Create Eiffel Tower, not condo tower

Here's a wish for some outside-the-mall thinking in the overdue redevelopment of the Ocean Mall on Riviera Beach's Singer Island.

Riviera hardly needs condo or time-share towers - in a word, residences - on the publicly owned land. So let's hope that the idea of preserving the beachfront property as a natural resource catches on with the city council members, who also serve as the Community Redevelopment Agency board.

The city is negotiating with the third of three developers, Dan Catalfumo, after passing on deals with Don Peebles and Marriott. Marriott, some may recall, proposed the ghastly concept of three 20-odd-story towers, which the CRA staff inexplicably recommended and a majority of the council approved in concept. Imagine the vertical equivalent of a CityPlace where the ballroom, pool and John G's Restaurant now reside on Lake Worth's municipal beach, and you have the nightmare vision that was proposed as a way to maintain Riviera's public beach.

In fact, Lake Worth, which also has dragged its feet on beachfront redevelopment, long has had an ocean drive where one could pull right up in a car and overlook the beach. The Marriott proposal, over which former Singer Island council member Dave Schnyer resigned in protest, actually took out Riviera's ocean drive, with the result that the beach could all the more be perceived as the private property of the time-share and condo residents rather than belonging to the public.

It's unfortunate that city officials keep letting themselves be led so far from their original concept of a 100-room, five-story boutique hotel and conference center with some commercial uses to anchor the property. Mr. Catalfumo already is building twin 27-story towers just north on the site of the old Days Inn, with 100 of the 242 units as hotel suites. Riviera should draw the line on allowing him several more towers, even the one he reportedly has scaled back on the public land long leased for the mall.

One can understand the developers' repeated desire to maximize the commercial value of the property. But council members would be wise to recognize this as invaluable, irreplaceable public parkland. Once the concrete is poured, Riviera can't go back.

While Riviera's downtown waterfront redevelopment is being complicated by eminent-domain issues, the mall redevelopment is complicated by the 17 remaining years on the Brock family's lease of the mall. The latter challenge is easier, particularly if council members make public purpose their sole purpose. Why not resurrect former Councilman Edward Rodgers' idea of buying out the rest of the lease, through which the Brock family has garnered up to $400,000 a year in rents while paying the city only $20,000. Better redevelopment could come without all the financial issues requiring density to offset costs.

A good precedent for one of the last remaining public beaches in Palm Beach County is the $15 million the county used to preserve public access to public waterways at the nearby Sailfish Club. County Commissioners Addie Greene and Karen Marcus, who represent the city, were at the last CRA meeting to advise the board of their interest in supporting something similar. The Memorial Day weekend throng at refurbished Phil Foster Park nearby gave a hint of the possibilities.

My own thought is to see the major-league public space that CityPlace ain't. No one is expecting the public-place equivalent of the Eiffel Tower or Trafalgar Square. But here's a chance to establish a Riviera Beach icon, the distinct, instantly recognizable place that Scripps Research Institute President Richard Lerner had in mind before Scripps and the city had their chance and blew it.

It's worrisome, meanwhile, that neither the council members nor the public know what the next mall redevelopment plan, on which CRA Director Floyd Johnson said tremendous strides are being made in negotiations with the developer, will be. In fact, how can the negotiations be close when there has been no public discussion and when Councilwoman Vanessa Lee and other residents of the city are begging for updates?

In addition, the plan is likely to include a new 99-year lease, which would require a charter change. That also is likely to trigger a referendum, a lawsuit and more delay, which no one wants.

"What Riviera tried to do at the outset of its redevelopment," said Tony Gigliotti, chairman of the Singer Island Civic Association, "is, one, increase the tax base, and, two, increase opportunity." In fact, one reason for the recent hiring of consultant Bernard Kinsey to troubleshoot on redevelopment is to ensure that the community receives a return on its redevelopment investment.

It's true that, had the city moved with greater speed in implementing its vision, a lot more could have been done at this point. But Riviera has been an all-too-easy target of criticism, and many of the expectations of Riviera's redevelopment have been unfair.

The opportunity, however, is rare. City officials only would betray the public trust by letting a developer erect condo or time-share towers in the last place they should go. After all the hollering over eminent domain has waned, a plan that preserves in perpetuity the natural resource of its public beach would be among Riviera Beach redevelopment's best legacies.