|By Andrew Abramson, The Palm Beach Post,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 11, 2010 -- WEST PALM BEACH -- Just two years after the city commission imposed a five-story cap on buildings in the Clematis corridor, they're reconsidering that limit for a 10-story project literally at their doorstep.
Robert Samuels, the owner of Provident Jewelry at 331 Clematis St., wants to bring a 10-story, 99-room boutique hotel to the parking lot he part owns two doors down, at 335 Clematis. The site is directly across N. Dixie Highway from the five-story, $154 million City Center complex into which the mayor and commission moved last year.
Mayor Lois Frankel and commissioners have explored numerous avenues to bring a hotel downtown. This plan comes just months after they voted not to finance a $50 million conversion of the Comeau Building from office space to hotel.
The city wouldn't have to finance the Samuels deal, but it would have to alter the downtown master plan.
That doesn't sit well with all commissioners, who voted on the five-story cap at a time when developers were eager to build and the public was eager to hold down the skyline.
"We're suggesting today that we make decisions based on whatever is going on in the economy, without being mindful first and foremost of the character of the street that will live long past this economic challenge," Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell said. "The character (of Clematis Street) has to be preserved."
But Commissioner Bill Moss said the city has to find a way to put a hotel on Clematis.
"We came to the conclusion that we wanted to have hotels downtown, and we all agreed that the hotels are the lifeblood of a livable, viable downtown," Moss said. "People stay in hotels, they go out and eat and shop."
Moss disclosed that Provident is a client of his firm, Baldrica Advertising & Marketing, but said his firm has no financial ties to the hotel.
Samuels, who said he has a tentative agreement with two hotel development groups and could have a deal in place in 90 days, is no stranger to West Palm Beach politics.
Samuels a Downtown Development Authority board member since 2004, was involved in dealings with former City Commissioner Jim Exline that led to Exline's conviction for tax evasion. According to federal prosecutors, real estate broker John Sansbury funneled a $50,000 commission to Exline through the jewelry story, apparently to hide the earnings from Exline's ex-wife.
Exline served 10 months in a federal prison camp. Samuels denied knowingly helping Exline break a law and was never charged with any wrongdoing.
Still, Mitchell said the relationship is unsettling.
"It definitely makes me uncomfortable," Mitchell said. "But I'm going to look through the prism of is it right thing to do and not who is it. Is this a project that would be worthy of amending the master plan to accommodate?"
The proposed hotel site is currently a parking lot that's owned by Clematis Ventures LLC, a corporation that Samuels part-owns. The land was purchased for $2.2 million in 2005.
The city last June adopted zoning regulations that lifted height limitations for some parts of downtown, but left the 5-story limit for the Clematis area intact. Samuels said Monday that his proposed hotel would have to be 10 stories to have enough rooms to make it profitable.
Frankel had mixed feelings.
"You've got folks who want to invest a lot of money, create quite a few jobs and have the corner vibrant 24 hours a day," she said.
At the same time, "If you're going to allow a 10-story building on the Clematis corridor, I don't know how it's going to look," she said. "It's a beautiful spot to have this hotel, if it can be done in a way that can protect the integrity of a very charming downtown."
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