The Florida Billionaire Pissing Off West Palm Beach
A community is divided over Jeff Greene’s plan to construct high-rises in their backyard.
In their pastels and plaids, an army of West Palm Beach residents gathered on Tuesday evening to litigate a bitter fight engulfing their community. On one end of the battle stands a deeply tanned billionaire—the property developer and onetime gubernatorial candidate Jeff Greene—who has been angling to build a cluster of luxury high-rises in the city’s north end. (He sent an emissary on his behalf). On the other, aggrieved locals who believe those plans will shatter their neighborhood’s character and affordable housing.
Greene, 66, has positioned himself as a savior to this blighted section of South Florida, a pocket of land known as Currie Corridor, since it sits adjacent to Currie Park. “The homeowners, they’ll be the biggest beneficiaries,” he told The Daily Beast. “Right now there's nothing but homeless people and crime and all this empty land.”
Some of those homeowners have been reluctant to offer thanks. “We don't want to see a 350-foot tower go up behind us,” said Peter Fox, who owns a condo nearby. “What I think the folks in the area are looking for is for someone to come in and build a mixed-use development.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, members of the city’s planning board weighed changes to local zoning regulations, which Greene will need to build at his desired height. Following hours of heated testimony, the board ruled 7-0 in his favor, and the matter now moves on to the city commission for a final verdict.
Greene’s opponents say they have been cut out of the process. They allege that the city has suppressed dissent, informing residents about public hearings at the last minute and, in some cases, days after meetings took place.
“Their idea of a public hearing was an invitation-only event,” Fox said.
“It has the feel of a public mafia,” said Carl Flick, an urban planner and president of the Northwood Shores Neighborhood Association, who is spearheading local opposition to Greene’s proposal. “The city has attempted to ramrod this unpopular change through a series of secret meetings.”
Activists also raised questions about Tuesday’s vote, where, according to Fox, many pro-Greene attendees “used very similar language” when endorsing his desired changes. “[That] leads me to believe that they might have been encouraged to attend and given talking points... I think this is more than just coincidence,” he said.
Greene does have a circle of support, and West Palm Beach’s director of communications, Kathleen Walter, insisted that the proceedings have been fair and democratic. “Through at least seven meetings in three months, ample opportunities are being provided for public comment and input. Of note, the stakeholder meetings presented by the city were all open forums enabling residents to speak for as long as they would like,” she said.
The stakes are high for Greene, who estimates he has put at least $70 million into the project and is hoping for a return many multiples larger.
“If they can succeed in changing the zoning... to something really high in terms of height and luxury,” said Flick, “they can make not just a profit, but an obscene amount of profit.”
Greene meticulously accumulated his Currie Corridor holdings in the years following the Great Recession. Prior to the crash, a number of developers had torn down buildings and assembled large plots of land, but when the money evaporated, so too did their plans.
“I started acquiring, and I was able to buy all the pieces, and I have this very unique canvas,” Greene told The Daily Beast.
For years, the neighborhood had struggled with crime and poverty. There wasn’t even a grocery store. “The city has always shown a bias towards not funding [the] area, not fixing up, not policing,” said Flick.
Greene pledged to clean things up.
Soon, divisions formed. “I don't trust him. I never have trusted him,” said Claudia Deprez, a decades-long resident and founder of the Northend Coalition of Neighborhoods. She suspected Greene would sit on the land until “the right mayor and the right city council” came into power, allowing him to push through a project even if it contravened public opinion.
Others supported development. “This has been a long time that we've needed to have something. Some of those parcels have stood empty for decades,” said Will Davis, who owns a gift shop in town. “This would be putting us on the map.”
As Greene tells it, he solicited community feedback from the outset. “We had a meeting two years ago with the whole neighborhood... and no one objected to the height,” he recalled. With the exception of “a small number of people” resistant to change, “it was nothing but applause.”
His detractors remember things differently. “I think the merchants were cheering because they want to see foot traffic,” said Fox. “But I think the residents were appalled.”
Luxury high-rises are always controversial in Florida. Many units sit empty even when buildings sell out, owing to rich buyers who are just looking for another pied-à-terre or, more nefariously, to money launderers seeking an easy way to wash their cash.
As new towers loom over neighborhoods, working-class families often get crowded out. “Layer on top of that, with COVID, you have suddenly everyone in the states of New York... New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the Northeast, emptying out and transferring vast numbers of people coming down to Palm Beach,” said Flick. The threats to Currie Corridor seemed doubly real.
The pandemic made Greene controversial in other parts of the region, too. As the virus spread through the mask-averse state, he was in the process of building a $250 million set of towers featuring over 200,000 square feet of office space. Suddenly, with millions of Americans starting to work from home, that looked like a bad idea.
Greene asked the city to modify his permits, swapping in apartments for some of the commercial space. “The city commission and the mayor reacted very negatively to that. They said you can't bait and switch this,” recounted Flick.
In response, Greene temporarily ceased construction altogether, threatening to leave the buildings half-done, like mammoth concrete skeletons. The city held firm, and months later he relented, according to The Palm Beach Post. Development is still underway.
“I blame myself because I did start the project, and I was overly optimistic,” Greene previously told The Real Deal.
The showdown further fueled dissent in Currie Corridor. “My feeling is, why would you want to do business with the guy who has already held you hostage once?” said Fox.
Greene, a former Democratic candidate for governor and the U.S. Senate, says he is working to change those perceptions. His team has modified the high-rise proposals to better blend with the downtown, including by lowering building heights, and he plans to donate land and resources to the city.
“I sympathize with the residents. People are comfortable with what they’re used to,” he said. “Nobody likes change.”
Pending another victory at the city commission, suspicions remain high. Some opponents think Greene doesn’t want to build at all, and that he is instead maneuvering to offload his property once it’s zoned for major development.
Greene fiercely disputes that. If anything, he insists, he plans to hold the property for as long as it takes. “It’s always going to be great land,” he said. “Eventually, it’ll happen, it could just take 30 or 40 or 50 years.”