Big oaks on chopping block at FPL site in Gardens

The power company is moving a road for its new office building and the oak trees planted in recent years have to go.

Why are workers chopping down oak and palm trees along Kyoto Gardens Drive, that great short cut to the Gardens Mall from Military Trail?

It’s all part of the massive plan for the new FPL office headquarters taking shape along Kyoto Gardens just northeast of the I-95/PGA Boulevard interchange. 

The plan for the $67.9 million construction project calls for moving a road. 

Little-known RCA Center Drive, which runs north from RCA Boulevard and under PGA Boulevard, intersects with Kyoto Gardens Drive too near the FEC Railway tracks to allow a stoplight there.

And even though Florida Power & Light Co.’s preliminary studies showed the new intersection wouldn’t immediately generate enough traffic to justify a stoplight, FPL is spending the money now to move the road about 85 yards to the west. 

The stump of one of about a dozen live oak trees removed from Kyoto Gardens Drive in Palm Beach Gardens during construction of FPL’s new office building. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

That means chopping down live oaks along Kyoto. A recent visit revealed seven new stumps west of RCA Center Drive and five east. It also means taking out some of the foxtail palms and hedges that decorate the roadway median. 

Traffic engineers will conduct studies after the six-story office building opens in 2022 to up to 1,000 employees to see if enough cars line up at the newly rebuilt intersection to justify a signal. 

In the meantime, FPL contractors are moving the road.

Workers are ripping out the concrete medians, tearing up sidewalks and chopping down the trees, many planted in the past five or six years. On Jan. 11, an earth mover in the median slowed traffic in one eastbound lane. In the other, a Mercedes-Benz crunched into the tailgate of a Toyota Tundra blocked traffic.

The new intersection will have a second northbound left turn lane and more room for cars to line up to turn but until it meets county stoplight criteria, stop signs will rule. 

The sidewalk along Kyoto Gardens will be 12 feet wide instead of 5. That means ripping up more landscaping lining the road. There’s already been some clear-cutting behind the landscaped hedge line planted a few years ago by FPL but it’s not clear if those hedges will be removed. FPL did not return calls Thursday and Friday requesting comment.  

Perkins + Will of Coral Gables designed this aerodynamic six-story office building for FPL. It is rising just west of the Gardens Mall on Kyoto Gardens Drive.

Stunning new building

FPL’s new building — that long, low-slung concrete structure rising now on the 86-acre site east of Military Trail — could be a stunner. 

FPL’s six-story office building, part of a $67 million construction project, is rising just northeast of Interstate 95 and PGA Boulevard, west of the Gardens Mall. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Built to withstand Category 5 hurricanes, drawings by architects Perkins + Will of Coral Gables show a sleek modern design that looks like an airship dropped into a forest clearing. The top four floors, which house the offices, seem to float over the bottom two floors, devoted to a cafeteria, workout rooms and other large meeting space.

The building sits south of a berm, already constructed, and dominates the view across the lake from the Kyoto Gardens bridge east of the Trail. It can be seen from southbound Interstate 95 and it’s southern face dominates the view on the westbound PGA Boulevard exit ramp off of northbound I-95.

Saving some trees, clear-cutting others

FPL previously cleared the entire site of non-native trees, saving pines and sabal palms that have dominated the property for decades, although thinned by a March 2017 fire. 

Workers cleared a path for the new RCA Center Drive, which is being rebuilt about 80 yards to the west so that a stoplight can be added some day as part of the FPL office building site. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Moving the road means more clear-cutting of native trees, which took place the week of Jan. 11, to forge the road’s new path. 

Another path has been cleared through the forest on the southern perimeter, just below the elevated on-ramp to southbound I-95. The path will be paved for an internal perimeter road emptying onto RCA Center Drive. The main entrance is off of Kyoto.

Construction began in July, with building permits issued in 2020 showing an estimated cost of $51.5 million for the six-story building, $13.5 million for the three-story parking garage and $2.8 million for road work. 

Catalfumo built the road

The property, long held by the late insurance magnate John D. MacArthur, went to his foundation after his 1978 death. The Chicago-based board sat on it for decades before selling it to Dan Catalfumo as part of its liquidation of its north county holdings in 1999. 

Workers took out palms and hedges from this median along RCA Center Drive, which is being rebuilt about 80 yards to the west so that a stoplight can be added some day. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

To get the rights to turn the vacant property and another nearby tract into a commercial center, Catalfumo partnered with the city to build and landscape Kyoto Gardens Drive and RCA Center Drive in 2007. Building the roads, which included the rail crossing at Alternate A1A, cost about $5.6 million. The city kicked in about 40 percent because it wanted Kyoto to be four lanes instead of two.

But the economy went south and Catalfumo never built planned hotels, office buildings and stores on the huge site just west of the Gardens Mall. The developer lost the land to lenders.

FPL paid $24 million in 2011 for all but 4.2 acres, which it bought in 2018 for $4.9 million. 

In July 2013, the city gave the Juno Beach-based power company the right to build nearly 1 million square feet of office space on the site. 

Landscaping, some of which now will be removed, went up along the site’s perimeter after that. 

Workers stacked dead oak trees along Kyoto Gardens Drive during the week of Jan. 11 at the FPL office building construction site along Kyoto Gardens Drive. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Plans show FPL intends to replant foxtail and sabal palms, live oak 12 to 18 feet high and even South Florida slash pines in the medians, along the roadside or throughout the property.  

Joel Engelhardt wrote and edited stories at The Palm Beach Post for nearly 30 years before departing in December. He lives in Gardens not far from the FPL office building site, known as PGA Office Center. He tried for two days to get FPL to return his calls to get its take on the tree-clearing. Not only would they not return his calls, they wouldn’t tell him the name of the appropriate spokesperson for the project. This story was published initially on Jan. 18, 2021, on PGBWatch.com.

Joel welcomes your comments and news tips at Joel@OnGardens.org

Copyright © 2021 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.

Author: Joel Engelhardt

Joel Engelhardt is an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor based in Palm Beach Gardens. He spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business, including 28 years at The Palm Beach Post. As a reporter, he covered countywide growth, the 2000 election and the birth of Cityplace in West Palm Beach. As an editor, he oversaw probes into the opioid scourge, private prisons, police-involved shootings and more. For seven years, he worked on the paper’s editorial board. Joel left The Post in December 2020. He and his wife, Donna, have lived together in Palm Beach Gardens since 1992.

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