Taking A Stroll

Last week, the Florida chapter of the American Planning Association was in West Palm Beach for their annual conference.
Hundreds of urban planners from throughout the state were in attendance to learn from each other and to pick up new ideas that can be tried back home.
West Palm Planner Ana Maria Aponte, a Delray resident, was in charge of hosting a mobile tour of local downtowns and Delray was chosen along with West Palm and Lake Worth.
I was honored and happy to take a bus load of planners on a walking tour.
Below are the notes I made of the points I wanted to make as we walked Atlantic Avenue, Pineapple Grove and the Old School Square Historic Arts District.

1. Public investment first. (In Delray’s case, the public made the initial investments in streetscapes, paver bricks, lighting, culture etc. and the private sector followed with colossal investment.)

2. Flexible zoning. Lenient parking regulations, densities. TCEA. First in state. Facade grants Cra. Rental assistance. (Flexible zoning is important where you are dealing with infill development. A reasonable parking code allowed for restaurants and an exemption from traffic concurrency rules allowed downtown to take shape. Without that “TCEA” there would have been no downtown. Density done right makes it possible for vibrancy to occur, for businesses to survive and makes our streets safer. It’s about design not density.
3. Built around culture, events. Tennis, festivals, Old School Square . (This stuff put us on the map and kept us there. Period. It created value, quality of life and wealth.)
4. We led with food and beverage. (But that was never the end game. Employment was always on the radar.)
5. Emphasis on downtown housing. (So important to support local businesses).
6. Open space preserved.
Citizens created OSS Park. City preserved Vets Park. Worthing Park etc.
7. Expand boundaries of downtown from I-95 to the ocean and two blocks north and south of avenue. We have good bones; a grid system.
U.S. 1 narrowed.  To stop speeding cars from flying past the downtown. So US 1 became a neighborhood instead of a highway.
8. Structured parking added. Land acquisition via Cra.
9. Future challenges.
Affordability: both commercial and residential.
Competition from other cities.
Managing nightlife.
Staying fresh.
Complacency  at the first signs of success when there is so much left to do.
I’m not sure I hit all of the points. We were walking fast, had limited time and I wanted to show them the Arts Garage where Marjorie Waldo graciously interrupted a staff meeting and a birthday party to give us an overview of her amazing facility.
We never did get to Old School Square where I wanted the group to meet Marusca Gatto who has done such a great job with the Cornell Museum.
Next time, for sure.
I like talking and writing about Delray Beach. I like sharing what we’ve learned with others trying to build their cities. I take great pride in the work that so many amazing people did over so many years. And I enjoy discussions of current and future challenges.
Cities are fascinating places. Ever changing. Always evolving. Always providing challenges and opportunities and so full of rich stories.
We are taking a few days off to explore some other cities. The blog will be back in a week or so.
Thanks for reading. Your attention is greatly appreciated.

Walkability: The Killer App

The Beatles understood walkability and walked eight days a week.

There was a story in the Wall Street Journal last week that went viral.
The piece talked about how “walkability” has become the hot new rage in car-centric LA.

The reporter wrote about how walkable neighborhoods and developments are fetching higher prices and have become a top preference of baby boomers, millennials and just about anyone who can fork over a fortune on housing close to shops, dining and cultural amenities.
In other words, what we have in downtown Delray Beach.

Our walkability is not only desirable and unique in sprawling suburban South Florida it has created value for neighborhoods within striking (or golf cart) distance of the downtown.
And yet, while we as people value walkability for the quality it brings to our communities, we sure put up a fuss when it comes to enacting policies to enable it.

As a result, there is a shortage of such neighborhoods– not only in LA, but in Florida and all points in between. Because of a limited supply of walkable neighborhoods, everything from housing to commercial rents have skyrocketed in urbanized spaces.  It’s the simple law of supply and demand: when there is more demand than supply prices spike. Hence $100 rents on Atlantic Avenue and really high prices on downtown condos in Delray, Boca and yes LA.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Why can’t we enact policies to encourage more walkable and bike friendly neighborhoods?
After all, walkability is sustainable both environmentally and economically.
Well…in order to create walkable neighborhoods you can’t have policies that preference the car. You need policies that encourage the pedestrian.
Usually that means compact and dense development, the opposite of sprawl.
Hence, the angst.
Sadly,  has become a dirty word and that’s a shame. Because density done well, density deployed strategically creates magical places. It’s all about urban design and placemaking.

But many communities get caught up in a numbers game instead of a form or design based discussion. As a result, they fight density and perhaps unwittingly support policies that preference the auto over the person. They also– I believe unwittingly–support expensive and ultimately unsustainable development. The Strong Towns movement is devoted to lifting the veil on this issue and teaching communities that by promoting sprawl they are hastening their financial ruin. They offer case study after case study using basis math to prove their thesis. To learn more, visit https://www.strongtowns.org/ but fair warning, you can get lost in their website, it’s that good.

Another stumbling block is parking. So much development is driven by parking.
Parking requirements drive design and uses and because structured parking is expensive, we often end up with a sea of asphalt, hardly conducive to placemaking and walkability.
The developers I know struggle mightily with this, especially since we keep reading about automated vehicles and about how the advent of self driving cars will free of us of the tyranny of the parking lot/expensive deck.
Alas, we are not there yet. And the last thing you want to be is “under parked” which makes it hard for projects to succeed.
It’s just not easy.
And yet…
We should try.

Try to learn lessons from Donald Shoup widely regarded as one of the best minds in parking around. He came to Delray a few years back and reminded us that there is no such thing as free parking. Somebody’s paying for it. If you pay taxes, guess what? It’s you.

We should also try to embrace the idea that design and form mean more than numbers and that prescriptive codes won’t allow for creativity and will hinder investment not encourage it. But form based codes enable great design if we push developers, planners and architects. And if we educate elected officials.
Walkability and placemaking are possible. But only if we aspire, incentivize (through zoning, not cash) and insist on it.

Remembering someone special

There has been a lot of loss lately. It least it seems that way to me anyway.

Last weekend, we attended a memorial service honoring the life of Susan Shaw who spent 7 years working for the Delray CRA.

Susan was the first person you saw if you went to the CRA’s offices on Swinton Avenue and the cheerful voice you heard if you called the agency.

She retired only a few weeks ago, took a bucket list trip to New Zealand, posted wonderful photos on Facebook, came home, took ill and sadly passed away.

The news devastated her family, friends and colleagues who considered her family.

Susan was a vibrant, friendly, warm soul with a great spirit. She volunteered at the Caring Kitchen and was devoted to animal rescue. She was also active at Unity Church.

Her fellow prayer chaplains and friends gave her a wonderful send off at her memorial. Unity is a special place. The sanctuary is spectacular and the warm feeling you get when you enter the church defies description. It was an apt place to celebrate Susan Shaw.

CRA Director Jeff Costello gave one of many touching talks about Susan. And it reminded me that it takes so many parts to make a village work.

Susan Shaw wasn’t a department head, her photo won’t hang on the walls at City Hall, but she was a vital part of a team. A team dedicated to building community.

She will be missed by all who knew her.

 

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.

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.

The Past Can Inform Our Future If…

 

Park Avenue in Winter Park.

Park Avenue in Winter Park.

In October 2014 I had the privilege of participating in a Urban Land Institute panel focusing on Winter Park.
ULI’s TAP program (Technical Assistance Program) brings outside help to communities seeking advice on how to seize an opportunity or address a vexing issue in their city.
It was a great honor to be chosen to participate, because I have long admired Winter Park and I’m a big fan of Bob Rhodes, who is a legend in Florida.

Bob was Chair for the Winter Park TAP and shortly after the exercise he was honored with a much deserved lifetime achievement award from Leadership Florida.

Led by Bob, the panel produced a document aimed at framing some issues that Winter Park was facing relating to downtown development and offering them some solutions to consider.
So it was interesting for me to return to the city two years later to see what was happening downtown.
We spent a day strolling, dining and shopping on Park Avenue over the holiday break.
It was a beautiful day and the street was bustling.
Park Avenue has a similar scale to Atlantic Avenue, mostly two and three story buildings. Winter Park has some distinct architecture and it’s streetscape is immaculate.
Gorgeous planters, attractive signage, cool little side streets and a lineal park that runs alongside Park Ave gives the city remarkable charm.
While Atlantic Avenue is restaurant heavy, Park Avenue is dominated by retail.
There are a fair amount of chain stores and franchises ranging from Gap for Kids and Restoration Hardware to Starbucks and Burger Fi.
But there’s also a decent number of independents—the feel is decidedly upscale but not pretentious.
It’s a vibrant street and just feels good.
What makes Winter Park interesting is it’s able to succeed as a counter to much larger Orlando which sits (looms) next door.
Orlando’s downtown has come a long way in recent years under the leadership of Mayor Buddy Dyer.

As a result, Orlando is now much more than just theme parks and vacation villas.
Still, Winter Park still feels like an oasis in Central Florida.

The city wants to keep that charm and I think it will. ULI was brought to the city as a result of a strong desire for Winter Park to remain special in a sea of sameness, sprawl and traffic.

We also visited Celebration which is known for its new urban layout and variety of architectural elevations.
Now 20 years old, Celebration looks better with a little age on it. A former Leadership Florida classmate was one of the developers of the landmark project–which has received a huge amount of press over the years– so I had some insight into the thinking that Disney was trying to achieve in Celebration. The goal was to replicate some of the best features of American town planning before cookie cutter design began to proliferate. Critics called it a “Stepford” community, almost too perfect to feel warm and authentic.
I remember visiting some years ago and it felt much more faux than it does today. It has aged well and even my kids–not usually attuned to such things–noticed how different the neighborhoods were in terms of design.
Celebration and Winter Park stick out in a region that is suffering from an acute case of sprawl with all of its attendant illnesses including choking traffic and soulless sameness.
I wish there were more places like Winter Park and our own Delray Beach.
I sense that there’s a large market of people who want a walkable lifestyle, distinct architecture, interesting shopping choices and good local restaurants. Throw in attractive open spaces and large doses of culture and educational opportunities and you have a recipe for enduring success. You also have a recipe for high housing costs, which price many people who would enjoy and contribute to these places out of the market. One answer is density–done well of course–which adds supply and is also better for the environment. But the “D” word is often a third rail in local politics and public officials unwilling to do the hard work of engaging the community in an education effort often abandon the types of development patterns that people long for and create value well beyond a bottom line.
Will cities like Winter Park and Delray change?
No doubt.
But as long as they keep their “bones” and scale intact they will continue to succeed.
We just need more communities to follow their lead. And more public officials willing to push for quality of design rather than simply judging projects based on numbers.

It’s All About the Software

The intangibles make a community a community

The intangibles make a community a community

Seth Godin has a saying: Hardware is sexy, but it’s the software that matters.

Seth is a smart guy—arguably the smartest marketing mind around.

His thinking helps me with the companies we are involved with but his writing is also very apropos for cities and community building.

And that saying just resonates…hardware could refer to buildings in your city and software could serve as a stand in for all the “soft” stuff like “sense of place”, “community” and feeling a part of things.

Hardware is important. Your physical buildings should have character and be well-designed.

But software—that’s what makes a town special.

It’s the intangible things that make you fall in love with a place and when you fall in love you commit and that makes all the difference doesn’t it?

Recently, I attended a “Mayor’s Gala” at the Broward County Convention Center which was a benefit for the United Way. We ended up talking to an array of city officials—and I had a chance to have extended conversations with a Pompano Beach City Commissioner and a soon to be termed out commissioner from that city.

If you haven’t been to Pompano recently you owe it to yourself to visit. The beach area has been transformed. It’s just beautiful and was recently honored with an award from the Urban Land Institute (ULI). (I had a chance to tour the area with a ULI judge and we were impressed).

They built a beautiful parking garage, which sounds like it would be an oxymoron (beautiful garage? Really?!!) but it is. And so their hardware is improving.

pompanogarage

But the most important thing that’s changed in Pompano is the software. This is a city that aspires. This is a community that is gaining confidence and momentum. This has become a place where people are excited about their present and thrilled about their future potential.

The retiring commissioner had the happy but tired look of someone who has served and sees the light at the end of the tunnel. I can relate to that feeling. Public service is a privilege and a very special honor. It is also exhausting if you care enough to put your heart into it and want to move a community forward, solve problems, meet challenges and seize opportunities. The soon to be termed out commissioner was tired but happy—he was confident his city was moving in the right direction.

Chatting with him reminded me of another quote I love: “the community will give back what you give to it.”

I heard that from some speaker years ago and committed that line to memory. And yes it is so true.

The soon to be termed out commissioner had two weeks left in office and then he was off to Hawaii for some rest. But he was proud of what had transpired during his term.

His colleague has an election on Nov. 8 and is working hard to stay on the commission because he is excited about all that’s happening in his city.

The best economic development is momentum and community “software” that drives progress and enables you to overcome inertia or any challenge that are thrown your way—be it hurricanes or crime or drugs or nasty characters who get up at meetings and throw bricks. It even inoculates you against the trolls, most of whom sit back in judgment but few who actually roll up their sleeves and try themselves.

Nothing great can be accomplished without enthusiasm, calculated risk and a large dose of inspiration.

Leaders either fill the reservoir with hope or drain it with negativity.

There’s another saying that I just love and it’s this: “There is a difference between leadership and ambition. Leaders have the courage to be unpopular with those that disagree with them. The ambitious want to befriend as many people as possible.”
We need more leadership and less ambition.

But we also need more aspiration and more emotional intelligence. Hardware is important. Hardware is indeed sexy. But software is heart. Software is love. Software is empathy and its gratitude.

Software is what matters.

 

 

Vision, Courage + Urgency=Success

Dollar Shave Club CEO Michael Dubin's viral video disrupted an entrenched industry.

Dollar Shave Club CEO Michael Dubin’s viral video disrupted an entrenched industry.

Vision.

Courage.

A sense of urgency.

If you want to succeed as a city or a business, you need all three.

Two out of three, just won’t cut it. All three traits are non-negotiable.

Unless of course, you don’t really want to succeed; if you want to pay lip service you can skip one or more of the aforementioned and you’ll fool a few people but you won’t get anything done.

Vision is a big word, but it can be as simple as an idea or as complicated as a breakthrough innovation. I think it also requires a particular mindset: you have to be aspirational and you have to know where you want to take things.

Examples of vision, courage and urgency abound.

Dollar Shave Club sold this month to Unilever for $1 billion.

Fueled by a clever viral video, Dollar Shave Club took a simple idea—make it easy to buy cheap razors and solved a painful problem. Razors are expensive and they are often kept under lock and key in the pharmacy. Blades are inconvenient to buy and ridiculously priced. But Dollar Shave Club made it easy, they had the courage to go up against industry giants and they had a sense of urgency to make it happen. To learn more visit: https://www.dollarshaveclub.com/blades

A small (but growing fast) hot sauce company I’m involved with also has a simple idea. We think the market leader is old, tired, vinegary, watery and doesn’t taste good. So we created Tabanero, using premium ingredients and a complex recipe that we believe tastes great. We are a long way from a billion dollar exit, but we just gained placement at Publix, Sprouts, Lucky’s and all the big food distributors. We are on our way. We have a vision, we are fearless and we are peddling as fast as we can.

Same with another company we are heavily involved with; Celsius which seeks to disrupt the beverage industry which is filled with iconic giants such as Coke and Pepsi. But Celsius is a healthy alternative to sugary soft drinks and seeks to capture a market that doesn’t want aspartame, sugar, corn syrup, artificial flavors or preservatives. The Celsius team has courage, belief and a tremendous desire to seize the day. Working with people who exhibit these traits is an energizing experience; pun intended.

That mindset translates to cities as well.

Delray’s vision was simple: revitalize a town that had good “bones” and make it a desirable to place to live, work and play.

Now mind you, ‘live, work and play’ is not a revolutionary idea. Thousands of communities have adopted that mantra—but if you look closely only a few had the courage and the sense of urgency to make it happen.

Why? Who knows?

But you can bank on resistance to progress, long lines of protesters, lawsuits and election challenges if you try and make change.

Delray had the courage to do it anyway. And leadership also had a sense of urgency and a desire to take advantage of good economic cycles. Some may call it making hay while the sun shines.

Boca had a vision too. Consider Mizner Park for example. They were challenged, but they persevered and got it done.

Pittsburgh saw its steel mills close but had a vision to reinvent their economy around medicine, education and robotics. Their sense of urgency in doing so was important because without a wholesale reinvention, the Burgh would have sunk into the ooze.

Last week, I got a call, (I won’t say from who) other than he was a property owner who is concerned that Delray has lost its vision and sense of urgency. The guy is not a household name per se in Delray, but he’s owned some strategic pieces over the years. His identity is really not important.

It’s not the first call of this nature that I have received. Mostly, the calls are laments that complacency has set in, political divisiveness too and that the economic cycle may be closer to the end than the beginning and that we didn’t make hay, in fact we chased the hay away.

Yeah, I know development is controversial. And for good reason a lot of times. Some of it, maybe even most of it, can be generic, lacking in imagination, poorly designed and more of the same old, same old.

But that can be fixed. Architects, developers and designers can be and should be challenged to do better.

It’s possible to make places people friendly and to design spaces that complement or improve their surroundings.

Some cities have created design studios to help ensure that projects are the very best they can be.

When famed new urbanist architect Andres Duany came to Delray for a town hall lecture, one of the first things he said was that cities should never make developers and architects guess—they should engage with projects early in the process and shape them so that they enhance the built environment.

Legendary former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley felt that mayors were the primary architects for their cities and had a responsibility to make sure that each project was as good as they could possibly be. Now, truth be told, there are limits. After all, most mayors, including Riley, are not architects or designers, but if they take the time they can learn enough to help make projects look and feel good.

FAU’s Abacoa campus used to have what they called a Florida Public Officials Design Institute, which sadly became a victim of budget cuts. It was a great program; it helped me a lot on the original vision for the Congress Avenue corridor and ideas for the four corners of Military Trail and Atlantic Avenue.

Nationally, there is a Mayor’s Institute for Civic Design which has a stellar reputation.

But there are limits too, I admit. There are property rights and if a developer, with his or her own risk capital wants to build a certain building they have a right to do so—as long as they follow the rules.

Still, most developers I have met are open to being challenged and open to design ideas, if as Duany notes, you engage them early– before they spend big bucks on plans they will be reluctant to toss in the trash.

Mix is important too. I agree with the lament about endless condos, even though I am a firm believer in the need for– and wisdom of –downtown housing if we are to have safe and sustainable urban cores.

But charmless boxes are just that—city codes should encourage good design, varied styles and features that please the public.

But talking about design is a very different conversation than the ones we typically have, which is usually about chasing development away or pretending that we can prevent change. We shouldn’t do the former and we can’t do the latter, even if we wanted to.

We should be talking about design and the very real challenge of how to allow cities to evolve without losing their essence, uniqueness and charm. We should also be talking about mix—how can we encourage cool uses and what’s missing in our community—i.e. workforce housing, co-working, boutique theaters, studio space etc?

That would require vision.

In order to achieve the vision, you need courage.

And in order to drive change, you need a sense of urgency.

If nobody’s waking up every day with a burning passion to make a difference, it tends not to happen. And those communities, businesses and organizations that do have a burning desire will clean your clock before you even know what happened to you.

#Motivation Monday: Quotes That Make You Think

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At YourDelrayBoca.com, we love quotes. Here’s a few we hope you’ll enjoy with some limited commentary.

“People make cities, and it is to them, not buildings that we must fit our plans.” – Jane Jacobs

“Growth is inevitable and desirable, but destruction of community character is not. The question is not whether your part of the world is going to change. The question is how.” – Edward T. McMahon, the ULI Fellow not the Prize Patrol guy.

“I have affection for a great city. I feel safe in the neighborhood of man, and enjoy the sweet security of the streets.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who would have embraced community policing.

“What is the city but the people? “- William Shakespeare

“He who tells the truth must have one foot in the stirrup.” – Old Armenian proverb

“A leader is someone who cares enough to tell the people not merely what they want to hear, but what they need to know.”  – Reubin Askew. We met Gov. Askew once, he was so very impressive.

“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” – Yogi Berra not, we repeat not, referring to Atlantic Avenue.

“How is a village a village? By including young & old, white & black, rich & poor, churches & shops.” – Anonymous.

“How many of you here think housing should be more affordable? (almost all hands rise) OK, now how many of those own your own home?’ (most of the same hands stay up) OK. How many of you want the value of your own home to go down? (lots of blank looks, and hands creeping down) You see the problem?” – Anonymous

“NIMBY reactionaries don’t stop change in the long run. They simply help to insure that it happens in the worst possible way.” – David Brain. Note his last name.

“The second shortest code in the world: Diverse, walkable and compact.”—Peter Calthorpe

“Anyplace worth its salt has a ‘parking problem’- James Castle. You’d rather have one, than not.

“Increasingly, we live in a world where cities compete for people, and businesses follow. This trend has largely been ignored by many cities, which are still focused on business climate and tax incentives. But I think the big question businesses will ask in the years to come is going to be ‘Can I hire talented people in this city?’ Cities need to be able to answer ‘yes’ to succeed.” -Carol Coletta. Carol worked on the Delray Cultural Plan. She’s amazing.

“Parking is a narcotic and ought to be a controlled substance. It is addictive, and one can never have enough.” –Victor Dover. Mr. Dover is a fan of Delray Beach. We are a fan of his work.

“The problem with planning is that it has been overtaken by mathematical models… traffic, density, impact assessment, public costs etc. discarding common sense and empirical observation.”—Andres Duany.

“I’ve always described Density in terms of dollars: The more you have of it, the more you can buy with it — referring to amenities, of course (cultural, entertainment, dining, etc.). When I get asked what’s the single most important thing that can be added to a city to help revitalize it (they are always waiting for the latest retail or entertainment thing…), I always say housing. “  Seth Harry.

“If buildings are beautiful, higher density compounds that beauty. Conversely, if buildings are ugly, then higher density compounds that ugliness.” – Vince Graham

“What kills a city are people who want only low taxes, only want a good deal and only want cities to be about . . . pipes, pavement and policing. “ Glenn Murray. It’s all about design, not numbers.

“You can measure the health of a city by the vitality and energy of its streets and public spaces.” – Holly Whyte.

“The opposite to bad development is good development, not no development.” – Padriac  Steinschneider.

“If you are an elected official lacking in courage and leadership, and you face even a peep of opposition to a project, fall back on perfectionism to find a flaws so that you can shoot down the project. Perfectionism leads to paralysis.” Dom Nozzi. It also leads to disinvestment, a bad reputation, loss of jobs and lawsuits.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Density, Design, Planning & Values

Greetings

Delray Beach is the first city to ever win the prestigious John C. Nolen Award which recognizes responsible, smart growth.

The award is a big deal.

We won because over a long period of time the public and private sectors worked together on a series of citizen led visions—namely Visions 2000 and the Downtown Master Plan. We had vision. We had passion. We had political will and we stayed focused on the big picture.

As a result, Delray Beach changed. Some people liked what happened. Some people hated it. But there’s little argument that the downtown went from sleepy to vibrant.

Personally,  I  think we have a great downtown.

Not a perfect downtown. Not a downtown devoid of problems or annoyances, but a downtown enjoyed by thousands; a downtown that has been a source of great civic pride.

But we didn’t celebrate when we won the Nolen Award. We should have, but we didn’t.

We should have taken the time to invite our residents, new and long time, to mark the occasion. We should have shown before and after pictures and explained the rationale behind the innovative strategies, policies, risks and investments that were made to transform Delray.

It was a teachable moment and a chance to thank people for their involvement in making it happen. But we passed. And that’s a shame because those civic pride moments are important if we are serious about building community.

The central business district in our village by the sea survived the worst recession since the Great Depression better than just about any other city you can name.

Sure, there was pain. But you could have stood on Atlantic Avenue at the height of the financial crisis and not known that there was a global meltdown occurring.

We didn’t have major vacancies. The streets were alive, the restaurants were full and property values didn’t plummet like they did in other cities. Downtown proved to be an enduring economic engine, providing needed jobs and tax revenues.

In fact, downtown sales increased 35 percent from $175 million in 2008 to $237 million in 2013, according to the Florida Department of Revenue.

“That is about three times more than the growth Palm Beach County saw, “reported the Sun-Sentinel.

Did this happen by accident? Did it happen because we planned poorly? Was it all, dumb luck?

Did nobody other than greedy developers benefit?

No.

No.

No.

And no.

It wasn’t an accident. It was planned and at every step along the way there was an opportunity for public input and debate.

The revitalization of Atlantic Avenue dates to 1984 when Mayor Doak Campbell convened the Atlantic Avenue Task Force because the State DOT, in its infinite wisdom, wanted to widen East Atlantic Avenue to speed hurricane evacuation.

If that had occurred, there would have been no downtown to save, take back, enjoy or savor.

We would have had a highway, not a main street.

Visions 2000 picked up where the Task Force left off and citizens got together and voted to tax themselves to beautify their town.

The Visions 2000 process led to the $21.5 million Decade of Excellence Bond issue, which passed overwhelmingly in 1989. Shortly thereafter, we saw an old school transformed into a cultural arts center and the addition of paver bricks, decorative lighting and landscaping. Thanks to the CRA that beautification extended to the Interstate over the years and to side streets as well.

With the public commitment to beautification and progress evident, the private sector started to invest. Some of these investors were merchants, some were homeowners, some were small business owners and some were developers. Many people made money, but more than a few didn’t. Even developers lose and when they lose, they tend to lose big.

Now I hear some people who ought to know better question how the public has benefitted from all of this….and I have to scratch my head because I think the value is self-evident and abundant. But if we must, here we go: we saw crime rates plummet, property values increase, jobs created and quality of life and place get better. All of these real and intrinsic benefits were a direct result of smart, responsible growth.

Yes there are impacts. There’s traffic and there’s noise and most of the time we can no longer pull right up to The Green Owl and find a space. Sometimes we have to walk a few yards, sometimes half a block. That’s Ok, because I’d rather have traffic, than no traffic. And I’d rather live in a town with a lively downtown than a dead one; I’ve lived in both and I prefer vibrancy. I don’t think I’m alone.

So yeah…there are benefits and impacts. I get it.  And I understand that there are people who miss the “old Delray”, but unless your colonial Williamsburg or Charleston, you can count on change happening. Even Charleston has hired new urbanist Andres Duany to help navigate development pressures. But if we can’t stop change, and we shouldn’t want to, can we manage it? I think we can and I think we have. We can also focus on some positives…there has to be things we aspire to have, not just prevent.

A friend of mine lives in the Lake Ida neighborhood.  He bought his house about 14 years ago for a little under $200,000. Today, he can get over a million dollars. Some homes in Lake Ida are selling for over $2 million. Not all are on the lake either. Lake Ida is a beautiful neighborhood but with all due respect to my friends in Lake Ida, if they lived adjacent to a dead main street I’m fairly certain their homes would be worth far less money.

Could it be that home values spiked because Lake Ida residents can take a golf cart and be in a rocking downtown in a few minutes?

Just taking a guess, but I would venture yes.

After the Decade of Excellence was successfully implemented, the CRA issued an RFP for block 77, a blighted section of downtown at Atlantic and First.

Worthing Place was awarded the bid and the town went bonkers; split between those who feared density and what they were sure would be a low grade “tenement” and those who thought that having residents living downtown would benefit mom and pop retailers and make the downtown a safer, more vibrant place.

I ran for office a year after the project was approved—six stories and 93 units to the acre and inherited a series of lawsuits filed by Tom Worrell, then owner of The Sundy House.

At that time, I had never met Mr. Worrell, even though I had worked for nearly a decade for one of his newspapers. I only met him when he introduced himself to me at a ribbon cutting on South Swinton.

I tried to broker an end to the suits—the developers were willing to chop off units and a floor or two, but we couldn’t quite get there, despite a long day of shuttle diplomacy with the parties parked in different rooms at Old School Square.

The city won the suits, but the developers missed the market and instead of being the first project out of the ground, they were among the last to build and only after they constructed the Federspiel Garage as they had promised to do.

I was shaken by the division I had seen over that project and it prompted me and others to create a process to create a downtown master plan and launch a communitywide conversation about what we wanted to see happen to our downtown.

Mayor Dave Schmidt– a terrific leader– enabled me to run with the process and I co-chaired the initiative along with Chuck Ridley, a neighborhood civic leader. Together, with hundreds and hundreds of residents, we redefined the downtown to include everything from A1 A to the Interstate. We felt it important– and yes historic– to include the West Atlantic corridor in our planning area.

I think the process was terrific. The Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council did a remarkable job and the effort attracted hundreds to weigh in– so many that we had to shut the doors late at night at the temporary studios on Swinton to give the architects, planners and urban designers a chance to draw. We were amazed and gratified at how many people came out to talk about their ideas for their downtown. It was a citizen driven plan and it was a damn good one.

One of the enduring lessons that came from the process was that design mattered more than density. And that it was possible to change and keep our charm, a lesson we ought to be thinking about today. We learned not to fear density, but to see it as a tool for creating vibrancy and sustainability.

In fact, generating density downtown was a goal, because we felt we couldn’t have a safe or sustainable downtown without it.

Here’s an excerpt from the plan:

“In order to maintain the overall “Village Atmosphere” of the

City, but at the same time create enough density to encourage

a variety of local services and a more balanced mix of

retail in downtown, the Master Plan’s recommendation in all

the reviewed cases consistently supports higher densities

within the CRA’s downtown district, especially in the four

blocks north and south of the Avenue. It is this Plan’s additional

recommendation to include a minimum density

requirement in the zoning code. Within the downtown area,

low, suburban densities will cause more harm than slightly

higher ones. Within a downtown area, density is directly

associated with the health and success of downtown.”

Well…times have changed and I get that.

Strategies have to change as well. But certain fundamentals should never change.

Engaging the public and stakeholders should be sacrosanct. That’s what builds community. If we want to be ignored, we got Washington D.C. to blow us off –they’ve been ignoring us for years.

I want my commission to talk to people and get a range of opinion before they change something important.  Yes, I’ve heard the arguments, how the commission gets nothing but complaints about growth and development. I got them too. But I also heard and continue to hear from a great many people who love what happened downtown and would like to see more smart growth in strategic areas. I hear from entrepreneurs on a daily basis who would love to have their offices downtown and from others who wish they could afford to live downtown so they can walk or bike ride to services, restaurants, stores and cultural venues. I also hear from people who want jobs and students who would like to come home after college and work in Delray.

Sadly, many of these people don’t write commissioners and don’t speak up at the microphone at City Hall. They should.

But whether they show up or not, we have an obligation to consider their opinions and needs as well. I once cast a regrettable vote against a neighborhood plan when a group of irate people showed up at the last minute to protest. Mayor Schmidt glared at me and told me that the group didn’t represent the majority of the neighborhood. I should have known better but I didn’t make that mistake again. I resolved from that evening on to support good projects and vote against bad ones.

I think downtown is more art than science, so I like policies that enable commissioners to kill bad projects and make good deals happen, even if they need a little relief to make it work. We called it conditional use, which before it was wrongfully demonized, did a whole lot of good.

Conditional use killed a bad hotel project on A1A and it killed the first version of Atlantic Plaza. It also enabled City Walk and Ocean City Lofts to be built and the code allowed us to get the Seagate Hotel built.

I think those are nice projects, you may or may not agree.

But conditional use is not the same thing as a waiver or a variance. Waivers and variances were never granted for height and density. Never.

I think giving your policymakers discretion is a good thing. If they make mistakes—and they will—vote them out, especially if you think those mistakes were dishonest ones fueled by campaign contributions or favors. But making downtown codes prescriptive won’t give you better designs…and neither will lopping off floors. It will, however, stifle creativity.

Few people, even professionals, can tell the difference between a 54 foot building and a 60 foot building when they walk by.

So why care?

Well on Feb. 3,  there will be a first reading on new rules governing our downtown.

I see the downtown as easily Delray’s biggest, most unique asset; as valuable as the beach.

Lots of cities have beaches; there are very few Atlantic Avenues or Pineapple Groves.

As a recent lunch partner told me—“downtown is magic. It’s like The Beatles, it just feels good.”

Well, you don’t mess with The Beatles and you shouldn’t mess with the downtown either, not without a whole lot of analysis, input and dialogue.

Last week, I read the umpteenth version of the suggested changes…the ones on the city’s website don’t match what I saw on the Treasure Coast’s website. If you wonder if you missed the charrette to discuss these changes, don’t worry– there wasn’t a charrette to miss. The powers that be will tell you there was ample time to weigh in during commission meetings or presentations to the alphabet soup of boards we have in Delray. But in my opinion, this was not an inclusive planning process. Not even close. That’s a shame, because that’s part of our DNA.

Yes, we brought back Treasure Coast for this exercise and they have said on the record that they didn’t think our codes were broken. In fact, they take pride in Delray and they should. They nominated us for the Nolen Award because we were one of the few cities that stuck to our guns and had the political will to implement the people’s vision.

But the changes to the code that I see trouble me.

As mentioned, we skipped the master plan process; also known as public input.

I’m not sure we took the advice of Treasure Coast and I’m quite certain we ignored a lot of the advice of the experts that came to town to discuss density, design, parking, housing trends etc.

Treasure Coast put together a great speaker series, with the best thought leaders on the planet, coming to Delray. But I sure wish we had taken their advice and I wish this process included more input from the public because I don’t think that even the smartest elected officials have all the answers. In fact, I think the smartest elected officials understand that and then seek input and collaboration.

I don’t care whether our height limit is 60 feet or 54 feet. But I do think four stories will restrict our ability to get better designed projects and I think it will hinder, certainly not help office development, which we need desperately. To be honest, we are all guessing here, because there has not been any economic analysis performed, to my knowledge at least.

I don’t think putting a hard cap on density is smart public policy. I think there are strategic areas where you want to see density. I know saying “Delray is the incentive” is an applause line, but guess what, we may need incentives to get some things we desire. Incentives are tools that can be used to land good projects. The best public policy is aspirational and seeks to create something, not prevent it.

I think well designed projects trump density in importance, I think density gives you a chance for some level of affordability (giving young professionals an opportunity to live downtown) and I think it is better for the environment. I also think density gives independent retailers a chance at survival.

Stricter height limits on Atlantic Avenue make sense to me, but I think we should have created a transfer of development rights program, so that developers could have purchased those air rights to compensate property owners and maybe make the city a few bucks so we can pay our cops, firefighters and general employees.

My college economics class is a dusty memory, but it seems when you create scarcity one of two things can happen.

You either devalue property because you have new restrictions to abide by—which may concern an owner and should concern us as taxpayers since we rely on property taxes and higher valuations to pay for services– or you increase the values because now  you’ve  created scarcity.

Will we see commercial rents continue to climb as a result?

If so, will we lose the mom and pop retailer? We are already seeing the nationals come to town.

Will capping density forever hinder affordability downtown, robbing our CBD of young people who may want to live there before buying a single family home?

We needed an inclusive and deliberative process that allowed us to hash out where we are and where we want to go: we didn’t get one. We needed more study and analysis too.

We missed a chance to gather, talk, study and unify. That’s what towns pay Treasure Coast to do. It’s a worthy investment.

We paid for a form based code. But we didn’t get one.

A form based code, by its very definition, puts a premium on design not numbers. But we went right back to the numbers and we have tied the hands of future investors and policymakers.

I hear the arguments and I respect them. I truly do. This town has been damaged by some votes that left a tremendous stench. These changes will certainly disrupt those situations, but the cost is discretion and an ability to land a good project that may need some flexibility to work.

I witnessed a vote on a project in the southwest neighborhood that during my tenure we embraced because it was an opportunity to introduce middle class housing into a neighborhood that wanted it and needed it.  All across the country, cities were getting away from concentrating poverty. But when a subsequent commission approved a vastly different version of the project over the objections of citizens, staff, advisory boards, the CRA etc., I was literally nauseated. I got in my car and drove and drove and drove. I felt we had lost Delray Beach that night.

I understand wanting to stop that. I really do.

But I’m also concerned that future elected officials won’t have the discretion to make good projects happen.  And a hard cap on density, with no regard to use or design and no bonus program, is deeply problematic.

We’ve labeled our codes antiquated and our master plan dated—instead of appreciating that they built a pretty nice place and a whole lot of value.

If you tell people that you want to make something better; they are all ears. They’re in. But if you tell them that policies they took pride in were ruinous and that  you are here to save us, you begin to lose people who are proud of Delray.  Your “fix” begins to feel punitive and corrective.

We should ask Treasure Coast what they think of this process and its outcomes—give them diplomatic immunity and allow them to answer. Treasure Coast isn’t afraid of density, they know it’s all about design, use and urbanism. Bring back the experts we saw during the lecture series and see what they think. And next time we take a look at the rules—and there will be a next time– we should go back to the old way—citizen driven planning.

It works pretty well.  Just take a look around.