The looming shadow of a proposed $750 million development at The Galleria mall extends well beyond the site's neighbors and could set a standard for how this city grows.
But that depends on whether city officials, concerned about its size, ultimately approve the project along Sunrise Boulevard.
People using Sunrise Boulevard to get to the beach — and others having to rely on it as a hurricane evacuation route to get away from the coast — will see much more traffic on a road where tie-ups are already common. So will commuters on the slow-moving stretch of Federal Highway that overlaps Sunrise to the west of the mall.
The size of the project's tallest building, a 38-story hotel and apartment complex, may be common in the city's downtown, but officials will have to decide if that's a height they want to see popping up elsewhere. The current zoning on the Galleria site allows for a maximum height of 15 stories.
"We currently live in paradise. If we're not able to move around paradise, then what's the purpose of having paradise?" Mayor Jack Seiler said. "We're not just looking for growth. We're looking for good growth, good development, good redevelopment."
Galleria's owner, Keystone-Florida Property Holding Corp., has already scaled back the original plans for the 42-acre property it unveiled in September, plans Seiler called "too big, too dense."
The company eliminated about a quarter of the proposed residential units, bringing them to 1,250. It knocked seven floors off a 45-story tower that would have been the city's largest. It pushed the tallest portions of each tiered building closer to the mall and Sunrise Boulevard and away from the peninsula Sunrise Intracoastal neighborhood south of the mall.
Commissioner Dean Trantalis isn't satisfied, although he said the Galleria does need attention because "it's deteriorated, stores are leaving" and "it's on the verge of becoming blighted." But he sees no enhancements for the mall in the proposal and little thought for the open space and amenities that draw people to residential-retail destinations like Mizner Park in Boca Raton or CityPlace in West Palm Beach.
"It's a compaction of outdated commercial and retail components, cobbled together with 1980s-style residential development, with really no room to breathe," Trantalis said of the current proposal.
The project is still being reviewed by city staff and has not been scheduled yet for hearings before the commission and the Planning and Zoning Board.
The Galleria started off in the 1950s as the Sunrise Shopping Center, an open-air mall. It was enclosed and renamed in the 1980s and now has about 100 retailers and restaurants.
Neighborhood opposition to the proposed eight-building development that will encircle the mall, on the south side of Sunrise Boulevard from Middle River Drive to east of Northeast 26th Avenue, has found allies in other sections of the city, where the proposal is seen as a test case for future growth.
The project is the first being considered under new city rules for mega-developments. Those rules require projects to have innovative designs if developers expect to win zoning concessions for greater height and density.
The 2013 revision replaced the city's old policies for "planned-unit developments," which neighborhoods complained had become an easy route for developers to circumvent zoning rules. Besides requiring the projects to demonstrate "significant and recognizable" neighborhood improvements, the new rules require a proposal to be approved by at least four of five city commissioners.
Beach resident Abby Laughlin criticized the project, saying, "innovative is not just sticking a bunch of high-rise condos around a mismanaged mall."
But Galleria officials said they have met with the city and residents in developing their plans and that "working together, we are creating a sustainable model for the future" that will include expanded transportation options and improved streetscapes.
The developers say it will be an energy-efficient community, the first neighborhood in the city to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. The company estimates it will spend more than $25 million reconstructing roads, building off-site sidewalks, creating landscaped and park areas accessible to the public and for other projects benefiting the area.
It's in the process of doing a traffic study, but will be encouraging the use of bikes, trolleys and other means of transportation to keep traffic counts down. If the project is approved, developers say they would complete it in phases over seven to 10 years.
Mary Fertig, a member of a committee that participated in drafting the new city rules, is worried that developers are trying to get the bigger buildings they want while only giving lip service to the innovation and neighborhood improvements the city should be demanding.
"For too long, the planning has centered around the people who haven't even come yet. It's time to center that planning on us," the people who live here now, Fertig said.