos or apartments, a 160-room hotel, offices and restaurants, already is being revised, Glas said. The office and restaurant space is being reduced by about one-third, and the number of condo units will be closer to 84 than 150, she said.

"Eastward Ho! is still viable," said Lisa Interlandi, a North Palm Beach resident and land-use attorney with the Everglades Law Center.

"The site is amenable to some redevelopment," she said. "What happened is that they proposed a plan initially that was way too intense. It was totally out of character with the surrounding neighborhood."

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