The Palm Beach County Squeeze
Too many people and places are feeling the squeeze in this sweet part of Florida, while others have been drained completely.
Early last month came news of a long-established restaurant possibly closing its doors for good in Lake Worth Beach, driven by an escalation in rent and city commissioners eager to ‘look at the data’ but less interested in listening to locals. Benny’s on the Beach, the iconic surf side restaurant and bar on the historic Lake Worth Pier since 1986, was all set to go after three commissioners voted against a lease renewal back in April.
Though the restaurant and city of Lake Worth Beach eventually negotiated a compromise, the intense and firey exchanges that played out revealed a breaking point in Palm Beach County as lines are now fiercely being drawn between long-time residents, wealthy developers and newcomers to the region.
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Benny’s on the Beach was lucky. Other seemingly permanent fixtures in Palm Beach County have either left, been forced out or replaced by out-of-state businesses flush with cash. Worth Avenue’s oldest restaurant, Ta-boo, closed its doors last month after a rent and lease dispute with the new property owner. The iconic Square's AMC West Palm theater also closed last month as developers continue to carve out a new path for the city of West Palm Beach. The Palm Beach International Raceway will soon be converted into warehouses and the Palm Beach Improv closed its doors last month as well. The list goes on. We are at the point now where new development, density and rising rents are spiraling – nearly out of control – and many residents feel a sense of powerlessness, frustration, and at times, rage.
No one can – or will – say for certain why Florida is undergoing such rapid growth, both in population and development. Some say its taxes and climate and the increase in remote work options, prompting cross-country migration and businesses moving south. Others claim it’s a direct effect of the long-lasting lockdown mandates and school closures that became so prevalent in states like New York, California and Illinois. Regardless of the reason, Florida is now the fastest growing state in the country – and to the surprise of few – overdevelopment and affordability are altering Florida’s way of life.
To be sure, Florida is a welcoming state. But as new businesses, developers, and yes, people, settle in parts of Florida, and in this case, Palm Beach County, local businesses and residents are increasingly squeezed out in what can be called a gentrification of sorts, where fast-growing sections include soaring residential and commercial rents, higher property taxes and exorbitant fees. Add in heaping dose of inflation and the squeeze gets even tighter.
And it’s not simply a problem privy to private developers and rapid migration (though migration is the root cause). Local governments have shown a keen interest in working with overly-ambitious, and often out-of-state, business and residential developers at the beset of locals and even previously agreed-upon land zoning laws. Last month, Palm Beach County commissioners voted 5-2, approving a land-swap usage proposal that allows GL Homes to build 1,000 luxury homes in the Agricultural Reserve west of Boca Raton.
In Wellington, developer and entrepreneur, Mark Bellissimo, is teaming up with big-name celebrities like Justin Timberlake and Tiger Woods to create ‘The Wellington’ which will include 600 acres of luxury villas and condos, stores, and a hotel, forever altering the Village and the Equestrian Preserve Area (EPA).
While these home additions may sound like a good idea, in reality, new construction will add to the current density crisis in Wellington, and as the term ‘luxury’ indicates, housing units are at a price point unattainable to most. And this is happening all over the county. Wealthy developers target local – and sometimes iconic - areas or establishments to revitalize, rebuild or build out, in a very big way. Even land preserves, ironically, are now up for grabs.
According to Wellington resident and owner of Iconica Polo, Maureen Brennan, Bellissimo’s development proposal is destructive for the long-standing equestrian community and will squeeze the industry – and their horses – out. “If the Equestrian Preserve Area is converted to medium or high density housing, then all the land will eventually be rezoned and the equestrian community will be forced to relocate, and with it, the wonderful and unique chapter of the Village will disappear, along with revenue.”
And yet, Bellissimo, according to recent reports, claims that Wellington needs to grow – and drastically – to meet the demands of an expanding equestrian industry and to compete with places like the World Equestrian Center in Ocala. Most residents in the area, along with Brennan, fervently disagree.
“The general sentiment shared by non-equestrians and equestrians alike is ‘Horses Not Houses.’ In conversations online and through a petition, residents moved here for the open space and uniqueness of the village,” said Brennan. “And we are too developed already, traffic is unbearable, wildlife is negatively impacted, and right now, we need more land available for horses.”
“The equestrian community contributes nearly a half billion dollars already to the Wellington area,” she added. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”
Matthew Guerreiro, another Wellington resident against land development in the Equestrian Preserve Area, believes that repurposing the old Wellington Mall is a better option. “ Chipping away at Equestrian Preserve is a bad idea,” he said. “But the mall, located on the corner of Wellington Trace and Forest Hill is ripe for redevelopment, including the mixed-use model that Bellissimo is proposing.”
In other words, conserve the land and better serve the people and businesses already here, including reimagining old structures like the mall. Because growth – despite its difficulties – is good and necessary for communities and current residents. But unfettered, runaway growth is a recipe for disaster — and even despair — as costs and overcrowded neighborhoods begin to negatively impact people.
West Palm Beach IT professional, Kevin Goulding, never had a problem paying rent before. And yet, over the past few years, his monthly housing costs increased sharply, to the point where more than half his salary goes straight to the landlord. “I’m a senior technical analyst which is typically a good paying computer job,” he said. “But my rent in Palm Beach County has skyrocketed over the last 3 years, add in inflation, and my personal life has been greatly impacted.”
Goulding, whose IT job is directly connected to the local economy, has now taken on three additional side gigs to make ends meet, which includes driving for Uber Eats and working weekends at a local comic book store.
The biggest factor in rising rents is low inventory combined with the migration of wealthy renters to less expensive places like Florida, which in turn, is leading to fervent attempts to overdevelop. Palm Beach County, the third fastest growing county in the state, most certainly, has become a hotbed for relocating professionals and businesses, giving rise to not only more demand, but a rent-burdened public who have called Palm Beach County their home long before the pandemic and recent influx of people.
While some residents blame corporations and landlords for rising costs, the reality is much more complicated. So what is being done to mitigate exorbitant costs in the region? It’s complicated. At least for income earners like Goulding.
Though wealthy developers like Bellissimo cater projects to the upper class, that leaves few options for individuals or families making less than $100,000 per year, even as some developers have promised to set aside a percentage of new housing for city employees, including police, firefighters, teachers and others. The Palm Beach County Housing Authority is also working on plans to develop affordable housing to those who qualify. Nevertheless, a large segment of middle class professionals, those making less than $68,874 a year, will most certainly be cut out, as is usually the case.
Unless there’s a sudden slowdown of migration to the area, many of these problems will continue. Several frustrated residents — out of money and patience — have fled Palm Beach County all together, heading north to Stuart or Port St. Lucie and Fort Pierce. While others, including Maureen Brennan in Wellington, have decided to stay and fight. Each community faces their own unique challenge, and yet, their battle cry is the same: Too much growth, development and change— at too quickly of a pace— is bad for communities.
Residents, or businesses, opposed to being squeezed out or pushed to extremes can fight back by showing up to city council meetings and organizing. Just ask the folks from Benny’s on the Beach. The owner, employees, and patrons, all showed up at multiple city council meetings and made their voices heard. As a result, elected officials had no other option but to negotiate and the iconic, long-standing restaurant will remain.
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