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Struggle to compromise over Carefree Theater property redevelopment in WPB




An ice cream parlor. A bowling alley. A theater and comedy club hosting acts like BB King and Jerry Seinfeld. An abandoned lot. That is the story of the property that once housed the legendary Carefree Theater in West Palm Beach. And for the people trying to figure out what comes next for the historic site, 2000 S. Dixie Highway is anything but carefree.


Even before the Carefree Theater began hosting up-and-coming celebrities and fancy film

festivals, it was more than a typical movie theater.


Longtime West Palm Beach resident and President of the Citizens for Thoughtful for

Growth Nancy Pullum remembers the community the site attracted in the 1960s.


“It was where many people in the city went to play pool, and to go to movies, and to

bowl and what have you, an entertainment hub,” Pullum said. “It has very fond memories for a lot of people.”


When John Stoll, founder of Fantasma Productions, bought the Carefree Theater in 1984,

he transformed the spot into a renowned comedy club, live concert venue and art house all in one.


Kevin Lawler, former president of the El Cid Historic Neighborhood Association,

recognizes the theater’s significance in the history of the city.


“I think it was considered an institution for a long time and widely appreciated,” Lawler said.

But even in at its peak, the Carefree Theater was a source of contention for some residents of the surrounding neighborhood.


“There was always inadequate parking so that when these concerts and major theater

events happened, you would get substantial intrusion into the neighborhoods,” Lawler said.

Lawler, who lives on the street next to the property, has witnessed this frustration firsthand.


“I can remember coming home one Friday night and having cars parked in front of my

driveway,” Lawler said.


These intrusions came to an abrupt end when the 2005 hurricane season caused

irreparable damage to the building’s structure. Officials closed the theater indefinitely after the roof collapsed in December of that year.


“It’s too bad because it was kind of an interesting structure, but that day is gone,” Pullum

said.


The building sat abandoned and falling apart for 10 years. This caused different

frustrations to arise from the community.


“It sat like an unfortunate survivor,” Pullum said. “Homeless people were sleeping in the

back of it. It was not OK.”


In 2015, film producer and real estate developer Charles Cohen bought the property. His

team demolished the deteriorating building and proposed an elaborate project that did not align with the vision of the El Cid community.


The West Palm Beach Planning Board immediately rejected the proposal, as it did not

conform to the zoning laws at the time.


“I have met with Charles Cohen and his attorney 3 times, face-to-face, and shared our

concerns,” Lawler said. “None of those things were ever addressed. In fact, they were

dismissed.”


Cohen declined all requests to comment.


The City Commission approved rezoning that Cohen requested in August. The property

is now under a uniform General Commercial zoning, which allows for greater height and mixed-use buildings.


Pullum is concerned that this will give Cohen an excuse to disregard the needs of the

neighborhood.


“We are sitting on one of the premiere historic neighborhoods in the city, and people have

invested a lot of money against more modest scale buildings,” Pullum said. “We would hope that we could work to that end for buffering so that the neighborhood is not towered over.”


City Commissioner Paula Ryan is confident that the rezoning is in the best interest of the

community, as it gives Cohen the opportunity to introduce a new successful business in the area.


“What doesn’t mesh is a deteriorating commercial corridor next a neighborhood that has

spent a lot of money preserving itself,” Ryan said.


Cohen has yet to present any plans to either the City Commission or the Planning Board.


“We are in a wait and watch mode because we have reached out to people who work with

the developer and have had no response back,” Pullum said.

When Cohen does reveal his plans, the El Cid community is prepared to make sure it meets their

standards.

“We want to maintain the character of our neighborhood,” Lawler said. “To me, it’s that

simple.”

To avoid more conflict, they hope that Cohen will be able to create a project that both recreates the historic success of the Carefree Theater and avoids the problems for residents that came with that success.


“We really do look forward to trying to kind of smooth troubled waters and take a

breath,” Pullum said. “And hopefully have everybody come to the table with good intentions to work together.”

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