Delray Beach and Boca Raton Real Estate and Homes for Sale

Watch as Jeff and Dave, the founders of YourDelrayBoca.com, give you their take on the local real estate market:

There is no more dynamic real estate market in the U.S. than Boca-Delray.

From oceanfront mansions and historic homes to picturesque country clubs and subdivisions the market is vibrant, the choices are endless and the neighborhoods varied depending on age range, price and taste. The area features everything from old Florida to the most modern downtown condo’s and townhomes.

You are sure to find exactly what you want in these two world-class cities.

Buying or selling in the Delray-Boca area and need a recommendation? We can help. Learn more here.

Wanted: Civic Giants With Heart & Vision

Terry Stiles

Terry Stiles died Sept 11.
He was 70 and was a civic giant.
He was also a developer.
His success as a builder enabled him to give back to his beloved Fort Lauderdale.
We need more of his kind.
More people willing to step up and give. More people willing to step up and make it happen.

Mr. Stiles was one of the people credited with transforming Fort Lauderdale from a small beach town into a thriving city.
Some people like what’s happened. I’m sure some long for the  good old days.

But regardless of what side of that divide you fall on, there’s no denying the impact Stiles Corporation has had on Fort Lauderdale. But it wasn’t just the skyline that was impacted, it was the entire business community, the arts scene, health care, education and economic development that was forever changed via one man’s involvement, passion and commitment.

I met Mr. Stiles a few times over the years. I know people who worked for him and we have a few friends in common who knew him far better than I did. But I’m impressed and awed by these civic giants–these local icons who make a dent in their corners of the universe.

Compared to Fort Lauderdale, Delray is a small city. We have had our share of civic icons. And several have been generous.
But we need more.

Boca Raton has been blessed with some incredible philanthropy. Christine Lynn, the Schmidt Family Foundation, Dick Siemens, the Snyder’s, the Drummond’s et al.
They’ve made a profound and lasting difference.

But right about now, Delray can use a few folks to step up and make some things happen.

Old School Square can be a national cultural treasure, the Arts Garage needs angels, the Library, Historical Society, Spady Museum, Achievement Center, Caring Kitchen, Milagro Center, Miracle League, Sandoway House, Impact 100 all need financial support and commitment.

The list of worthy non profits and causes goes on and on. All of them need people willing to say: We need to solve this problem, we need to seize this opportunity or we need to rescue kids, animals, families etc. The city itself is a cause: we need people to step up and devote themselves to making a difference in Delray.
You get the picture.
And it’s not just charity.
Civic leadership also means people willing to commit to designing great parks, improving local schools, building affordable housing, creating jobs and opportunities for all, solving the scourge of substance use disorder, giving entrepreneurs a chance to succeed and artists a place to create etc.
We need civic giants.

Those people who move the needle are those who think long term and have ambition not for just themselves but for others.

We have enough naysayers. We have enough complainers. We have enough armchair quarterbacks playing gotcha, spouting off on social media, second guessing decisions and casting blame.
We need more leaders, angels, healers, supporters, investors, mentors and visionaries.

Yes, it matters who sits on the City Commission. Good mayor’s move the needle, they sell their city. They build civic pride. They evangelize and they nurture and support and still find a way to hold people to account without destroying their spirit.

They build, they fix. They don’t tear down.
And they inspire. They make you want to get involved. They make you want to be a citizen.
But…
We need more.
We can’t rely on five people serving for three years at a time.
We need long term players. People who are committed to creating something positive and important.

Such as:
Reinvent Congress Avenue.
Make Delray a cultural capital.
Create a sports and food Mecca.
Make our schools great, not good, but freaking great.
Vastly improve race relations so we are viewed as a beacon for the rest of America.
Break the cycle of poverty in this town. Learn from other cities but blaze our own  trail of greatness.

We need serious people.
Adults.
We need civic giants, people who  change the game.

Those Great Good Places

She’s a beauty, a great good, place.

I moved to Florida 30 years ago this summer.
Time flies when you’re having fun.
Back then, there weren’t too many places to dine in Delray.

Nope, we weren’t a foodie destination unless of course you thought Burger Chin or Jawoppy at the old Delray Mall were fine dining. (Confession: I did).
We did have the Arcade Tap Room, the Annex, Las Hadas and of course Boston’s on the Beach but we were far from a happening spot.

I spent a lot of time in those days at Tom Sawyer’s in Boca, Dirty Moe’s, Rosie’s Raw Bar and the wonderful Ken and Hazel’s.
We shot pool at the Phoenix on A1A (where Burger Fi now resides) and on rare occasions visited Marie Callender’s in Boynton Beach. Morrison’s cafeteria was a  treat and we all loved a place called Coasters in Atlantic Plaza.

There was a place below Linton Towers–the name escapes me–but I remember paying big bucks to watch Mike Tyson knock out Michael Spinks in mere seconds during a pay per view fight. The people in the buffet line weren’t pleased. We blinked and we missed the fight.
Delray was sure different in those days.

I thought about these old time places when I read that 32 East may be exiting the scene after a long and glorious run so that Louie Bossi can take its place.
If it comes to pass, I will miss 32 East; one of the first truly great restaurants on Atlantic Avenue.

Owner Butch Johnson has done a great job since opening in 1996  and I will miss seeing my fellow Oswego alumni John Fitzpatrick behind the bar where he is the consummate spiritual advisor, with the emphasis on the spirits.
32 East earned its place in the firmament of great local places alongside Dakotah, Damiano’s, Bennardo’s, Splendid Blendeds, Louie Louie Too, the Twilight Cafe, Gleason Street Cafe, Pineapple Grille, The Patio Delray, D & B Seafood, Busch’s, Atlantic Station, Luna’s and Vittorios. So many more I’m sure.
Thinking about them all gives me a warm and nostalgic feeling.

It’s not just the places we miss, but the people associated with them. I remember watching the All Star Game at Louie Louie’s with Diane and the late Lamar Shuler one year and taking my parents to the Gleason Street Café when they visited Delray to see the grandkids. I remember election night 1990 at the Arcade Tap Room and seeing the town’s fathers at their old table at the Green Owl.

Ray Oldenburg, a University of West Florida Professor wrote a great book some years ago called “The Great Good Place.”
The book talked about those “third” places beyond home and the office that become a part of the community fabric.
We miss them all. We cherish the memories. But inevitably we move on to discover new places too.
And so it goes.
I miss happy hours at Dirty Moe’s, I miss seeing Officer Vinny Mintus at The Annex for lunch and I wish I could have one more breakfast with Mr. and Mrs. Pompey at the old IHOP on North Federal.
Memories…

Q: What’s A Park? A: Everything.


We’re just back from a long weekend in New York City.
We stayed in the landmark Essex House on Central Park South and found ourselves spending a great deal of time in the 840 plus acre park.
The weather was glorious and the park was alive with dogs, children and people of all ages.
It seems like every time you venture into the park you discover something different and interesting.
The park is clean and you feel safe, a marked departure from when I grew up when popular culture and the news warned you about the perils of the place. That New York, which included a seedy Times Square, dangerous subways and Guardian Angels, seems like a distant memory.
Much has changed about New York some of it good, some of it not so good.
Inequality and gentrification are front burner issues and so are the losses of landmark businesses chronicled in the great blog “Vanishing NY” which is now a book on my must read list.
But a few things remain true to the Big Apple. The city still pulses with culture, energy and art. And its parks, particularly Central Park remain extremely important to the city’s soul.
Great parks enhance cities immeasurably and Central Park in New York and Millennial Park in Chicago are perhaps the two best examples of that theory.
When I was on the City Commission in the early 2000s we endeavored to enhance Delray’s parks authorizing a parks master plan that ultimately led to a parks bond.
One of my colleagues on the commission felt that our parks lagged other cities and that we were too much about ‘swings and slides’ and not enough about creating memorable spaces that would attract people to use our open spaces.
As was the style of the time, we consulted with the community and crafted a spending plan to address what we were hearing from parents, kids, seniors and other stakeholders.
Out of those efforts came the idea to create a large “Central” park at Old School Square replacing a surface parking lot with a mixed use garage and creating more open space near the center of our downtown.
Twelve years later that vision remains an unfinished goal. We have the open space, the amphitheater and garage (and the Arts Garage), but we envisioned more. Much more. The time has come to finally seize that opportunity.
A years long visioning exercise by the public is complete and I sure hope the powers that be fund the plan. It will be an important investment and will create enormous value.
Parks are hugely important statements that cities make.
They are critical investments that yield returns both tangible and intangible.
Similarly, failure to invest in open space  also makes a statement–not a good one.
As we watched kids wandering the zoo, dogs jumping in a fountain and couples walking hand in hand through Central Park I turned to my walking partner–who also happens to be my life partner –and said: “if I lived here I’d be in this park everyday.”
And that’s the key to a great public space: places where you can enjoy peace and quiet, spots to picnic, places to write, paint and read and places to exercise and celebrate (festivals). And yes, spots where you can take your dog. Places you want to be every day.

What’s Not Going to Change

I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.” — Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon

 
I’m not quite sure I’m a fan of Jeff Bezos.
But I sure do respect him.
He knows how to scale a business and disrupt industries as well as or better than anyone.
Just ask Walmart or any legacy retailer, bookseller or even cloud storage companies. 
I’ve been thinking about Amazon lately and what it’s impact and the impact of ecommerce may mean for cities and real estate.  But that post is for another day. 
The quote above made me think about something else. I think Bezos is right.  And while entrepreneurs always seek to skate where the puck is heading, the quote is also relevant to cities. 
A loud and active group of people seem to lament change in cities and I get it, we don’t want to lose the soul of our communities but change is inevitable and so the discussion should focus on how to best manage and steer the inevitable.
But what about thinking about what won’t change? What will still be needed in 10 years and beyond?
There are –as Bezos instructs –opportunities in what won’t be going away.
 
As much as we love Delivery Dudes we probably will still want to visit a great restaurant because it’s not just about the food it’s about the experience and the ambience. 
As much as we “stream” we may still want to see a great movie on a big screen with other people. We still may value “date night” or a matinee as I did the past two weekends when we went to see “The Big Sick” and “Baby Driver “at Cinemark. 
I love Netflix, but when I’m home I’m distracted. When I’m in a theater I focus and I end up enjoying the movie that much more–provided I don’t nap. 
Ipic is banking on that experience to endure as they build a new theater in Delray. 
I grew up the son of a retailer. My dad owned a retail pharmacy in Smithtown, N.Y., a business model that was disrupted by the likes of Walgreens and CVS. 
Now there are rumblings of Amazon going into the prescription delivery space. It will have an impact I’m sure. But as I watch an independent pharmacy being built on US 1 in Delray which will include an old-fashioned counter and other elements of retro drug stores I wonder if maybe we will leave room for authentic, old fashioned experiences like my dad’s old store. 
Yes AirBNB is all the rage but I think hotels will be around in 10 years. Maybe not the generic kind, but cool independents and boutique brands like Aloft that embrace local aesthetics will make it as will the incredible Crane’s Beach House which offers service, intimacy and strong ties to the local community. 
Big box retail and malls will be severely challenged but independent stores or highly curated chains with unique products and superior services and experiences should find room to survive and thrive. 
Food stores are changing too. 
A news story last week reported on a landmark study that showed consumers shopping for different items in different places. They may grab some items in a local farmers market, buy paper goods at a big box, shop for prepared meals at a local market and hit up a dollar store for staples. The 60,000 item supermarket may find itself struggling or having to reinvent.
So while we should cheer the CRA’s and WARC’s pursuit of a long coveted Publix for West Atlantic we should also recognize that our Green Market, local gardens, ethnic food stores and food halls have a place in our communities. Today’s consumer seems to crave options, authenticity, experience, ambience and value over generic mass. One wonders whether local retailers may mount a comeback: remember when Burdine’s was the Florida store? They didn’t stock sweaters in September because Burdine’s served the Sunshine State not a mass national market?
One of the bigger questions related to what will remain has to do with the future of the car.
Will it remain the same as today? My guess is no. 
There’s too much money being bet by major companies to think that the auto culture won’t be disrupted. 
When autonomous vehicles arrive, it will become the single greatest real estate opportunity of our lifetimes. With so much land and infrastructure given over to the car—i.e. seas of parking lots, garages, lanes and lanes of heat trapping asphalt–think of the opportunity to reinvent cities.
 No, transportation won’t be same. But my guess is the need for people to gather and experience together won’t change–providing great opportunities for cultural institutions, parks, recreation, restaurants and I hope old fashioned town hall democracy to thrive. 
The more technology engulfs our life the more we may crave human interaction and experience; which is the beauty of cities.
Cities are one “invention” that may change but I think they will endure and become more important than ever. 
I sure hope so. 

Housing For Young People Needed

Delray’s Community Land Trust is an innovative organization supported by the Delray CRA and others.

The headline was a grabber: Are You a Millennial Looking to Buy a Home? It Could Take Up to 32 Years.

Only 32% of the country’s largest generation (which consists of 75 million Americans) own homes. Those that do are flocking to interior markets, which tend to be cheaper and more cost-effective than most coastal markets. In our neck of the woods, that might mean the western fringes which creates sprawl and traffic as workers head east for jobs. But even out west, higher end homes seem to be the order of the day and many of the communities cater to the 55 and over crowd. Redfin recently reported that the 33446 area code (west of Delray)  is pacing the nation in price appreciation.

 

As the front line of millennials enter their mid-30s, financial security is not guaranteed. Instead, the generation is beleaguered with student loan debt (which exceeds car and credit card debt) and salaries that are 20% lower than what their baby boomer parents earned at the same age, according to a report by real estate research site Abodo.

 

The average net worth of a millennial is $10,090, or 56% less than what it was for baby boomers at the same point in life, according to Federal Reserve data.

 

Coupled with rising home prices, it could take decades for a millennial to be able to afford a down payment on a house in places like San Diego or San Francisco. This may be why more millennials live with their parents than any other generation in the last 130 years, according to Bisnow Media.

Millennials living in the country’s biggest cities, including New York City, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles are especially challenged.

 

The average millennial makes $40,500 per year. Using that average, were one to save 15% of her income each year, it would take just over 18 years to save enough for a 20% down payment on a home in Boston. It would take 32 years for a millennial to afford the average $112,000 down payment for a home in Los Angeles. And as the father of a few millennials who are gainfully employed (thank goodness) I have a hard time believing that even the most frugal and disciplined young person can save 15% of their income.

The picture in South Florida is not much different than some of the aforementioned hyper expensive markets.

I remember moving here when I was 22 and thinking that relative to New York and the Northeast, Florida was very affordable. My car insurance was lower, home prices were reasonable, there was no income tax and property taxes were much lower than my native Long Island. Even homeowners insurance was nominal at first—before changing after Hurricane Andrew.

Still, according to researchers at Abodo, Florida as a state remains much more affordable than other parts of the United States. It would take 5-10 years for millennials to save up.

Hence, the desire for developers to build apartments and the willingness of underwriters to finance deals. However, finding sites in built-out and expensive Boca and Delray is challenging. With land prices soaring, rental rents are also rising and the uncertain regulatory environment (costly, lengthy and torturous entitlement processes, toxic politics, NIMBYism and an aversion to density) make it even harder for millennials to strike out on their own.

Another headline in USA Today recently also grabbed me: Where Did All The Starter Homes Go?

The article cited a byzantine maze of zoning, environmental, safety and other requirements that has led to a 35% decrease in housing construction across the country from previous levels. According to economists cited by USA Today, the lack of supply has driven up home prices by 40% over the past five years.

Single family home construction suffers from a lack of available land and a lack of skilled construction workers, according to the National Association of Realtors. Banks are also tougher on borrowers as a result of the housing crash in 2008.

The perfect storm has led the National Association of Home Builders to sound the alarm. The NAHB says that from 2011 to 2016, regulatory costs to build the average house has increased from about $65,000 to $85,000 and now represent 25% of the cost of a home.

Of course, we need regulations as long as they are necessary, fairly priced and serve a public purpose.

Still, the inability of millennials to gain a foothold in our community should be pressing concern for public and private sector leaders.

It’s important for companies to be able to recruit workers in order for the economy to grow. Workers, young families, entrepreneurs and established companies look at housing prices, quality of life, quality of schools and cultural amenities before making a decision on where to put down roots.

Unfortunately, the word density has taken on a bad meaning. But, truth be told, density done well (i.e. properly designed for great buildings and public spaces) is essential for cities such as Boca Raton and Delray Beach. Compact and walkable development is better for the environment than traffic producing sprawl which serves the needs of cars over people. It also allows for young people to form households and become part of the community injecting needed ideas, life, energy, monies and volunteer hours which make cities work.

The recent changes to Delray’s land development regulations for the downtown core which capped density at 30 units to the acre, was a big mistake. It virtually guarantees that millennials—who seek walkable environments and don’t want to be car dependent—can’t live downtown. By limiting the supply, you jack up prices and we end up with an eastern core that’s shut off to all but the very wealthy.

The 2001 Downtown Master Plan, which did much to build on the 1990s Decade of Excellence, was a community wide education effort that encouraged well-designed projects versus a fixation on density numbers. We saw visual examples of ugly low density housing and also saw attractive higher density projects which have the added benefit of increasing your tax base while also adding residents who can support local businesses. That was the guiding rationale behind the push to add downtown housing. We wanted a sustainable, year-round downtown.

The other areas that make sense to add attainable housing for millennials and others is North and South Federal Highway, Congress Avenue and the “four corners” of Atlantic and Military, which has zoning allowing for a mix of uses. The four corners zoning—done over a decade ago—will become increasingly important as we see pressure on the retail landscape increase with big box chain stores being driven out of business by ecommerce.

Delray is ready to offer shopping center developers more options for their properties should they decide to invest and change course.

The best incentives are not monetary—which almost always leads to an arms race you can’t win with companies taking the money until a better offer comes along. Rather, the best incentives are zoning, a tough but fair and timely approval process that emphasizes design and good uses and enough density to give the next generation a chance to access your city.

We were always ahead of the curve—which is why Delray succeeded. It’s important we stay there or we will be left behind. Right now, we’re losing ground.

A Return To Bay Street

Greetings from The Bahamas.
About a dozen years ago, I was part of a small group that got invited to The Bahamas to meet business and political leaders looking to improve downtown Nassau.
I was thinking about that trip and a follow up visit by Bahamian officials to Delray this week as I returned to Paradise Island and made a trip to Bay Street.
U.S. Ambassador Ned Siegel asked former Mayor Tom Lynch and I to visit and talk about what we learned from the revitalization of downtown Delray Beach. We were joined by Boca Chamber President Troy McLellan and Kelly Smallridge, the president of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County.
It was a memorable trip. And thanks to Ned, we met a who’s who in the Bahamian business world and government.
What struck us was the lack of local government so that the “little things” that mean so much –stuff like potholes and traffic flow –were left to the national government to deal with.
One of the issues at the time for Bay Street business leaders was the magnetic pull of cruise passengers and tourists to Atlantis, the massive resort that kind of has it all from magnificent pools and restaurants, to stores, aquariums and of course a casino.
We were asked to make some recommendations and we did and we later hosted a delegation in Delray, Boca and Palm Beach County.
I’m still in touch with a few of the Bahamians from that trip, mostly on social media.
So it was interesting to go back and ask as many people as I could how downtown was doing.
Of course, when you ask you get the gamut of responses: Bay Street was “thriving”, “struggling”, doing “awesome” and “so-so.”
When we were there we saw four cruise ships and the streets and stores were busy.
Side streets looked the same as a dozen years ago–still in need of some TLC. And parts of Bay Street were doing well and parts were marked by empty stores and blight.
So it goes…but it’s a beautiful place, with nice people, vibrant color, tropical weather, good food and happy music. And the residents…they love it here. Lots and lots of pride.
One thing was notable. Everywhere we went, people seemed to still know and miss Ambassador Siegel. That’s pretty cool. He left a mark here.
I hope he knows that.

 

Innovation & Aspiration in Pompano

Pompano’s brand new cultural center makes a statement: We are serious.

Last week, we attended a meeting of the Urban Land Institute at Pompano Beach’s gleaming new cultural center.

For me, it was a case of déjà vu—because what I’m seeing in Pompano is the mindset I saw in Delray Beach in the late 80s and early 90s—a time of dreaming, aspiration, visioning and planning.

If you’re a city wonk like me, there’s nothing more inspiring than a city that sends out the message of “come on down, we are open for business and striving for greatness.”

And consequently no more depressing experience than to see a city that says “go home and get lost, we are done.”

Of course, no city comes out and says it quite that way. They all talk about jobs, investment, smart growth, sustainability and every other buzzword you can trot out, but the cities that are sincere actually seek it out and if investment comes to them they work hard to land the deal.

The most compelling incentives are never financial—they are always emotional. Investors bringing jobs and projects don’t expect you to compromise the rules or aesthetics—but they do expect you to have some flexibility and predictability and a sense of urgency to get things done.

One of the speakers at the ULI Pompano event warned those in the audience to avoid two labels:

  1. Don’t be the city where someone has to spend $500,000 beating their heads against the wall before leaving for friendlier towns. Capital goes where it is welcome.
  2. Don’t be the city that is perpetually the next “it” town, but never quite gets there.  I think that’s good advice.

Let’s explore warning number one—the city that develops a reputation for being impossible to work with will begin to attract bottom feeder developers—not the best in class that cities should be looking to lure.

The best developers and business owners aren’t averse to high standards or tough criteria; many of the best welcome a high bar. But they are wary of unpredictability, dysfunction and frankly stupidity. They don’t like corruption either.

They also don’t like an environment in which the rules are fungible—so that even if you follow them you aren’t assured of a fair hearing.

As for the second warning…we all know the label and can name a few cities that fit the moniker. After a while you become like the talented draft pick who never quite reaches his potential. We all know the term that’s used for those types: bust.

What’s also bad is to be known as the city that climbs all the way up the mountain and then before reaching the summit, gives it all away. They call that being “meshuga”: Google it.

Anyway, Pompano is pushing an innovation district just east of I-95 and spanning over 170 acres. They envision jobs, manufacturing, start-ups, restaurants, apartments and open space.

They built a magnificent cultural arts center, redid their beach front, landed the 26 Degree brewery on Atlantic Boulevard, and approved the mixed use Pompano Fishing Village, the sharply designed Koi Residences and a few more signature projects in their eastern core. Even the long troubled Hammondville Road corridor is seeing investment.

Several Delray Beach investor/development companies including Grover Corlew (invaluable contributors to the Congress Avenue Task Force) and New Urban Communities (Atlantic Grove among other projects) are investing in Pompano. Both see parallels between where Delray Beach was and where Pompano is today—solid leadership, a great CRA, talented staff and an aspirational “get it done” mindset.

ULI and Pompano brought Mitchell Weiss from Harvard Business School to the event. Weiss was chief of staff to the late Boston Mayor Tom Menino when that mayor envisioned an innovation district along Boston Harbor that became a national model for job creation and placemaking.

Weiss said cities should stick to their vision—insist on doing something special, invest in education, partner with universities, market their city and take extra care to make sure things happen so that traction and momentum can take root.

Words to live by or ignore.

Live by it and see things happen. Ignore it, and watch other cities eat your breakfast, lunch, dinner and sadly your future.

 

An Evening @ Bourbon Sprawl

Note: Last week, I had the opportunity to speak to a wonderful group of urban planners, activists, bloggers, architects and redevelopment advocates at an event known as Bourbon Sprawl on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach. It’s a great group and I thought I’d share some of my presentation from that evening. It was followed by great conversation.

Like Tip O’Neill— I’m a firm believer that all politics are local…and like many Americans —both Democrats and Republicans—I believe that Washington D.C. is broken…unable to solve problems, unwilling to collaborate, unable to compromise and challenged to seize opportunities.

So if we are going to solve problems—whether inequality, climate change or race relations—we are going to have to do so on the local level.

If we are going to have successful communities we have to get our cities right…and in order to get our cities right we need to attract the best and brightest to public service—both on a staff level, a volunteer level and as elected officials.

If we can do this—there is no doubt in my mind that our cities, towns and villages will succeed. But if we don’t—there is simply no way our communities will thrive.

I’m sure of this…because I have experienced it in Delray Beach where I have lived for 30 years and I have seen what switched on leadership can do in cities large and small in a variety of geographies…unfortunately, I have also seen what corrosive “leadership” can undo or prevent and it’s not pretty.

The challenges and opportunities facing our communities today are complex….they require serious thinking by serious people. And I often wonder if our “system” is designed to attract the polar opposite personalities…

I have seen what wins local, state and national elections—and it’s a combination of fear and blame. We are told what to be afraid of and we blame our opponents for causing the problems. But we never seem to get around to solutions…we never talk about collaboration, compromise or the need to marshal our resources to either make things happen or to begin to solve problems that threaten our future…

We are here the day after the most expensive House election in American history….$50 million spent—mostly on negative advertising—to elect a single representative— who regardless of who won—would most likely have a negligible effect on the issues facing our nation….the content of that spending will be forgotten in a few days and then the fundraising begins again….an endless cycle. Can you imagine what $50 million could do in your community…if it was invested in start-ups, non-profits, placemaking, research, science and education? Do you think the impact would be greater than $50 million spent on attack ads?

We seem to be caught in an endless spiral toward the bottom…and we have created an atmosphere in which serious people avoid the public square, walk away from public service and in many cases fail to exercise the basic pillar of our Democracy…the right to vote.

There was a time when small towns might have been somewhat immune to this disease… I’ll tell you about my own story in Delray Beach…the basis for my book, Adventures in Local Politics… I saw what good leadership can do…

I moved to Delray Beach in 1987….and the physical gifts our city has, have not changed in those 30 years.

There’s a grid system, good ‘bones’ as planners like to say, a glorious beach and good geography since we have proximity to several regional powerhouses—West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and our next door neighbor Boca Raton.

But Delray was a very different place in the 80s than it is today…I can describe to you the blight, the vacant storefronts, the crime, the drugs and the disinvestment…but instead I will quote one of my best friends a restaurateur who was an early pioneer in Delray….”this town was circling the bowl, before it was saved.”

A colorful quote…vivid, descriptive and accurate. Three words: circling the bowl.. says it all.

So when you do a SWOT analysis of Delray and examine its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats you’ll find that alongside some incredible strengths and opportunities are some daunting weaknesses and threats….schools that struggle, deep generational poverty, racial division, a lack of high paying jobs, a lack of a diverse housing stock, a proliferation of sober homes –many run by irresponsible and exploitive operators, poor citizen participation as measured by a lack of civic engagement and poor voter turnout…

And yet….tremendous value was created….we have a dynamic and vibrant downtown, our tax base is growing faster than most of our neighbors, blighted neighborhoods have seen improvements, crime rates —while still troublesome— were improved, culture and art have taken root and we have seen an improvement in race relations since the 80s, particularly between the Police Department and our minority communities.

This did not happen by accident…or by policies pushed by our county government, our friends in Tallahassee or our representatives in Washington.

It happened through visioning, collaboration, solid execution of citizen driven plans, the adoption of new urbanist principles, and a business friendly government that was focused more on outcomes than process. It happened because of leadership: among staff, elected officials, business leaders and volunteers….

And so I suspect that the rest of our nation’s cities have this opportunity to transform…or to be left behind….it all hinges on leadership….all of it….People matter, more than anything…and we better do what we can to attract the right people to the Public Square and frankly keep the wrong people from the levers of power…

People matter….leaders who empower rather than stifle a community—make progress possible.

Because the word impossible loses all meaning if the right people show up and agree to work together….but the word impossible becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy if the wrong people show up and talented citizens sit on the sidelines or decide that the level of toxicity is too high for them to participate….

Again, my city is a case study….

Because as far as we have come….a CRA district that went from $250mm in value to over $2bn in 30 years, recognition as an All America City, the first city to win the John Nolen award recognizing our implementation of smart growth policies, Florida Trend naming us the best run town in Florida and hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment—we are far from done. And far from being bullet proof….

Every ounce of progress cities make is vulnerable to being rolled back. Every dollar spent can yield a return on investment or a loss….and the headwinds we faced 30 years ago remain headwinds today….schools that struggle, the devastation of heroin, neighborhoods on the brink as a result of bad sober home operators….crime, violence and now profound and embarrassing political dysfunction.

None of these problems are intractable—if you attract the right people to the public square.

But all of them are intractable, if you have a mindset predisposed to failure or lack of collaboration—as we see in Washington and in cities that struggle with toxic politics.

Benjamin Barber—who works at the City University of New York–wrote a book called “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities”.

It’s a manifesto…passionately written and convincingly argued—that local governments are uniquely positioned to save the planet and themselves. I agree with him.

Mr. Barber builds a strong case for an informal parliament of cities, perhaps several hundred strong, which would in effect ratify a shift in power and political reality that, he argues, has already taken place. He sees modern cities as incubators for problem-solving while national governments are doomed to failure.

 

“Because they are inclined naturally to collaboration and interdependence, cities harbor hope,” Barber writes. “If mayors ruled the world,” he says, “the more than 3.5 billion people (over half the world’s population) who are urban dwellers and the many more in the exurban neighborhoods could participate locally and cooperate globally at the same time — a miracle of civic ‘glocality’ promising pragmatism instead of politics, innovation rather than ideology and solutions in place of sovereignty.”

I like the ideals espoused by Dr. Barber…but I am a realist as well.

And so the key to success is not just home rule and collaboration among cities…the key is making sure the right leaders are in the right positions to build cities that are sustainable…and that the right leaders feel supported and nurtured by caring citizens.

So we must invest in leadership, which we are not doing…we must encourage people who are courageous…and we must invest in not only the appearance of the public realm but the attractiveness of the public square..because if the public square is toxic and resembles a sewer—good people will find other ways to spend their time.

That does not mean we shun or discourage debate…but it does mean that we confront the civic bullies that all of us working in public policy are all too aware of but are reluctant to talk about….we have to make it safer—not safe—safer and more attractive for promising leaders to succeed. We have to confront the bullies that rob us of aspiration, inspiration, progress and productivity.

If we don’t….the cities that do— will thrive. And the other cities will wither and die…and there is too much at stake for us to allow that to happen…we have a responsibility to the past, the present and the future.

We should strive to preserve the best of our history, serve our stakeholders today and plan to give future generations a better future…it can be done.

It must be done….

So I will leave you with two ideas….and then I want to talk to you guys…because you are the type of leaders we need to fan out across our region to build great places…

Idea #1: Some university in our county…Lynn or FAU needs to step up and build a Public Leadership Institute…we train doctors, we train lawyers, we train puppies…we need to train public sector leaders…don’t you think that will yield ROI?

Idea #2: New Urbanism, Smart Growth, sustainable development—whatever you want to call it, needs a marketing makeover because it is just too damn easy for NIMBY’s and naysayers to derail progress. We need a political strategy that matches the intellectual underpinnings of what we know to be solid public policy. We are starting to see this with the beginning of a YIMBY movement, but we have a long way to go. If we don’t…we will lose any and all opportunities to create a sustainable future for our kids.

 

 

 

High Rent Blight

Bleecker Street in the historic Noho District of NYC may be resembling bleak street these days.

The New York Times touched on an interesting topic last week: high rent blight.
They used the phrase to describe Bleecker Street in New York City which saw rents soar to $800 a square foot before retailers cried uncle and shut their doors. Now the once red hot street suffers from vacancy; hence high end blight which is considered late stage gentrification.
Which begs the question: can this happen to Atlantic Avenue?
Palmetto Park Road? Pineapple Grove?
When I moved here in 1987, we had conventional low rent blight. Rents were $5-$8 per square foot and vacancy rates downtown were about 40 percent.
Today, some restaurants are paying in excess of $100 per square foot–far from Bleecker Street numbers but still very high for our market.
Rents in Pineapple Grove are $30-$35 per square foot for prime space–(solid rents no doubt) and hardly imaginable back when Norman Radin conceived the district; but still not ridiculous.
But ….
high rents are coming.
They have hit the avenue and the  Grove is next.
Why?
Because we’ve had some incredibly high purchase prices on and off the avenue.

If you talk to veteran commercial real estate brokers, they are wrestling with the challenge of making rents jibe with high land prices.
It’s a conundrum.
If you believe in a free market–and I do–rising prices are driven by the market and represent good news for long time landlords who have weathered good cycles and horrible cycles.
But if you want to see a diverse mix of businesses downtown and if you value independent operators–as I do–the high prices are a major challenge.
As the son of an independent pharmacist I have a little insight into the challenges of making a small business work in a competitive environment.

Today, the challenges are bigger than ever. The internet, Amazon, the very difficult retail environment etc etc., all make it very hard to build and sustain a business. Even well- heeled chains are finding it hard to survive. Throw in high rents, a seasonal economy, high insurance, a tough labor market, competition for people’s time and complicated marketing channels and you can appreciate how hard it is to make it today. You can also appreciate the need to support local businesses and to shop local.

The Downtown Development Authority is wrestling with these issues in a smart way.
They are working with Robert Gibbs, a noted retail and downtown expert who has some familiarity with Delray having worked here during the creation of the Downtown Master Plan.
But no doubt about it, this is a challenging environment. And we need to be cognizant of  that. We also need to be aware of our downtown mix and our demographics too.

When rents get high, restaurants tend to push alcohol–a high margin item. And if we morph from a food destination to a nightclub scene that has consequences ranging from our brand and who hangs out here to public safety concerns and whether we become more of a late night destination than an all hours downtown.

Big topics. Great stuff to chew on.
But what we don’t want to see is high rent blight.

So how do cities address this issue without infringing on property rights or the free market?

My theory is a good offense is a good defense.
So here are a few thoughts.

Successful cities need multiple districts/neighborhoods to perform. If they do, businesses have options on where to locate.
So efforts must be made to transform The Set (and those efforts are being made), but also Congress Avenue, South Federal Highway, North Federal Highway and eventually the “four corners:” of Atlantic Avenue and Military Trail which was rezoned and reimagined a dozen years ago.
You can and should be working on multiple fronts both for practical reasons and market based ones.

The notion that cities can only do one thing at a time is plain wrong.

For example, the players for Congress and The Set are different. The areas don’t compete, they complement. Some investors will want West Atlantic. Some will prefer Congress or South Federal. Some will be interested in all of the above. Your “open for business” sign has to be open for all commercial districts while the economy is good.

One thing we know for sure, the cycle will end, so it’s important to get traction while you can. Development standards can and should be high. But you have to make hay when the sun shines as they say. And you don’t have to offer incentives–just attractive zoning and a smooth and predictable approval process. Be tough, but fair.

In previous down cycles– including the great recession– Delray Beach was the last to city to experience issues and the first to emerge from the doldrums. That was a result of a good planning,  a business friendly environment, a solid brand and a City Hall that knew how to execute.
Those are “hidden” but very real assets. So it’s just as critical that we rebuild capacity at City Hall.
How does this all address high rent blight?
Well..it doesn’t lower rents, or increase availability of affordable housing or commercial spaces overnight but it does spark competition so that if the market skews there are now options in our city. If we don’t create multiple options, people, business and investment will go elsewhere.
Hopefully over time the power of the market will modulate prices to better reflect what’s possible and desirable. That’s the bet, it’s not easy. But it’s doable. One thing for sure, doing nothing guarantees trouble.

It Don’t Come Easy

I spoke to an urban planning class at FAU last night.
Adjunct Professor Glenn Gromann invited me and I enjoy speaking to students so I said yes. (And it doesn’t hurt when the adjunct professor makes your book required reading…wink, I will work for book sales).
It’s not the first time I’ve had the privilege of speaking to college students. Usually I tell the story of modern Delray Beach taking them through the decisions, policies and leadership choices that brought Delray out of the dumps. We cover the ups and downs, the mistakes and triumphs and the rationales behind decisions that to some may seem counter-intuitive.

I don’t have any formal training in urban planning–but I do have real world experience. I am so interested in the subject that I have read everything I could get my hands on and listened to smart planners, architects, urbanists and good developers at every opportunity. I even created a few–by reaching out, by attending seminars, joining the Urban Land Institute, visiting Seaside, joining the Congress for New Urbanism and studying placemakers like Jane Jacobs and Delray’s own part-time resident Fred Kent, founder of the Project for Public Spaces.

I also understand the politics that go into moving an agenda forward–because change and new urbanism isn’t always embraced. Today, I find myself in the strange position of having to defend policies that clearly worked–that created vibrancy, value, quality of life, jobs, opportunities and future potential if we would just open our eyes to the possibilities. Often, I’m debating new residents who moved here attracted by what they saw (I suppose) but vehemently against everything else and resentful of those who played a role in building our town. It reminds me of the phrase: “I’m in the boat, pull up the ladder.” My main point to them: we aren’t done and we have a responsibility to the future to manage change and do it intelligently.
There are many planning and leadership principles to convey to tomorrow’s planners, developers, department heads and architects: the merits of new urbanism, the importance of visioning, the need to engage the community and the value of making investments. Every city needs to be able to provide running water and trash pickup but the cities that make a ruckus are those that do more: art, culture, dynamic downtowns, sports, festivals, food scenes etc.
We did that.
It took 20 years of hard work by a multitude of people. But it happened.
So I shared that journey. And as many times as I share the story, it never fails to move me. Because I know what it took and I have deep respect and admiration for the people who made it happen and I’m privileged and proud to tell their story and I suppose defend their efforts. Some previously important people (PIPS) go away, I’ve decided not too. It’s my town and I love it.
But I’ve started to add to the narrative. I’ve started to talk about what can go wrong. How cities can give back gains and how as aspiring planners or public administrators having great ideas, state of the art policies and stellar execution won’t be enough to make a lasting and permanent  difference.
In fact, you won’t be able to get to the policy part if you don’t understand politics. I shared how good ideas get squashed and how even sound policies suffocate if the wrong elected officials show up to stifle and or choke the life out of progress.
Students need to understand this. As citizens they need to know this and get involved. They need to vote. They need to run. They need to insist that elected officials serve them, not the other way around.

As prospective planners they need to know how corrosive “leadership” can impact their careers and if they go the private sector route they need to know how this can cost them. How it can break their spirits and their bank accounts.
As a result, they need to know that progress can be ephemeral and they need to be able to articulate to citizens why the planning principles they learn are good ways to build communities and manage growth.
But sadly, good planning principles often don’t cut it on their own.  You need to market those policies, constantly sell their rationales and educate voters as to why your plans and visions make sense.
Take for example, new urbanism or the newer “strong towns” movement. Both philosophies have sound thinking behind them and eloquent manifestos.
But…
It don’t come easy, as Ringo once  sang.
Students need to know that and prepare to engage the future communities they will serve.
Because you can guarantee that regardless of how much success you enjoy or how far you’ve come there will always be forces lining up to stop you and in some cases roll it all back.

We used to call it municipal math…30 years to build, two years to screw it all up, no guarantee you can get it back.
That’s the hardest lesson of all to learn and the most important.