Darth Vader 2.0: Office tower gets reboot

Northbridge Centre in West Palm Beach

The Force is awakening at the old Darth Vader building in downtown West Palm Beach.

Plans are in the works to do a major upgrade of the Northbridge Centre, the 21-story office building informally named after Luke Skywalker’s father, thanks to its ominous black-glass exterior.

Inside, however, plans are to brighten the 515 N. Flagler Dr. tower with a $10 million upgrade.

Rendering of lobby renovation planned for Northbridge Centre

The goal is to lure new office tenants to the city’s downtown, before talked-about new office towers start rising during the next couple of years.

City business and government leaders have been crying for months there’s not enough office space in the city’s core, prompting developers such as The Related Cos, Charles Cohen and Jeff Greene to draft or consider plans for new office towers.

But owners and brokers at Northbridge say there’s plenty of space in their waterfront building, especially for those coveted hedge funds and private equity firms that the county’s Business Development Board is trying to hard to lure.

“We’re the last game in town, and we’ll be the best game when these renovations are completed,” said Peter Reed, managing principal at Commercial Florida Realty Services in Boca Raton.

“With nearly 100,000 square feet of vacancy, we’re the only building with any appreciable waterfront space left in the market,” added Angelo Bianco, managing partner of Boca Raton-based Crocker Partners, a co-owner of the building.

Commercial Florida is representing Northbridge, along with Tower Commercial.

They are working to draw attention to the sometimes-overlooked property that was acquired last year by Greenfield Partners of Connecticut and Crocker. The companies paid $68.24 million for the 294,000-square-foot building, which includes a separate four-story pavillion with a rooftop garden.

Northbridge, which now houses a number of law firms, is about 70 percent leased. The property was built in 1984.

Plans are afoot to make the building physically as appealing as those waterview vistas, Bianco said.

For starters, gone will be those red stripes on the outside of the building. (Darth Vader didn’t have them; Northbridge soon won’t have them, either.)

Inside, plans are underway to build an upscale conference center that will be able to hold about 140 people. The roughly 3,000-square-foot space will feature all the latest high-tech gadgets and will serve as a building amenity to tower tenants, Bianco said.

Crocker also will add expand the health club and build a brand new café. Bathrooms and floor lobbies will be upgraded and new elevator cabs put in, Bianco said.

Bianco said the building is well-positioned in the market. Physically, it’s right next to the new Flagler Memorial Bridge, which is nearing completion.

Once this north bridge opens, Reed said it will provide less congested traffic flows with easy access to the property, compared to other office towers clustered around the middle bridge at Okeechobee Boulevard.

“Follow the compass rose north, the direction West Palm Beach is moving,” Reed quipped.

From a price perspective, Northbridge’s rental rates are a better bet, too, Reed said.

Rents at Northbridge go for around $30 per foot not including taxes, maintenance and insurance. That’s about $20 per square foot less than buildings such as Phillips Point or CityPlace Tower, where rents start around $50 per square foot, Reed said.

Not surprisingly, Northbridge’s’ brokers are going after the same tenants everyone else in town wants: Mid-sized tenants needing 3,000 to 7,000 square feet of space.

The building upgrades are expected to be completed by May 2018.

 

 

 

 

Tall tower plan prompts dueling petitions, snipes from builders

Related Cos.’ proposed 25-story tower on the waterfront in West Palm Beach

Sensing blood in the water, New York developer Charles Cohen has sent West Palm Beach city officials another letter urging them to act quickly on his proposal to build an office tower on the city-owned “tent site” land.

The move comes as city officials held two meetings this month, where impassioned city residents voiced opposition to The Related Cos.’s plan to build a 25-story office tower along the city’s waterfront.

The One Flagler tower would be on Flagler Drive, next to the First Church of Christ, Scientist. The land now is zoned for only five stories.

Related’s bid to build One Flagler has mobilized some city residents who don’t like the plan. They say the tower is too tall, will worsen traffic, will block some of their views and will forever ruin the city’s waterfront.

They’ve circulated a petition and now claim nearly 1,000 names on it from nine condos, including the powerful One Watermark condo. They’ve flooded city officials with emails, formed teams and organized a Facebook page, dubbed Preserve West Palm Beach Citizens Coalition. Now they’re working on slogans.

Their effort has become so aggressive that Related has started pushing its own petition, this one with the names of tower supporters collected during neighborhood meetings. The petition has about 700 names.

Related’s petition drive made a public showing this past weekend at CityPlace, which Related built.

At the shopping and dining center, bewildered Easter tourists encountered a table in front of retailer Anthropologie, seeking petition signers.

The table was meant to provide people with tower information and drum up support, said Rick Asnani, a principal with Cornerstone Solutions, the group hired by Related for community outreach.

In meetings with neighborhood groups, “once we explain what we’re trying to do the opposition melts away and we find people are neutral or gravitate to it,” Asnani said. “It’s amazing how quickly people are supporting this project.”

Unfortunately for Related, a lot of tourists were hanging around CityPlace this past holiday weekend, so Cornerstone officials couldn’t reach as many residents as they hoped.

Nonetheless, “it was a good experiment. We were happy to bring awareness,” Asnani said.

Related officials say there is demand for a new Class A office building that will bring more jobs to the city. Money from the sale of the land will preserve the 1928 Christian Science church, they add.

But residents in nearby condos aren’t buying it. Their growing opposition has prompted Cohen and another billionaire real estate developer, Jeff Greene, to openly criticize Related’s efforts to try to rezone the low-rise waterfront site.

This is especially the case since business and city leaders have been crying for some time about the need for new, Class A office space downtown.

“The site in play and the development planned does not comply with current zoning and has received community opposition that will delay any forward movement,” Cohen said of the Related site in his letter to city officials, including Mayor Jeri Muoio.

In a statement to this reporter, Cohen said the tent site “provokes much less consternation than any site that would compete with it.”

The letter comes one month after Cohen, the Oscar-winning owner of the Carefree Theater property, sent a letter to city officials notifying them of his interest in building a 300,000-400,000-square foot office building on the tent site. That land is at Okeechobee Boulevard and South Dixie Highway.

Meanwhile, Greene poked holes at Related’s efforts to create the Okeechobee Business District to justify One Flagler. A previous effort to create a waterfront historic district that would have allowed this tower failed.

“What’s next? The One Block From The Water District?” Greene asked. “We should just call it what it is: Spot zoning. And everybody knows it.”

Greene said the city’s citizen referendums are the reason the land is zoned for only five stories. If that cap is to change, “the city can have another referendum,” he said.

Greene is planning to build a 30-story, twin-tower complex featuring office space at 550 Quadrille Blvd. He said he plans to start building soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seven things to know about Palm Beach County’s real estate market

From left to right: Joel Altman, the Altman Companies; Mike Belmont, Minto Communities; Jeff Greene; Bob Vail, Kolter Urban; Michael Wohl, Pinnacle Housing
From left to right: Joel Altman, the Altman Companies; Mike Belmont, Minto Communities; Jeff Greene; Bob Vail, Kolter Urban; Michael Wohl, Pinnacle Housing. Photo courtesy Green Advertising.

Banks are turning off their money spigots.  Apartment rental rates aren’t likely to go up.

But people still need to live somewhere, and five prominent housing developers told a crowd of about 70 on Thursday they remain mostly bullish about the Palm Beach County housing market.

The speakers were Jeff Greene, a Palm Beach billionaire and West Palm Beach land investor;  Mike Belmont, president of Minto Communities Florida; Bob Vail, president of Kolter Urban; Joel Altman, chairman of The Altman Companies; and Michael Wohl, president of Pinnacle Housing.

They addressed a crowd assembled at Morton’s Steak House for the aptly-named Real Estate Developer Power Lunch. The lunch was hosted by Green Advertising and chairman Phyllis Green, in celebration of the company’s 30th anniversary representing a range of businesses, especially developers.

Although the real estate developers were enthusiastic about their own projects, they candidly voiced concerns about housing affordability, demand for rental apartments and the future of new projects proposed in the county.

And, in a one-on-one interview with a reporter, one developer  dropped a bombshell.

Here are seven takeaways:

  • Minto is not promising to build parks and recreational facilities at Westlake, a city created after the county gave Minto approval to develop 4,500 homes in a portion of the Acreage. “That’s up to the city (of Westlake),” Minto’s Mike Belmont told this reporter. Minto is the primary landowner in the Seminole Improvement District, whose boundaries now roughly equate those of Westlake. The project calls for 200 acres of parks and 15 miles of trails for horses, bikes and walkers. After Westlake was created, county officials worried Minto would not keep its promises and instead, punt to Westlake.
  • Boca Raton is about to become a hot market for apartment rentals.  Altman’s soon-to-open 396-unit apartment complex, Altis Boca Raton, is expected to attract professionals working in the nearby Park at Broken Sound. Altis is under construction on Military Trail and is expected to open in March. Rents will range from $1,800 to the high $2,000s for one, two and three bedroom apartments.
  • West Palm Beach remains an iffy market for more new apartments. Greene said there’s a limited pool of people who can afford pricey rents. At the Strand apartment building and City Palm condos, where Greene owns bulk units and rents them out, he consistently has a 10 percent vacancy rate. “We don’t have robust demand,” Greene said.
  • Housing affordability is a problem. Belmont said Westlake will provide for-sale homes for working families, but other developers who build apartments acknowledged rents are starting to become too pricey. In Boca Raton, Altman said rental rate increases will soon start moderating because the supply of apartments is increasing. In West Palm Beach, Greene said rental rates increases are “constrained” because there isn’t a huge pool of renters. This means rental rates are less likely to rise in the future, he said.
  •  Fewer condominium and apartment projects will be built, thanks to tightened lending practices. Making matters worse: Bank regulators are clamping down on banks that already have broad exposure to the housing market. Minto’s Belmont said one major bank dropped out of its lending group, but the company was able to replace it with another bank. “The (lending) pool is shrinking, and the banks participating in the pool are getting tougher,” agreed Kolter’s Vail. Kolter is building The Alexander apartments in West Palm Beach and the Water Club condominium in North Palm Beach.
  • West Palm Beach has a lot of proposed projects, but “of eight or 10 proposed projects, maybe one or two will get built,” Greene said. Greene said obtaining bank financing will be a problem for some developers, but not for him: He plans to self-finance construction of One West Palm, a twin-tower complex featuring office space, hotel rooms and apartments. “I’m taking a shot here, but it won’t ruin me if it doesn’t work out,” said the billionaire. Greene expects to break ground on the 30-story towers at Quadrille Boulevard within about four months.
  • Everybody wants the West Palm Beach condominium, The Bristol, to succeed. The ultra-luxury condo, now under construction on Flagler Drive, could provide a “viral” boost to the local real estate market, once the 25-story building is completed and word gets out, said Kolter’s Vail.

Mike Tyson talks with Jeff Greene on day 2 of Closing the Gap seminar

Mike Tyson is interviewed by Jeff Greene during the "Closing the Gap" conference hosted by billionaire Palm Beacher Greene Dec. 8, 2015. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
Mike Tyson is interviewed by Jeff Greene during the “Closing the Gap” conference hosted by billionaire Palm Beacher Greene Dec. 8, 2015. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Former boxing champ Mike Tyson took the stage in Palm Beach on Tuesday to discuss his career with Palm Beach billionaire businessman Jeff Greene.

Greene is playing host to dozens of businesspeople and celebrities this week for his three-day Closing the Gap seminar.

The topic of the seminar: Is the American middle class disappearing? And what can be done if it is?

In discussions yesterday, noted historians, authors and politicians tackled everything from tech-related job displacement to unemployment insurance.

Read more about yesterday’s discussions here.

As robots take jobs, what next?

kiva
At Amazon warehouses, Kiva robots replace $8-an-hour workers.

Robots are stealing white-collar jobs, and the middle class faces extinction. Those were among the not-so-sunny forecasts offered Monday at Closing the Gap, a three-day confab in Palm Beach hosted by billionaire Jeff Greene.

Greene noted a prediction that 45 percent of jobs could disappear to automation, an outlook he called “pretty scary.”

A shifting labor market leaves high-paid jobs for skilled workers, low-paying jobs for unskilled workers, and not much in the middle, said Thomas Friedman, the bestselling author of The World Is Flat and other tomes

Billionaire Jeff Greene is hosting the three-day Closing the Gap confab in Palm Beach. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
Billionaire Jeff Greene is hosting the three-day Closing the Gap confab in Palm Beach. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

“Average is now over for every worker” Friedman said. “In today’s world, there is no such animal in the zoo as the high-wage, middle-skill job.”

The hollowing out of the middle class has contributed to a weak economy, said Robert Reich, a former labor secretary under Bill Clinton and now an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

“If the middle class and the poor don’t have enough purchasing power, you’re not going to be able to move the economy forward,” Reich said.

With lower-income workers seemingly destined for economic uncertainty, Reich urged expanding the safety net.

One idea: Replacing unemployment insurance with income insurance. Because freelance workers aren’t eligible for unemployment checks, Reich suggests a system that would pay up to a quarter of average income for workers who fall on hard times.

“People need a different kind of help. They don’t just need unemployment insurance,” Reich said.

Reich’s other proposal for a jobless future: “We are going to have to think seriously about a guaranteed minimum income.”

He suggested paying for the social program by taxing revenue generated by patents and copyrights.

Jeff Greene unveils new design of twin-tower WPB project

One West Palm, twin-tower project planned by Jeff Greene
One West Palm, twin-tower project planned by Jeff Greene

From bulbous to boxy: A new design for Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene‘s twin tower project in West Palm Beach has been unveiled.

Dubbed One West Palm, the massive, glassy towers will be built at 550 Quadrille Blvd.

Plans for the project first were submitted to the city in August. But since then, architecture firm Arquitectonica has changed the design.

Gone is the rounded, vaguely futuristic design that impressed some observers and alarmed others. Here’s the old design:

main550

Instead, the new drawings now features boxy elements, which a statement dubs “prisms” that “create an abstract vertical city of cubic components.”

At first glance, they resemble an uneven stack of children’s building blocks:

boxy2boxy3boxy4

But the cubes do serve a purpose, apparently. The statement said they break up the scale of the towers, which are 30 stories tall. And the way the building is composed, views of the Intracoastal Waterway are maximized, according to the statement.

The mixed-use complex features a 30-story, Class A office building, rising at the southwest corner of the site, along Quadrille Boulevard. An executive lounge with an observation terrace is planned on the rooftop.

The hotel and residential tower, also 30 stories, will sit on the northeast corner, along North Dixie Highway. This tower will feature 200 hotel rooms and 76 condos, with hotel service and private elevators.

At the top is a planned garden roof deck, for penthouses. Along the bottom, the  ground floor will have retail shops and restaurants along Dixie Highway.

Other features include a full-service spa, ballroom, theater and fitness center.

In addition, there will be a living wall, featuring plants growing along the exterior of the building. The green walls will conceal the garage.