Singer Island balks at redevelopment

RIVIERA BEACH The demolition of a third of the Ocean Mall and a decision by county commissioners to curtail traffic on Singer Island are clear signs that the barrier island is caught in a tug of war.

Both examples speak to the paradox of Singer Island's future: City officials are pushing hard to get their $2.4 billion waterfront redevelopment moving. But Singer Island residents have stepped directly into the redevelopment's path and are crying to slow down.

Those cries have been ignored, said Bill Contole, president of the Citizens for Responsible Growth for Riviera Beach. Contole's group is behind the recent push that got Palm Beach County commissioners to place stiff traffic restrictions on Singer Island, which potentially could limit further development on the island.

"The city's actions show a lack of response to its citizens," said Contole, who along with more than 20 residents spoke at last week's commission meeting. "The city ought to be working with people."

That's why Singer Island residents turned to County Commissioner Karen Marcus, Contole said. Marcus was not only willing to listen, she enlisted county staff to review the traffic agreement with Riviera Beach and recommend tightening standards.

"They don't understand that it doesn't help Riviera Beach to overbuild Singer Island," Contole said. "I think that's something Karen Marcus understands."

But Marcus' involvement has touched off a feud with Mayor Michael Brown, who threatened to have Riviera Beach pull out of the county's deal with The Scripps Research Institute, the world's largest nonprofit biomedical research institute whose coming is seen by Palm Beach County and state officials as an opportunity to create thousands of jobs at its planned Jupiter-Palm Beach Gardens campus and spinoff businesses. Riviera Beach is among five other cities and the county pledging 48.5 million square feet in biotech space for Scripps spinoff businesses.

Although Brown's proposal has not advanced, it has made some city officials rethink Riviera Beach's relationship with the county. Councilwoman Liz Wade, who told Brown to hold off until she could come up with a response, understands Singer Island's motives.

"The bottom line is the people on Singer Island know how to play their political clout," Wade said. "I would probably do the same thing if I were in Karen's position."

Contole also claims that city officials often present an "us versus them" attitude when it comes to Singer Island issues. That approach has created some animosity between the island and the mainland, he said.

"These are just developer-driven politics," he said. "It doesn't help the city to build another monster building on Singer Island."

In 2002, Contole mobilized some Singer Island residents when the city approved more liberal "resort hotel" zoning for the Island Spa Resort. Residents sued, and the project was scaled back, but the 20-story building, which is expected to open soon, is yet another example of the city's willingness to put developers ahead of residents, he said.

Former Councilman and retired Circuit Judge Edward Rodgers acknowledges that development on the island was viewed as a source of tax revenues for the city. But growth on the mainland and construction on the island should lead city leaders toward a different set of priorities, he said.

"The need for money (from the island) isn't as great as used to be," said Rodgers, a Singer Island resident.

David Schyner, also a former councilman, who represented Singer Island, said the city realized that the new zoning gave developers too much leeway. He said the idea was to jump-start development on Singer Island but not to overdevelop the land.

"We had inadvertently gone too far," said Schyner, who now lives in upstate New York, "... and that divided the island."

Schyner abruptly resigned from the council in 2004 over the city's plan to redevelop the Ocean Mall. The council approved in concept a plan by Marriott Vacation Club International to build three 27-story towers at the Ocean Mall site.

The project eventually was reduced to its current concept: one 28-story building and 60,000 square feet of restaurants and shops. It also has new partners, including local builder Dan Catalfumo.

Catalfumo's group, Ocean Mall Redevelopment, is trying to strike a deal with the city that lets the developer build 100 hotel rooms/150 condos. This is yet another issue that has Singer Island up in arms.

"The idea of selling the public beach land to private developers is wrong," Contole said.

Joey Eichner, a senior vice president with Catalfumo Construction, said a June 20 meeting of the Singer Island Civic Association, one of the island's most vocal groups, revealed that some island residents supported the project. In fact, those attending the meeting voted 28-16 in favor of the project, he said.

But not all residents at the meeting were SICA members, and the vote was not an endorsement of the project, said Tony Gigliotti, SICA'S chairman.

Meanwhile, Riviera Beach has to make some critical decisions in order for the project to progress. The most controversial is whether the city will extend the current lease on the beachfront from 50 to 99 years a move that residents contend must go to a referendum vote.

Debates over whether Riviera Beach should develop its public beach go back nearly four decades. After several false starts, the city finally entered into a 50-year lease with Andrew Brock's family in 1972.

Initially, the lease required the Brocks to pay the city $20,000 annually, with annual cost-of-living increases. But the city never enforced the hikes.

After signing the leases, residents complained after learning a 7-Eleven would be housed at the mall, although initial plans called for a mini-theater and miniature golf. Today, with 16 years left on the lease, the mall is aging, and two buildings damaged by hurricanes in the past two years were demolished.

Still, the fight over the public beach is galvanizing Singer Island residents, Gigliotti said. SICA understood that some of the old zoning regulations prevented developers from reinvesting in some of the old units on the island, so his group supported loosening some of the zoning to stimulate growth, he added.

But there was an "unwritten quid pro quo" regarding the Ocean Mall: that it would remain a public beach with no towering condos or hotels.

"We've had our differences in the past," Gigliotti said. "But the issues of traffic and the Ocean Mall have brought us together."