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Palm Beach Daily News
A dismayed and frustrated Architectural Commission last week sent a clear message to the Town Council and others involved in building the controversial and much-delayed recreation center. The compound's architecture, the board agreed, shouldn't be compromised just because the council is wrestling with an unexpected budget crunch.
The council's recent decision, in particular, to strip the center of much of its cast-stone detailing is short-sighted, commissioners agreed, and flies in the face of the high-quality standards Palm Beachers expect of buildings here.
"The (cast-stone) finish is important, and it's important to the look. The cast stone is the accent on the building. It's what makes the building stand out and says, 'This is Palm Beach,'" said Alternate Commissioner Katherine Catlin, echoing her colleagues on the dais.
The board considered four other proposed changes to the project Wednesday after being asked to review several cost-cutting measures the council adopted in July. That's when officials — facing a $2 million budget shortfall — approved a $13.8 million budget for the center, which will replace recently demolished one at 340 Seaview Ave. The project is to be jointly funded by the town; the project's lead donor, the Morton and Barbara Mandel Family Foundation; and individual donations collected by the nonprofit Friends of Recreation. Each entity is paying a third, with the two donor groups pledging up to $5 million each.
The council was told that the price of materials and construction costs rose during the year the project was delayed because of a lawsuit filed against the project by a group of residents. Director of Public Works Paul Castro reiterated that explanation on Wednesday.
Even after addressing the $2 million shortfall, the council took action to shave an additional $673,561 off the budget — and those changes were presented to the board last week.
In addition to removing some of the cast stone, the changes included eliminating — at least temporarily — an entry arch from the center's parking lot off Royal Palm Way. Also cut from the plan were an open-air porch pavilion in the children's playground; the tennis court's hitting wall and its porch; and a wall that would have connected the hitting wall and the playground pavilion. In all, those items were estimated to cost $326,047.
Months of work
The architectural board approved the project's architecture in March 2017, and several commissioners last week expressed dismay that the town was making changes after commissioners had spent months hashing out the final design more than a year ago.
Board members were especially incensed by the council's decision — acting on suggestion from the Town Hall staff and the architectural team — to save $167,327 by stripping cast-stone decorative elements from the main building, the attached gymnasium and a separate tennis pavilion. The stone would have been used as banding at the base of the main building and gym, around gym windows and for planters, benches and columns. The cast stone details would be replaced by stucco versions, architect Nelo Robert Freijomel explained.
Vice Chairman Michael B. Small said one of the board's tasks is to ensure that every new building enhances the beauty of Palm Beach. He asked: Why should the town be allowed to make deleterious changes to an already-approved project when a private property owner building a house would likely be denied such a request?
"You're asking us to treat the town, which ought to rise to a higher standard, lower than anybody else who comes before us," Small said. "People say we're nitpicking and so on ... but we're trying to maintain this level, and recognition of beauty and quality in the town, that we love and that we call paradise. How can we do that? I'm unalterably opposed to removing the cast stone."
The commission also was asked to bless the idea of changing walkways to poured concrete rather than cast-stone pavers, which would save $180,187, Freijomel said.
Commissioner Robert N. Garrison's motion, which passed unanimously, opposed removing any cast stone from the project and included a statement that the board didn't favor the elimination of the entry arch, the playground pavilion, the tennis hitting-wall elements or the adjoining wall as a way to meet the budget shortfall. But Garrison's motion appeared to support a plan outlined by Castro, who said those specific items could be reintroduced to the project later in a phased plan, if funding could be secured from "a donor."
Commissioners Maisie Grace and John David Corey said they were fine with eliminating the playground pavilion in favor of a more open, tree-shaded space. But Corey was adamantly opposed to removing the entry arch, which he called a "gem."
The board's decision is expected to be reviewed in September by the council. The Mandel Foundation and the Friends of Recreation also will be briefed on the commission's vote, said Deputy Town Manager Jay Boodheshwar. But the council has the final decision about whether it will adopt the commission's recommendations, he added.
Seek a compromise?
Councilwoman Maggie Zeidman, who attended Wednesday's meeting, said the council could seek a compromise, now that commissioners have weighed in on the changes.
"It is entirely understandable that the (Architectural Commission) wants the recreation center to reflect the same good taste and high standards of other public buildings in town. The Town Council relies on their expertise and gives serious weight to their recommendations but we are also responsible to the residents to use their tax dollars prudently," Zeidman wrote in an email Thursday to the Daily News.
"Everyone is doing their best to keep costs reasonable and meet the goal of having a new recreation center, which will serve the residents for many years to come."
At the meeting, Garrison sharply questioned whether the savings represented a significant enough percentage of the center's overall budget to justify the eliminations. The cast stone proposed to be stripped from the structures alone comprises about 1.2 percent of the recreation center's overall budget.
In July, the council chose to eliminate the cast stone and the four structures after considering a laundry list of already-approved items that could have been cut to save money. The council decided not to ax a new tennis pavilion and agreed to proceed with renovating the tennis pro shop and a maintenance building.
The plan presented to the board last week retained cast-stone pavers on the entry walkway at the main entrance from Seaview Avenue, as well as cast-stone details on the clock tower there. Cast stone also will remain on the covered porches at the main entry and on a secondary entry on the south side, on the steps and risers leading up to the entry porches and on a covered porch on the south side of the gymnasium.
"We saw these as the key feature areas where we really did not want to sacrifice the finish," Freijomel said.
— dhofheinz@ pbdailynews.com
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