FL: West Palm Beach Residents balk at Design of All Aboard Station

Aug. 02--West Palm Beach officials are distancing themselves from the architectural design of All Aboard Florida's $29 million train station planned in the heart of the city's downtown after complaints from residents criticizing the building's proposed look.

City officials say they have no control over the station's design and cannot block the project based on architectural renderings.

The city is turning to its government television station to let residents know it can't force All Aboard Florida to redesign the station, West Palm Beach spokesman Elliot Cohen said. The city is creating an informational program about the project that will be aired, he said.

"Regardless of what you think of the building, we don't have any way of controlling the design of it," Cohen said.

The station is set to rise on property inside Florida East Coast Railway's right of way, which All Aboard Florida controls. As a result, the company doesn't need city officials to approve the design before it begins construction late this year, Cohen said.

"This station is in a unique location in our city," Cohen said. "It is one of the few, if not the only location, where our zoning and our process doesn't apply. If you go back 100 years, the railroads were here before the cities...The railroad calls the shots in their right of way because they were here first."

All Aboard Florida plans to run express passenger rail service from Miami to Orlando on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks, with stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. The Miami-to-West Palm Beach service is expected to open in late 2016 with the Orlando leg beginning in 2017.

Since All Aboard Florida unveiled architectural renderings for its West Palm Beach station on July 21, city officials have heard from several residents who don't like the design, Cohen said.

"I just want to say, without a doubt, that is the ugliest building I have ever seen," resident Marilyn Jordan wrote in an email to the city on July 24. "I can't believe (Mayor Jeri Muoio) would allow that to be built in our city."

Another resident compared the station to a "spaceship," saying that the design doesn't fit in with the city's downtown.

"It is hideous and does not add to the venue that is West Palm Beach," the resident wrote in a July 21 message to Muoio's office.

All Aboard Florida did not respond to questions about the station's design, and instead pointed to the experience of its architects.

"All Aboard Florida has assembled a world-class team of designers and architects based on their incomparable expertise in developing landmark facilities, such as the stations we are developing in South Florida," the company said in a statement to The Palm Beach Post.

The design, created by New York-based firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in association with Zyscovich Architects, is similar to the Fort Lauderdale station, including an exoskeleton of sharp, modern trusses. But it is more humble in scale than the $150 million Miami station, which will have restaurants, shops, apartments and offices.

"There is a sort of design DNA that these (stations) share," Olin McKenzie, with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, said at All Aboard's July 21 unveiling of the West Palm Beach station design. "Like so many famous infrastructural projects throughout history, we thought that externalizing the structure of this building would give it a confidence to allow it to sit as an urban icon in this city."

The West Palm station includes 30,000 square feet of air-conditioned space with a lounge area for 180 people.

Plans call for a sleek narrow facility of stacked concrete and glass that will stretch between Datura and Evernia streets to the west of the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. The station, which will have a parking lot for about 90 vehicles, is expected to open in 2016.

"When passenger rail is brought to Florida again, it is going to be a historic and momentous occasion," McKenzie said at the unveiling. "We designers believe... that these buildings deserve a bold and strong architectural expression."

Although the station can be constructed without the City Commission's approval, All Aboard officials have agreed that the plan would be reviewed by city officials. The review, known as the "plans and plats" process, typically allows city officials to recommend changes to a project based on a host of issues, including traffic impact and public safety.

Because All Aboard isn't required to complete the review process, the company doesn't have to consider the city's comments or recommendations, Cohen said.

"Unlike most processes where we can have a lot more power, they can take our suggestions or not take our suggestions," Cohen said.

During the review process, city planners are expected to ask All Aboard to make some changes to the station plan, Cohen said.

The station's first phase does not include several of the city's wish-list items, including a pedestrian bridge and frontage road to relieve congestion when the project permanently closes Datura and Evernia streets at Quadrille Boulevard.

Also not included is so-called "transit-oriented development" such as restaurants and retail space. The development, if built, would be outside of the railroad's right of way.

Cohen said All Aboard will be required to go through the city's review for the transit-oriented development.

"That would be the same process that anybody else would go through anywhere in the city," Cohen said. "Anything that gets built off the right of way of the tracks we have influence over, and our zoning rules apply to it."

Copyright 2014 - The Palm Beach Post, Fla.