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Phoenix Rising: Royal Poinciana Plaza Is Edgy Shopping Magnet

Thursday, January 5, 2017
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Samantha Perry David grew up spending time on Palm Beach Island. She is the 30-year-old daughter of hedge fund manager Richard Perry and fashion designer Lisa Perry. Three years ago, Samantha founded Up Markets, a division of the Boston-area development company WS Development. Her parents own several condominiums in Palm Beach Towers and an oceanfront home in the Estate Section; her mother once had a boutique on Worth Avenue, the island’s premier shopping district. In a year, Hermès will also leave Worth Avenue. David has lured the fashion luxury purveyor away to her latest venture—Royal Poinciana Plaza.

“I would walk through the plaza all the time and was constantly surprised that everything on the island was perfect…and here was this one thing that was falling down,” says David of Royal Poinciana Plaza. “When we founded Up Markets, I thought it would be extraordinary if this could be transformed into a really vibrant place again.” David’s vision is to attract an eclectic and high-end mix of retail and dining with an appeal to a younger crowd.

Up Markets bought the lease and management rights to the plaza for $22.5 million in 2014. The company acquired the property from Sterling Palm Beach, which had managed the plaza since 2008. Once a jewel in the crown of Palm Beach’s upscale shopping and dining experience, the Royal Poinciana Plaza had steadily deteriorated in popularity and appearance since opening in the late 1950s. Early tenants were FAO Schwarz, Gucci and Schrafft’s restaurant. The plaza once housed the trendy nightclub Au Bar, famous for the pickup place where William Kennedy Smith met the woman who accused him of rape in 1991.

Now, David is doing what those before her failed to do. She has received the blessing of the Town Council to renovate and restore the John Volk–designed plaza—a 12-acre land parcel with 180,000 square feet of retail space—to its former glory. The comprehensive face-lift was a multimillion-dollar project, David says. Renovations are complete. The new and improved version’s grand opening is set for November 2017.

The improvements include restoring the buildings and fountains, and a new traffic pattern with wider entrance and exit lanes. The courtyards are also redesigned, with curved paths, seating areas and lush landscaping consisting of citrus trees, palm trees, shade trees, bushes, plants, hedges, flowers and shrubs.

The Up Markets team has already drawn some impressive businesses to the plaza, including the celebrated New York Italian eatery Sant Ambroeus and the chic designer boutique Kirna Zabête.

Though the team will not be announcing any other businesses until spring, getting Hermès to move from its prestigious Worth Avenue address to the plaza was a stunning coup.

The Town Council opposed the redevelopment plans of David’s predecessor, mainly because Sterling has sought to tear down the vacant Royal Poinciana Playhouse and put condominiums in its place. Historically, residents and council members have been opposed to adding more condominiums anywhere on the island.

David has pledged to keep the playhouse as a performing arts venue and is in discussion with three potential operators to take it over.

“A really important piece of this vision is to bring a great cultural center to Palm Beach, something that will promote and foster the arts,” she says of the playhouse, which has been vacant since 2004.

Although Town Council president Michael Pucillo wasn’t on the council at the time of Sterling Palm Beach’s proposal, he remembers the strong opposition.

“They presented a large condominium component on the water, and there was a reaction against that,” he says. “That’s why they were not successful.”

Pucillo, an attorney and lifelong Palm Beach resident, recalls the plaza’s heyday and embraces Up Markets’ vision.

“They’ve spent a lot of money refurbishing the building and the grounds and sprucing up the landscaping and improving the traffic flow,” Pucillo says. “It’s the one area of town that has a lot of parking, so that’s a big advantage.”

Regarding any concern that the plaza would diminish Worth Avenue’s position as Palm Beach’s premier shopping venue, Pucillo says he doesn’t see that happening.

“There is an enormous amount of charm on Worth Avenue,” he says. “It’s really unique.”

Sherry Frankel, a past president of the Worth Avenue Association and owner of Sherry Frankel’s Melangerie, agrees.

“There are people who still love the elegance of Worth Avenue,” she says. “It’s more than 100 years old. You can’t take away history. It’s part of the paradise that makes up Palm Beach.”

When the Paris-based Hermès opened on Worth Avenue in 1977, it was the brand’s second store in the United States; the first was on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, says Robert Chavez, U.S. president and CEO of Hermès, Paris.

Hermès was looking to expand in Palm Beach, and there was no availability on Worth Avenue with sufficient space, Chavez says. The store currently has 5,000 square feet and will move to 8,000 square feet in the plaza in November.

“Our business clearly has grown over the last 40 years, and significantly in the past five or six years,” Chavez says. “We have a very loyal client base in Palm Beach and needed a lot more space. We searched long and hard to find the best possible scenario. I admire how Samantha David is putting the project together and diversifying the experience in the plaza. Someone whom I know in New York introduced us and I recognized the Perry name. One thing led to another, and a match in heaven was made.”

Robin Miller, general manager of the Worth Avenue Association, says she met with the plaza’s general manager, Lori Berg, and received assurances that Up Markets was not soliciting Worth Avenue businesses for the plaza.

“Samantha David is looking for a new and different mix,” Miller says. “We’re happy to see that happen. It will broaden the appeal on the island to have more than one center of retail.”

Many of the businesses that will open in the plaza won’t be the recognizable retail names that everybody knows, David vows.

“For me, the vision is bringing something here that Palm Beach never had before—young, energetic and vibrant,” David says. “The new Palm Beach.”

As for Sant Ambroeus, the plaza is the first location outside the New York area. Dimitri Paoli and Gherardo Guarducci are business partners in SA Hospitality Group, owner of the Sant Ambroeus eateries.

Paoli described David as “a great friend and customer” at the Madison Avenue and Southampton locations.

“Samantha approached us and said she had this great project and showed us her plans for the plaza,” Paoli says. “When we saw the location, we could envision Sant Ambroeus being there.”

In order for the restaurant to open, it needed zoning approvals from the town.

“The approval process went very smooth,” Paoli says. “We got great help from Samantha and her team. The community was very welcoming.”

But not the entire community.

After the restaurant received zoning approvals from the town in March, resident Simon Taylor, an attorney and an advocate for reopening the shuttered playhouse, sued the town, Sant Ambroeus, SA Hospitality and RPP Palm Beach Property, the affiliate through which Up Markets leases the plaza.

In order for the restaurant to be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the council had approved two zoning applications. The approvals allowed Up Markets to reduce the number of seats in the Royal Poinciana Playhouse by 135, enabling the restaurant to meet its parking requirements.

Taylor challenged the legality of the town’s approvals. The court dismissed Taylor’s lawsuit in September and denied his request for a rehearing.

The 120-seat restaurant opened in December and has the same authentic Milanese cuisine as the New York restaurants, with a few signature dishes offered only in Palm Beach.

Paoli and his wife, Robin, recently bought a home in Wellington, about 20 miles west of Palm Beach. Paoli, a show jumper, and Robin, a hunter rider, compete in the 12-week Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington.

Paoli says he will be an active, on-site manager of the Palm Beach outpost for at least a year.

“My customers will see me every day,” he says. “I want to make sure that our brand is well represented at our first restaurant outside New York.”

The plaza’s current tenants include TooJay’s Deli, the upscale Palm Beach Grill, real estate agencies, fitness and beauty studios, medical offices, retail shops and a post office.

David declined to give specifics on what the plaza is charging for rental space, other than to say the prices are the same as Worth Avenue.

One former tenant moved when offered a triple net lease that—with the added fees—would have increased the cost by several thousand dollars per year.

As for other tenants, “The ones that are appropriate will remain. The others are on short-term leases and will leave when they will expire,” David says.

Up Markets is in negotiations with TooJay’s for “a long-term solution” to keep the deli, David says.

“I would love for it to stay,” she says. “It goes to the quirkiness of what we’re trying to accomplish. All I care about is what makes my customers happy.”

David praised her Up Markets team for their work in helping the community to embrace the project.

“What gets me excited is how Palm Beach is changing,” she says. “It’s a casual lifestyle where people care as much about surfing as they do about going to a country club. Some people still know the old version of Palm Beach. If you go out to the restaurants in Palm Beach now, it’s like going out in Tribeca. You have young, cool, hip, really vibrant places. That’s the group we’re building this for.

“This is going to be a community hangout where everybody goes for coffee in the morning and everybody goes with their kids to get a gelato after school,” she continues. “People are going to be here, not once a week, but every day.”

Laurel Baker, executive director of the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce, described the plaza renovations as “a game changer.”

“I think they’re trying to recapture what it once was while meeting today’s expectations by providing a really lovely experience,” Baker says.
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