Planning Is Great; Action Is Better

Don’t let your plans gather dust. If you do, you burn public trust which is the most valuable currency.

 

It happened a long time ago, so I guess it’s safe to tell the story.

It was the early 2000s and Delray Beach was still reeling from a bruising battle over Worthing Place—the apartment building that also houses Park Tavern and Salt 7.
The city commission agreed to a Downtown Master Plan process and we got some funding from the MacArthur Foundation to hire a slew of planning and design consultants.
A large cross section of the community turned out for meetings that surfaced a bunch of cool ideas.
It was a true community building experience.
We felt  a lot of civic pride, it was exciting and we felt as if we could do anything we set our minds too. It was a special time.
Then the plan was sent to the commission for adoption with a list of priority projects.
But despite the enthusiasm and effort, the commission never adopted the plan. They ignored years of advocacy from residents pleading for the plan to be adopted. And nothing happened.

The gateway wasn’t built. None of the downtown garages were ever built, and we never got Old School Square Park.
All of the innovative policy ideas that enabled restaurants to thrive, the grid system to flow and events to take root vanished along with our hopes.
Northwest/Southwest Fifth Avenue which we had hoped would include public art, small businesses and interesting streetscapes never happened.
Downtown housing, which we had wanted so that we could add vibrancy and support for local businesses didn’t happen either. The plan was placed on a shelf where it gathered dust.
And all of the participants who gave their time and energy to our town went back home disappointed. Some moved away. Many never participated in anything “civic” related ever again.
Instead, we watched neighboring towns flower and attract investment and entrepreneurial energy.

Eventually, our talented staff began to send their resumes out hoping to catch on in a place where they could make something happen and feel that their careers were meaningful.

Property values stagnated. The momentum we started to feel in the late 80s and 90s faded away like so many other things we hoped to do.

At this point in the story, I can share that all of this is bunk.
The plan was not only adopted it was largely implemented in a blizzard of civic projects and investment that helped our town blossom.
Oh some people didn’t like what happened. One guy referred to our vibrant downtown as a “concrete jungle.”  I’m not sure what he was referring to, it is a downtown of course. We have concrete. We also have open space, art, culture, sports,
music.  restaurants and nightlife that cities all over the country envy.

But hey, you can’t please them all.
The downtown master plan was the first to expand the boundaries of our downtown from the ocean to I-95, an important symbolic step.
But it wasn’t just symbolism.
We added an attractive “gateway” feature just East of 95 because the citizens who participated in the process felt it was important to send the world a message. When you exited the Interstate at Atlantic Avenue you were entering a special place. We wanted people to know it.
Some criticized the art work and lighting that decorated our gateway. It was too expensive they said. They always say that by the way. And they are always wrong.
My friends cities work when you invest in them.
You get a return on that investment in the form of increased property values and civic pride. If you fail to invest, you fail your citizens in ways that you can measure and in ways that you cannot.
Atlantic Grove got built—“they” said it couldn’t be done. Nobody would build market rate housing in “that neighborhood.”
Once again, they were wrong. The market rate and the affordable housing sold.
So did the commercial portion of the project and for the first time in a long time—maybe ever—we saw people from all parts of Delray mingling at places like Ziree, a wonderful Thai restaurant.
The streetscape that made East Atlantic so trendy was extended all the way out to 95, a new library was built where it was needed —again despite some people coming up to the microphone and saying you can’t put the library “out there” because people will be afraid to go. Once again they were wrong. Lots of people use the library.

There were other plans that were implemented too.
The southwest plan called for infrastructure  upgrades that were funded and done. The plan called for an expansion of The Village Academy and that was done too.

The parks plan added a splash park named after our first female mayor Catherine Strong, becoming the first park in the long neglected Southwest neighborhood.

A community land trust was formed, I think it was the first in the county, and they built some adorable homes for first time buyers.
We had an independent CRA back then, and by the way it was independent in name only because it worked collaboratively with the City Commission. The agency won a ton of awards and was recognized as one of the very best in the state before a mayor came along a few years back and used it as a punching bag.
That was shameful. Truly was.

How smart is it to take your best economic development tool and put cheese in the engine? Answer: not very.
Oh well, thankfully so much got done before the dysfunction set in.
Which is a good segue I suppose.
Last week, after four years of trying, a neighborhood calling itself “The Set” finally got their plan on the Commission agenda thanks to Vice Mayor Ryan Boylston. The neighborhood, which used to be called the southwest and northwest sections of the city, came together to work on  “The Set Transformation Plan.”

Of course, you might not know that because when it hit the agenda the word “Set” was removed. Kind of like when the Egyptians removed the name Moses from their history books when they discovered he was Jewish.
It struck me as odd, petty, political, small and disrespectful.
It struck others that way too.
Anyway, it’s a good plan. I’ve read a bunch over the years and this is solid. But it needs to be adopted, funded and implemented. Otherwise, it’s just platitudes on paper.
Unfortunately last week, after four years and after many a campaign promise to get moving, the adoption of the plan was postponed so it can be workshopped.
Interesting.
The decision or lack thereof, smells.
It just does. And it smells worse considering where we are as a nation right now wrestling with issues of equity and racism.
There are some players tied to the plan who are controversial.
So what?
One of the guys spews a lot on social media as is his right. He gets some things right and he is way way way off on other things. For example, he’s wrong when he says nothing has ever been accomplished by the city or CRA in or for his community. A whole lot has been done. And nobody has ever said that things were finished.

But it’s really not about him or his friends. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
Is the plan worthy? Is it supported by the neighborhood it aspires to help? Is it good for Delray?
If the answer is yes, it ought to be adopted and put into action not put on a shelf.
If the answer is no, well then we need another plan and leadership ought to make that happen. But they better be able to explain why the plan falls short. And the answer can’t be because a few people who run their mouths on Facebook are behind it.
We are at an inflection point in this City and this country.
I don’t watch city meetings but my phone sure blew up when the plan’s adoption was postponed.
I’m not a bellwether. I’m just a middle aged white guy sitting at home watching Netflix riding out the pandemic.
But I’m feeling something and it ain’t COVID. People want change. They want progress. They want to be heard and respected. Those are not unreasonable demands.
Many are not feeling like they are being heard.
That’s not healthy.
It’s time for the plan to be adopted, funded and implemented.
It’s past time really.
As Sam Cooke sang, “a change is gonna come.”
Even in sleepy ole Delray.

Unsung Heroes Took Back the Village

toby

“This is my badge. There are many like it but this one is mine. This badge is special. It represents justice. It represents commitment. It represents service. It represents pride and it represents sacrifice. I have worn this badge for many years. Today, I will wear this badge, my badge for the last time. I will receive a new badge. My new badge will have the word “Retired” engraved on it. I will carry my new badge with pride, but it will never fully replace this badge, my badge. God bless the men and women of the Delray Beach Police Department. I will miss you all.” Lt. Toby Rubin on his Facebook page.

Last Friday, my friend Toby Rubin retired from the Delray Beach Police Department.

My guess is that many of you don’t know his name. But you should. Because he and others like him are important contributors to Delray Beach.

Toby rose through the ranks from officer to lieutenant in a stellar 30 year career, but when history books are written most likely Toby’s name won’t be included.

That’s a shame, because men and women like Toby who serve in our Police Department and elsewhere in city government don’t get the credit they deserve for what they do day in and day out. They built this town.

Lt. Rubin didn’t get rich serving our city. He does have a decent pension to go along with aches and pains that come from a hard life spent protecting and serving our city.

Delray Beach is not an easy place to be a police officer. Or a firefighter. Or these days—a planner or a parks maintenance employee—pick your job.

You pick up a newspaper and you read about public pensions destroying municipal budgets. You open your email or visit social media to share good news and find a diatribe about government and government workers.

But I know a different story.

I saw a different side to the argument.

Oh, I won’t pretend that bad government employees don’t exist—they do. A few exist in the upper echelons—suits who manage to whine about problems but offer no fixes other than cut, cut, cut. Tsk. Tsk. Tsk. They always look down, backwards and elsewhere when they ought to be looking in a mirror to see waste up close.

But I saw the other side. I worked alongside people who got things done.

Delray Beach didn’t happen by accident. The downtown didn’t magically transform from blight and grime to vibrant and safe.

Neighborhoods didn’t just miraculously clean themselves up and your $120,000 house didn’t increase to $500,000 or in some cases to over $1 million because some self-important politician or self-anointed citizen watchdog remade your crime and drug infested village into a place where you can take a golf cart and visit 130 restaurants, attend festivals and see free Friday night concerts at Old School Square.

It took vision. And it took money.

It took guts. And it took years.

It took hard work. And it required collaboration, dialogue, passion, patience, optimism and team work.

And it took guys like Toby Rubin.

I used to ride with Toby in the late 80s and early 90s when he was a member the “Tact Team.”

The drug dealers called them the “jump out” crew because they rode in big black SUV’s through drug and crime infested neighborhoods and jumped out to arrest people selling narcotics on almost every corner.

We were mere blocks from the beach and the downtown, which was mostly dead back in those days. I rode with some legendary cops: Mike Swigert, Chuck Jeroloman, Don West, Alan Thompson, Jeff Rancour, the late Johnny Pun and a very young Jeff Goldman, who is now our chief.

I saw Delray through their eyes and many others in the department: Skip Brown, Will McCollum, Craig Hartmann, Michael Coleman, Ed Flynn, Dwayne Fernandes, Robyn Smith, John Evans, Robert Stevens, Tamijo Kayworth, Terrance Scott, John Battiloro, Bob Brand, Tom Whatley, Paul Pitti, Mark Woods, Paul Shersty, Rick Wentz, Jimmy Horrell, Casey Thume, Russ Mager, Geoff Williams, Scott Lunsford, Bobby Musco, Nicole Guerrero, Jeff Messer, John Palermo, Dave Eberhart, Brian Bollan, Scott Privitera, Vinny Mintus—the list goes on and on and on and it continues with excellent officers today.

Most of these names, the general public will never know. But they make the city safe. And without safety there is no community. There would be nothing to argue about, because iPic wouldn’t want to be here and neither would anybody else.

There is no investment, there is no appreciation of property values and there is no quality of life without people like Toby Rubin.

All of those people I mentioned and hundreds more cared about Delray and took great pride in what they were building here. They knew they working on something special—as does the parks worker, the planner, the people in utility billing and the really nice people in the City Clerk’s Office and throughout city government.

We have done a lot in this country to denigrate public servants and public service. It’s pathetic and it’s wrong.

We fixate on what it costs to have a Police Department and a Fire Department, to have a cultural center and a library. We begrudge our public workers when they get a pension and when they get a raise. We send angry emails when they screw up and they do. We all do. Want to see dysfunction? Spend some time in the private sector.

Yes, we need to demand good services delivered efficiently and professionally. Accountability is a good thing, but we also need to make room for gratitude and we ought to take some time to consider the benefits, not just their costs.

That’s actually a good approach to everything.

As Toby spends his first week in retirement, I’d like to wish him a long and healthy life. And I want to thank him and so many others for sticking a young reporter in his SUV and showing me and so many others what needed to be done to transform Delray into a place we can all take pride in.