A Better Way

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Last week was exhausting and you could see the divisions in Delray writ large.

But what is often lost when emotions run hot are the commonalities.

In this city, there is one common thread that trumps (sorry for the word trump) everything else.

People love Delray Beach. And that’s a good thing.

Some like a vibrant growing Delray; some might prefer it a tad or a whole lot quieter. But the concern is there, so is the passion.

No “side” is right and no side is wrong.

It’s a debate that plays out in towns and cities throughout the country. But many people I know long for a more intelligent, fact-based debate in which all stakeholders can feel like they’ve been heard and respected. We should have a process that doesn’t feel so bruising and nasty.

But we don’t have that yet, not by a long shot. Here’s what we have as illustrated by the recent iPic debate.

Project comes to town.

Economic development fans get excited.

Jobs! Tax base! Cleaning up a blighted property! Yay!

But they’re not allowed to get excited or to enjoy the moment for longer than a nanosecond. And heaven forbid if we give the economic development team a pat on the back for bringing the opportunity to town.

See, unless the new project or company is being built on acres of virgin land nowhere near anything or anybody —they can expect opposition.

Why? Because inevitably they will “need” something; two feet more of land, a liberal interpretation of some requirement—something. And inevitably, there will be impacts associated with the proposal (and benefits as well).

And then all hell breaks loose.

No exceptions!

What are they trying to pull?!!

Suddenly, the company or developer becomes the “deep pocketed” corruptive force sent here to pillage and take advantage of the helpless resident/taxpayers.

Sigh….

Then the misinformation and accusations begin to fly. The developer is greedy and disingenuous. The city staff is in their pockets or incompetent. They won’t “compromise”.

Meanwhile, as the developer or company seeks to build support they make the rounds of the usual suspects and they are asked to do certain things such as contribute funds to a cause or build certain facilities. Some make sense, but others feel a little strange, words like extortion get thrown around.

Most play the game, to a point. But they start to wonder are they doing the right thing? When will the requests end? Where exactly is this going? Is this ethical?

Some decide to fight misinformation with PR. Big mistake; at least in the minds of opponents.

See we told you so, they say. The deep-pocketed developer is spending big bucks on mail, robocalls, ads, email blasts etc., seeking to overwhelm the poor resident/taxpayer.

Meanwhile, if you happen to be one of these resident taxpayers, or just a lowly renter or even a business owner who would like to support something you start to draw some heat.

“What’s in it for you,” you might be asked if you have the nerve to express support for something (it’s always OK to be against something, just don’t dare support something).

I was asked that last week, because I came out in favor of bringing 400 jobs, a corporate headquarters and family entertainment to downtown Delray.

What’s in it for me?

Let me answer that question: See above. I want to see 400 jobs; a corporate headquarters and family entertainment come to downtown Delray Beach. Shame on me.

But for me and for many others it goes beyond that. I’ve been working, alongside many others, on trying to create something in Delray since the 80s. I left office in 2007, after what I felt was a very productive 7 year run.

Am I bragging? Just a little.

But it was a team effort and I am proud of the team that I was on and the commission’s that came before us. I even like many of the people on the city staff…shocking, I know.

I live here. I care about this place. I think it’s smart for us to diversify beyond food and beverage and I want our children to be able to come home and work in Delray.

I’m a resident/taxpayer too. If I see something I like I want to be able to support it without being accused of being paid off. I think others feel the same way.

And by the way, we respect the legitimate concerns of opponents. I don’t relish traffic. But I understand tradeoffs. And I’m willing to live with inconveniences if there are compelling benefits. To me, there is no more compelling benefit than jobs. But I get the angst and I know it comes from a place of concern and love for Delray. Still, I am biased in favor or jobs and opportunity.

I am the co-founder of a non-profit called Dare 2 Be Great. Our mission is to provide scholarships and mentoring to some of the incredible kids who live in Delray Beach. We are investing in the next generation of leaders with the hope that some will come back here and make a positive impact on our community. The kids we help love this city and would like to come back. It is our responsibility to do what we can to provide them opportunities to do so.

We have a big job in front of us and a long, long way to go.

I don’t accuse opponents of ulterior motives so I don’t think it’s fair for them to do so to others just because there is an honest disagreement on a vision for Delray.

If I like something, it’s because I think it’s good for the city. If I don’t like something, it’s because I think it’s bad for the city. Pretty simple.

Most projects have good and bad elements…benefits and impacts. But if it’s a close call, I’ll always support progress and jobs, even if there is a tradeoff.

I think opponents are sincere in their love of Delray Beach. Others love the city just as much.

But I think our city slogan should be “How Can We Make It Work?” Some projects just don’t work. I voted down many projects during the biggest real estate boom imaginable. But the good ones, I wanted to see built—Mallory Square, CityWalk, Marina Bay, Ocean City Lofts, Atlantic Grove, a new library on West Atlantic, the Seagate Hotel and others. All of them required the team to say “how can we make it work?”

And we did.

And this town is great as a result.

We love this town too. It’s worth saying over and over.

So does our CRA and our Chamber and our DDA and our DBMC and the people who bring you festivals from Garlic to Delray Affair.

Are we perfect? Nope.

Did we get it all right? Not by a long shot.

Are we done? Not on your life.

Once upon a time, we worked together.

We became a national model for smart growth and great (not good, but great) urban planning and redevelopment.

We didn’t do all of this by talking past each other. We did it by saying “how do we make it work.” Change is going to come, whether we like it or not. We have to shape it and manage it.

It will work better if we figure out a way to talk respectfully on these issues. We need standards and high quality development, but we also need to understand that sometimes you have to give a little to get a lot.

Collaboration not confrontation; was a phrase we used in regards to our labor unions. It works.

The concerns are legitimate. But the people who back projects like the iPic are not blind, callous or in the pockets of developers.

Delray has been built on three pillars: scale, vibrancy and uniqueness. The LDR’s safeguard scale, we will never have high rises downtown. Uniqueness is in jeopardy right now as a result of very high land costs fueling what I think are unsustainable rents for independent retailers and restauranteurs.

We are vibrant, for 4-5 blocks anyway. But there is clearly more to do to help local businesses weather a long, hot and slow summer. And we need more jobs and industry beyond food and beverage. We did not aspire to be a seasonal resort town.

So what can we do to raise the level of discourse?

  • Continue the Mayor’s Lecture Series, but make them more interactive and take action on some of the advice we have been given.
  • Restore the Town Hall meeting, but to increase dialogue create smaller discussion groups.
  • Explore Community Engagement Platforms; town hall formats are great and so are public hearings, but if you have kids and a job it’s hard to be at a meeting from 6 p.m. to past midnight. As a result, important voices are left out. Technology is available to equip stakeholders with facts and allow their voices to be heard. CoUrbanize is just one I have seen. http://courbanize.com/ I’m sure there are others.
  • Open a design studio as mentioned in last week’s column.
  • Don’t allow any one group to speak for all, either pro or con. Effective leaders seek to engage all stakeholders, but the business community in this town has been labeled a special interest. They are not, they are stakeholders and their voices are important as well.
  • Have a fact based and ongoing conversation about traffic, parking and density.

We can make it work and still be friends and neighbors.