A Better Way Forward

In a few days, voters will head to the polls in Delray Beach to fill two seats on the City Commission.

I’ve been observing elections in this town for 33 years now and friends can I tell you something? They are getting worse every year.

Nastier.

More expensive.

Devoid of ideas and vision.

It wasn’t always like this.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

And if we are smart, steps will be taken to change the tone of politics in our community.

Because make no mistake, these kind of campaigns leave a mark or should I say a stain on the soul of our community.

Delray Beach is at a crossroads.

The city needs hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure repairs and upgrades, sea level rise is a real threat to coastal neighborhoods, homelessness appears to be on the rise, our city staff has suffered from rampant turnover (the fire chief quit yesterday) and we seem to have stopped prioritizing economic development—as evidenced by an empty Office of Economic Development and ugly attacks on just about anyone who wants to invest in Delray Beach.

Despite the serious issues outlined above (and there are more) the three biggest issues in this election appear to be the positioning of a valet stand, how to handle traffic coming and going from a popular shopping center and the settlement of a lawsuit related to our Delray ATP tournament, a lawsuit– mind you– that the city was told it had no chance of winning despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. Your dollars.

We can and must do better.

Regardless of where you stand, we all seem to agree that Washington is an intractable mess.

The potential for change, solutions and innovation resides in our cities. But it seems our city is sliding more and more into the abyss of division and dysfunction. We are majoring in the minor when we have big rocks to move.

I’m sure the valet stand issue has merit and I know the traffic flow in and out of Delray Plaza is important to my good friends in Tropic Isle. But, there’s more to Delray, much more.

Where’s the vision?

Where’s the aspiration?

How will we weather climate change?

Do we care about jobs, attainable housing, and better schools?

Or is it all about development and traffic?

We act—if you believe the election mail pieces and social media chatter—as if all development is bad, no more is needed and that somehow we can resist change and pretend that property rights don’t exist.

Let’s talk about those issues shall we?

I get it, people hate traffic and congestion.

They also fear over development and losing the charm of our village by the sea. So do I, as do most of the people I know on both sides of the local divide. But we are not having meaningful conversations on these issues. We are yelling past one another. And it is getting us nowhere.

All candidates say they have a cure for traffic—but the truth is they don’t.

Personally, I find I can get around Delray pretty well, but I can’t say the same for Glades Road in Boca Raton or I-95 which can be parking lots.

Is Atlantic Avenue congested? You betcha. A lot of people worked very hard to make it so. You know what the opposite of congestion is? Empty streets and empty storefronts.

So sure, it takes some time to cruise the Avenue, but if you want to zip around town, please use our grid system, it works pretty well. We made a choice years ago to create a bustling, dynamic and vibrant downtown and we pulled it off.

There are trade-offs when you do that; especially when you succeed and Delray succeeded.

A pretty cool little downtown has been created and it has endured through the Great Recession, hurricanes and all sorts of political shenanigans.

So we may have to slow down– especially in season. We may get caught in traffic if we decide to take Atlantic from Swinton to A1A.

Next time you get annoyed—and I get annoyed too sometimes— consider all the jobs that have been created, all the tax dollars that have been generated, all the great businesses that have sprouted and think about how much more your home is worth than the days when this town was known as “Dull Ray”— a time when you could have gone bowling on Atlantic and not hit anything because it was empty and depressed.

So yes, the bridge will go up every 15 minutes or so, but guess what? It does go down and we will make it across. Parking may be tough—but that’s what they call a good problem to have. It means that people are flocking to your city’s central business district ringing cash registers and supporting the local economy.

We can add more parking infrastructure and pay for it too– if we want too. We can move toward solutions on issues big and small if we insist that our elected officials stop focusing on politics and each other and start focusing on serving the community. All of the community—not just their base of supporters.

As for development, I can understand the concern. But I think the way we are having this conversation is all wrong. All we have to show for it is years of frustration and anger.

Here are some facts to frame the situation:

Things change, it’s the only constant.

Property gets developed and redeveloped.

Owners of property have rights to develop that property within the rules set forth in our codes.

We do not allow tall buildings like our neighbors in Boynton Beach and Boca Raton do. But we do allow buildings that are 54 feet in height in some areas of our downtown.

I have never seen a developer get a height variance. Never.

I have never seen them get a waiver for density either.

I have seen developers create ridiculous inconveniences for long periods of time during construction and that’s something that needs to be looked at.

We had one project that took up a block and a half of parking for a decade right smack in front of small businesses and right now we have a hotel project blocking half of Pineapple Grove which damages a lot of very cool independent mom and pop businesses. There has to be a better way.

There also has to be a better way to discuss development and a better way to disagree on the issues without burning each other’s houses down.

We have to elevate the conversation and not make development a zero sum game where either the investor or the residents lose. We can create win-win scenarios but it will require us to agree that we must be civil when we discuss development or anything else controversial in our community.

Just because you favor a project does not mean that you are on the take or corrupt, it might just mean you like the project and feel it’s needed. Conversely, if you oppose something you are not necessarily a NIMBY, unless of course you oppose everything then maybe the shoe fits.

All I know is right now, everyone seems miserable and I think we need to reframe how we discuss these issues.

We have had a few spectacularly crappy developers come to town. They tend to not build their projects, because they don’t have the requisite skill set to do so.

But we have also had some really talented developers work in Delray, a few who have chosen to live here. While we have had a few developers who have acted like strip miners, taking every morsel and giving little to nothing back, many have been extraordinarily generous with their time and their philanthropic donations.

They have created some pretty special projects too. They have contributed to the vibrancy and to the tax base while taking spectacular risk.

If we chase away all development and treat every project as if it will kill Delray–we can count on taxes increasing and needed projects and services not being funded.

We desperately need— and I believe we desperately crave —real discussion on things like design (example: should we have modern homes on historic Swinton Avenue?), traffic flow, floor area ratios, density and uses.

Right now, there is a one way conversation taking place on social media and in the campaigns that tends to be lacking in facts, context and balance. Discussions about our CRA are especially nauseating because that organization has been invaluable to Delray Beach. I admit to bias on that front, but if you scratch beneath the surface on just about everything that has been accomplished in east Delray over the past 30 plus years you will find the CRA as a driving force for good. Has the agency been perfect? Not on your life. But subtract the agency from the Delray story and our story looks a whole lot different and I would argue a whole lot worse.

But everything begins and ends with the five people we elect to the commission. Get it right and good things happen. Get it wrong….well you can figure it out. Either way, we have to improve the tone of the town.

I make this statement based on watching this stuff for 33 years.

The fact that we are locked in a cycle marked by the politics of personal destruction ought to give us all pause. Because this becomes a spiral to the bottom.

Not only will good people not run for office, they will shy away from the process entirely which means serving on boards, volunteering for key non-profits etc. I would argue this is already happening.

Without casting aspersions, we are seeing some of the ripple effects of the nasty political climate in the sheer number of inexperienced candidates who are running for office in recent cycles.

I maintain and strongly advise that the job of city commissioner is not an entry level position. It is hard to be a good commissioner if you have not put the time in to learn about how the city functions, where it has come from and where it’s going.

You can be educated, sincere, driven and caring—but there is no substitute for time spent in the trenches. There are many candidates running this year that we have never seen involved in past visioning exercises, key boards and organizations. They are introducing themselves to the community in one breath and asking for your vote in the next.

It is important for candidates to have experience before they are given the keys to a $100 million plus budget and responsibility for major decisions that impact our quality of life and our future.

It is also important for the community to get to know the candidates. Do they play well with others? Will they show up at meetings, will they do their homework, can they listen? If they lose a vote, will they move on or will they declare war on those who disagree with them and spend their terms seeking revenge?

There’s simply no way of knowing if we have not seen how they approach community service.

By the way, there are examples for every terrible scenario I just listed—commissioners who are AWOL at key meetings and commissioners or their surrogates who hunt, harass and bully those with whom they disagree.

I am not advocating that we turn politics into some sort of genteel afternoon tea; that’s unrealistic and it never existed even in the good old days. So if you are a bully you should be called out for your behavior. If you have a past you probably should expect it to surface and if you have voted poorly or made mistakes you should be called to account.

Issues are fair game too.

Tough debate on the issues is fair, but we seem fixated on personalities, feuds and alliances.

Lately, I haven’t seen much substantive debate. So I really can’t tell where the candidates stand other than they oppose taxes, crime, traffic and developers. I don’t see any real solutions or any new ideas.

We need both.

Desperately.

I would add that we need aspiration as well.

If you’re ambition as an election official is to block every project, I’d like to ask what you’d like to see happen. If your unofficial tag line is “I’m in the boat, pull up the ladder” when it comes to housing projects, I’d like to know what we tell young families, police officers, teachers and our kids when they ask us where they can live in our city.

I’d like to know how you will pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure repairs and needed services if you don’t build the tax base, down zone already underdeveloped corridors and pledge to cut taxes. If you think you can, you are either lying, terribly naive or you are a magician. I haven’t met too many magicians running for local office.

I think you get the gist.

Wednesday is the day after the election. That’s when—win or lose—we ought to begin a new and better conversation.

The current model isn’t working.

It’s not village like, it doesn’t address our needs and it won’t position us to seize opportunities or solve problems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Tis The Season For Politics

Editor’s Note: We will be taking a few days off for the holidays but will be back with a year end blog on Dec. 30. Have a safe season and thanks for reading!

While most of us are immersed in the hustle of the holidays, others are busy gearing up for the local election season.

They are holding kick-off parties, gathering signatures to qualify for the ballot, raising money and plotting strategy—which typically means carpet bombing those who run against them.

Two commission seats are up for grabs in Delray Beach in March and after a year’s respite we can expect the fur to fly in the New Year.

Sigh.

Heavy sigh.

Call me jaded because I am.

But I don’t expect we will see the local version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates play out over the next few months. And that’s too bad because there is a lot to discuss.

I do expect that we will see a lot of nastiness, division and empty platitudes. When the dust settles we will probably see in excess of $300,000 spent on mail pieces, Facebook ads, signs and robocalls.

Most of it will be ignored.

Some of us will vote—probably more than a typical year (thanks to the presidential primary)—and life will go on.

We will hear lots about traffic, over-development, corruption and how the village by the sea has either been ruined or is about to be—unless of course you vote for so and so.

Sigh.

Candidates will promise to “fight” for us, they will accuse their opponents of being in the pockets of “greedy” developers (developers are always greedy and always corrupting) and they will talk about how they will tame traffic, cut taxes and stand up to “special interests” on behalf of the resident/taxpayer.

Even the candidates who raise money from developers will run anti-development campaigns. They think it’s their path to victory. I’ve always found it interesting and ironic that developers actually fund campaigns that rail against their industry and that calls them damaging and corrupt influences.

Can you imagine doctors funding mail pieces that say they will harm you?

The “principled” (“I can’t be bought!”) candidates will shun developer money and run a grassroots campaign. Some will actually do just that by knocking on doors and golf carting around town meeting voters. Others will ‘talk the talk’ but secretly accept developer money and squirrel it away in some political action committee or third party entity with a Tallahassee address and often no disclosure of donors.

Surrogates will battle it out on social media, essentially talking to each other in echo chambers too often devoid of facts, civility, context or reality. And I’ll say to myself: “self, that’s not what living in a village or a community is supposed to be about.”

We are not alone in our struggles.

America seems hopelessly divided as we head toward 2020—as if we are Democrats or Republicans, progressives or conservatives before we are Americans.

We are not.

Or at least we shouldn’t be.

There was a time—now long ago I’m afraid—where our hometown was a port in the storm. We were a community that worked together, identified problems and then got about the business of solving them. Imagine that radical concept.

 

Not every issue was resolved—maybe none were. And maybe that’s the point.

Maybe building a community is something you constantly have to chisel away at. We are never quite done are we? And isn’t that the fun and purpose of it all—to grow (responsibly), to evolve and to learn— hopefully together.

It sure feels like we have taken a wrong turn.

We’ve become more distant, nastier, more divided, less like neighbors and more like combatants.

It’s reflected in the tone of our politics. And there are consequences. Grave, expensive and lasting consequences.

I’ve seen friends who have proudly worked for the City of Delray Beach thrown out with the trash this year. I’ve seen others who left their jobs earlier than they planned for brighter pastures literally shaking their heads about current conditions.

We can deny it. Or we can own it.

But when you experience the level of turnover we’ve seen, I can assure you it’s not because things are great.

Public employees are not all about the money otherwise they wouldn’t be public employees. Nobody goes to work in local government to get rich and those that do will probably be arrested. Instead, they seek to serve and to be part of something bigger than themselves. Sure, there are clunkers out there but there are so many more talented, smart and dedicated public servants who work or have worked for Delray.

I sure hope this new manager we’ve hired is up to the task because he has a big one ahead of him.

For the record, I’m not blameless.

I’ve written checks that turned into mail that I wouldn’t line my bird’s cage with. But I don’t blame the political consultants, their job is to win. They have diagnosed that if you want to win in Delray Beach you need to go negative.

So the question is did the politics change us or did we change?

Do our politics reflect what we have become?

Again, I’m not blameless.

I’m a critic.

I am jaded.

If you ask me a question I will answer it and if the answer is I think things stink then I’m going to say it or write it and hit publish. And I guess that bothers some people.

I don’t mess with local politics on social media, it’s a waste of time.

But I am happy to engage one on one if asked. I am anxious to listen and learn. I am not willing to spend a lot of time with people who are so entrenched in their views that they are not willing to listen and learn.

My goal on this blog and on the editorial pages of the newspapers we own is to shine a light on the good, the bad and the ugly in our community and we have all three conditions—every place does.

We/I love to write about the people who do good in the neighborhood but we won’t gloss over the bad actors and outcomes either. We love to cheer lead when appropriate, but we also feel we have an obligation to speak up when we see things that don’t sit right.

I’ve been bothered by the turnover at City Hall and the lack of civic engagement and vision in our community for years and I will continue to speak out about it.

As for development, I believe in smart growth and that we ought to do our best to keep the charm and not build ugly buildings all over town.

I don’t believe in sprawl—it creates traffic and is bad for the environment. I think density is necessary to create affordability and is also better for the environment.

I think downtown housing helps our local mom and pops survive and makes for a vibrant and safe atmosphere. I think design and uses are more important than a random density per acre number. I can show you ugly low density buildings and attractive high density projects. We spent a lot of time in the community process that led to our Downtown Master Plan explaining that density was desirable if projects were designed well.

I’m proud of my city. And I criticize it because I love it and I want to see it thrive and succeed.

I don’t see that happening if we lack vision, if city hall is a revolving door of staff and if those who remain are afraid to talk or are prevented from making recommendations.

I don’t think the commission should have taken over the CRA.

I think some developers absolutely stink—especially those who divide the community with controversial projects and then never build or those who seek variances and waivers that make no sense.

I also think we have had some really good developers in town. Entrepreneurs who have taken big risks and built very nice projects that have enhanced our city and created jobs, opportunities and activities that have made Delray—well— Delray.

Some developers have acted like strip miners extracting money from our city and not giving anything back.

Others have become among our most dedicated and generous citizens serving on non-profit boards, city advisory boards and donating to good causes. To label them all as greedy and corrupting is foolish and just plain wrong and guess what? It doesn’t change anything.

It doesn’t advance the narrative, bring us any further understanding or solve any of the issues and concerns people have about development.

But it’s not just the developers and city staff who take it on the chin in this town, it’s the elected officials and candidates who also have to deal with the vitriol.

I have respect for almost anyone willing to enter the arena. I make exceptions for the bullies, narcissists, and puppets—they can pound sand. I also don’t really like it when people want to start out as commissioners without having paid their civic dues. I think it’s important to know the city you seek to lead and for us to know you. If you haven’t volunteered there’s no way that’s possible.

But for those who wish to serve, it isn’t easy. I speak from experience.

You become a target and so does your family, your friends and often your business.

No wonder why it is so hard to find qualified candidates—those that have a deep knowledge of the city they hope to lead, a track record of involvement and accomplishment and a demonstrated ability to work well with others.

Maybe if we had a less toxic atmosphere we’d find ourselves with a plethora of talented people—they are here living in the village but unwilling to deal with the crap you have to deal with and really who can blame them except…..except we need them to engage and to serve.

So as we enter election season, I plan to look for candidates who can articulate a vision for our city, who recognize the importance and role of city staff (let them make recommendations for Pete’s sake, otherwise why have a professional staff?) and who exhibit some emotional intelligence that is required to be a successful leader at any level. Empathy is not optional folks.

I hope we find them. If we do, we ought to support and protect them. Sadly, they are going to need it.

 

 

 

 

Finding the Soul of the City

Beautiful Winter Park.

Beautiful Winter Park.

Winter Park is a gorgeous small town.

Nestled next to bustling Orlando, Winter Park is an upscale city of 29,000 residents with a beautiful downtown, historic neighborhoods and a new apartment complex and Trader Joe’s that has inflamed a passionate debate about the city’s identity, growth, character and future.

The debate has been raging for a while but has ebbed and flowed depending on the political winds. But the construction of rental apartments and the opening of the wildly popular Trader Joe’s have created a debate in the community over character and the dreaded “D” word, density.

Sound familiar?

On one side of the debate are those who are OK with change, support transit –there’s a popular SunRail stop downtown– and don’t mind seeing development along the “edges” that might offer some residential  opportunities for people who might not otherwise be able to afford to live in the city.

On the other side are those who are concerned with density and multi-family housing, some of whom express concern over the train (which means more people visiting) and traffic, much of it generated because lots of people  have to drive through Winter Park to access a booming downtown Orlando–In other words not by development in Winter Park per se.

It’s a familiar debate and I got a dose of it last week when I went to Winter Park on behalf of ULI (Urban Land Institute) to work with the community, mayor, city commission and staff on a visioning effort.

Both sides of the debate have merit, but you wonder if there’s a way to bridge the divide or we are doomed to be caught in an endless loop of fear, division, accusations etc. etc.?

We’ve heard the tired arguments emanating from both sides of the growth divide. For instance:

“Density is bad. “

“All developers are greedy.”

“Elected officials are in the pockets of the big money developers. “

On the other side of the divide are those who argue that all opposition to development comes from NIMBY’s or CAVE’s (Citizens Against Virtually Everything).

It’s as old and as tiresome as the partisan gridlock that has ruined Congress.

We need to do better than this. And I believe we can, but it’s going to take a lot of work and education.

But the effort seems worth it, because the issue isn’t going away.

First, change is inevitable unless of course you live in colonial Williamsburg. Land owners also have property rights and if cities infringe on those rights they run the risk of costly lawsuits.

Ideally, the goal should be smart growth, great design, respect for historic neighborhoods, acknowledgement of–and where possible– mitigation of the impact of development. And yes development has an impact. But to be fair, that impact can also be positive as well as negative.

The devil of course is in the details, but responsible development is not all about numbers: i.e. stories, height or the number of dwelling units per acre.

There’s an art to city building and efforts to drain subjectivity from the process are bound to be frustrating and self- defeating.

In Delray and Boca, we can point to numerous high density projects that work, because the architecture is beautiful and the developers took time to think about traffic flow, open space and how the development relates to adjoining neighborhoods.

I can also point to ugly projects that are both low and high density.

Last week, I received a notice from the City of Delray Beach regarding an update to the city’s Land Development Regulations. The purpose and I’m quoting the city here is to provide greater predictability in the regulations and the process and to incorporate more “form based” code elements emphasizing the importance of the public realm.

Sigh…

Form based codes can be good things and they can be awful too. In fact, our code is pretty good and already incorporates a lot of form based elements. But most importantly, it has worked enabling Delray to become a pretty good place. But there’s a sense– in some quarters anyway– that the answer to all bad development or perceived bad development can be solved by the code. It can’t.

If you want better design and development, you have to roll up your sleeves and work hard to get it.

That means working early in the process with developers and architects, not forcing them to guess about design and other concerns and then sandbagging them at a public meeting.

For developers it means engaging the public and really listening to concerns, not just ramming through projects because you think you have the upper hand politically. And for residents it means coming to the table with a respect for property rights, a knowledge of local zoning (easily attainable these days) and some ideas other than “go away.”

For all, it means working together and finding compromise, which usually means that everybody has to give up something. If you live adjacent to a downtown you have a right to be concerned with development and a vested interest to insist on great design. But you don’t have a right to think you live in a gated community—change is going to occur and the downtown belongs to everyone not just those who are fortunate enough to live there or nearby.

More than a tweak to our codes, what’s needed is a more intelligent discussion about growth, change, design density, traffic, walkability, pedestrian safety, vibrancy, open space etc.

You can’t legislate the art and subjectivity out of city building. You can’t devise a code that will be perfect and you’re not going to get every project right.

I served during a big real estate boom. I met greedy developers and really caring developers. I met genuinely concerned citizens and a few others that could not be reasoned with nor bothered by the facts. I served alongside some pretty good elected officials and we got some things right and a few things wrong. Contrary to rumors, we never granted a waiver or a variance for height and density, but we also didn’t fixate on numbers. We tried to support good projects and we tried to stop bad ones. Our code and master plan was flexible enough to give us those options.

But we also saw the process as an ongoing one of constant education, engagement, outreach and learning. We tried to protect the historic districts and put in new guidelines. We attempted design guidelines and invited local architects to share what would work and what wouldn’t. Our first attempt looked good on paper, but didn’t work in the real world and so we went back to the drawing board.

Plans are meant to live and breathe, not be so prescriptive that they squelch creativity. I hope that’s not where we are going.

Yes, the process should be predictable. It should not take months and months to approve or reject something. But cities need to be both protected and nurtured. They need to be preserved and they need to change. That’s the beauty of this work and that’s where the opportunities are, as well as the risks and pitfalls. You can’t legislate perfection nor can you devise a code—form based or antiquated as I’ve heard our code described—and expect to drain all subjectivity out of the process. Cities are about art and science. Not just numbers. There is no density number that can guarantee good design, no magic phrase or land development regulation that will ensure quality.

In Winter Park, the community and the leadership wants a vision that is values based rather than prescriptive. Values are a great place to start, because as one commissioner stated so beautifully Winter Park is not just about numbers it’s about how we relate and care for each other and our town. At the core of the issue—in Winter Park and elsewhere– is people long for a better way to talk about growth, change and development. Communities don’t want to be estranged, they long to connect and engage.

There’s no code yet devised that takes the place of working together and having honest and safe discussions over the future development of your home town. So we can meet at quasi-judicial hearings and debate whether a project should be 16 units or 19 units an acre even though there’s not a human being on the planet who can tell the difference or we can find a better way.

The passionate debate about the city’s identity, growth, character and future should never stop and there isn’t  acode on Earth that will answer every question. All a code can do is help you craft a community that is livable, attractive and sustainable. It’s a tool. Period.

The real work is to build a community where people discuss the future intelligently and get beyond the all change is either great or terrible mindset.

That’s the challenge and that is the opportunity.