It’s arguably the ugliest building on PGA Boulevard.
Amid upscale office towers and the Gardens Mall, the squat, blue-trimmed structure looks like a mistake, vacant and grim, the blue-lettered “DRIVER LICENSES” sign washed away long ago.
In the last public action, the Palm Beach Gardens City Council approved Tax Collector Anne Gannon’s $11 million proposal to replace the former driver’s license building with a structure nearly 10 times the size.
That was in May 2019.
Since then, nothing has happened. At least not at the building site.
Behind the scenes, Gannon and Palm Beach Gardens have clashed over the plans. Gannon sued. Both sides filed lengthy motions and countermotions. Then in September 2020, the legal exchanges stopped.
The building remains.
But not for long, Gannon said in an interview.
The lawsuit brought resolution; demolition should begin in six weeks, she said.
“The city decided they needed to sit down and talk with us,” she said of a meeting that resolved a dispute over the dedication of a future north-south road along the western edge of the state-owned, 7-acre site.
The city sees it differently.
“We were just holding her to the same development standards we hold everybody else to. She just didn’t want to hear it,” City Attorney Max Lohman said. “Her preference was to badmouth the city instead.”
A simple phone call, he said, resolved the issue in 20 minutes. Now, all have agreed to move forward, clearing the way for the building’s demolition.
Customers line up outside
Gannon is not alone in clashing with the city, which threatened to sue the county last month over permission for a stoplight on Northlake Boulevard before that issue was resolved. Another issue is in court after the county sued the city last month over who gets millions from developer fees.
She said she grew so frustrated over delays that she contemplated subleasing the 43-year-old building for a homeless shelter to make a point. Such a demonstration would have been in character for the blunt tax collector, who recently made news by requiring all of her 315 employees to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Lohman said Gannon had been talking bad about the city “as if it were our fault her project was being held up.”
Gannon, first elected in 2006 after six years as a Democratic state House member, took over driver’s license duties in 2011 when the state handed the job to local tax collectors. That gave her control of the state-owned, 3,000-square-foot Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles building at 3185 PGA Blvd., immediately across from Macy’s.
The building even then was too small. People who lined up to renew their driver’s licenses were forced to wait outside, no matter the weather.
After the building closed in 2018, Gannon said, customers continued to line up, waiting in vain for the building to reopen.
Driver’s license renewals moved to the North County Governmental Center immediately to the east, where Gannon, a separately elected official to an independent office, used space provided by the county.
Now she expects to raze the old building in the next few months, and obtain updated bids for construction of the 23,735-square-foot replacement.
The project cost is likely to far exceed the $11 million originally budgeted because of skyrocketing costs in the building industry in the wake of the pandemic.
But regardless of the price tag, it’s a makeover long overdue, real estate experts say.
“Yes, that building is an eyesore,” said north county commercial real estate broker Rebel Cook. “It’s literally an embarrassment on that street. I’m surprised that the city didn’t demand that someone fix it up.”
Back and forth over roads
It seemed like a simple proposition when proposed in March 2018: Rezone a site for roughly the same thing it had been for 40 years with no anticipated impact on traffic or the city’s growth plan.
Even after hiring veteran land-use attorney Marty Perry, it took Gannon’s consultants led by Song & Associates about 15 months to respond to the city’s many critiques and reach the point of city council approval.
Connections to neighboring properties proved particularly vexing.
The city wanted a roadway connection east to link the backside of the tax collector property to the larger county property next door, which offers not just the north county courthouse but the north county library as well. Song’s planners had no problem with the suggestion but the city requested technical fixes in a series of exchanges over months, documents submitted in the lawsuit show.
But the bigger hangup came over the city’s desire to allow a north-south road that partially exists as an entry road, to continue south into county-owned land and link PGA Boulevard to Fairchild Avenue.
Over and over again, city documents reminded the tax collector’s consultants that after city council approval the tax collector would have to file a plat map, a public document that spells out the exact boundaries and streets within a property.
Two years to draw up a plat
In the lawsuit, filed by West Palm lawyer J. Michael Burman, the tax collector expressed surprise over the demand. The dispute over the north-south road had been resolved, the legal filing said, during a March 2019 meeting, when Perry and his team met with City Manager Ron Ferris and City Planning Director Natalie Crowley.
The city agreed that the south road did not need to be dedicated but merely reserved. Two months later, the plan got the blessing of the city council. Among 39 conditions, though, it said a plat had to be filed.
It took another two years and a lawsuit to get that done. Lohman said it was all resolved through a phone call.
The city argued that the road had to be dedicated on the plat. But the tax collector said she couldn’t commit to building the road, for which she was asked to provide 26 feet of land on the western edge of the property, because it isn’t her property. It belonged to the state of Florida, which bought it in 1975 and began operating the license facility in 1978.
And the state said it would be “an extremely difficult and time-consuming process” to dedicate the land, the tax collector said in an exchange with the city.
Perry added in a February 2020 letter that the state wanted assurances the road would be built and a timeline for its construction before it would say yes.
He got no answer, the tax collector’s lawsuit said, so after three months Gannon sued in Palm Beach County Circuit Court.
A gnat swallowing a camel
The city argued that the earlier agreement to allow a reservation for the road did nothing to eliminate the need to dedicate the road on the plat.
In colorful fashion, Lohman argued the two terms — reservation and dedication — had no practical distinction.
“Clearly, in this context,” he wrote in a footnote in a July 2020 filing, “the terms are synonymous thus tempting one to say that the tax collector is straining a gnat while swallowing a camel.”
Not so, the tax collector countered.
“The city initially requested a ‘dedication’ of the land on the western boundary and then acquiesced to a ‘reservation for future dedication,’” the filing said. “It was only after the site plan was approved with that language and after the first round of city comments on the plat documents that the city pulled a bait and switch and began demanding a ‘dedication’ of that land again.”
What happened next has yet to be detailed in court records but Lohman said in September he urged the tax collector to set up a conference call with the state.
“I forced the phone call,” he said. “Something they said would take years, took me 20 minutes on the phone. “
“It was entirely unnecessary and entirely avoidable,” he said. “They just didn’t want to come up with a solution. I had to come up with a solution. And then they sat on their hands.”
About eight months later, in April, the tax collector submitted the revised plat. It met city standards. Once a surety bond is posted, Lohman said, the project will get the green light.
Demolition could begin as early as July.
“That building needed to be torn down a long time ago,” Perry said.
© 2021 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.