Complacency Is A Killer

I think we’re at risk of losing our edge as a nation.

And that worries me. It worries me a lot.

Every day I read and hear about the dysfunction in our nation’s capital.

The hyper-partisanship.

The inability to seize opportunities, solve problems or to get things done.

The endless bickering and sniping at each other.

Climate change is real, but there’s a large swath of people who just won’t accept the science. So we nibble around the edges, endure catastrophic and costly weather “events” and seem immune to bad news such as a new report that says up to 1 million species of animals and plants are in danger of mass extinction. That’s not a typo…one million species the biggest “event” since the dinosaurs went bye bye.

And the list goes on.

Time Magazine reports that Russia is palling around with the world’s despots exporting trouble and trying desperately to hack into every institution the West values.

China is using its money to buy influence by financing infrastructure projects in other countries while working feverishly to take the lead in key emerging areas such as Artificial Intelligence and 5G wireless.

Meanwhile, our infrastructure is falling apart, we don’t have enough housing, our public schools struggle, we suffer from widespread opioid abuse and we can’t even pass a disaster relief bill to help people in the flood prone Midwest, wildfire scarred Northern California and hurricane ravaged Puerto Rico. The beat goes on, but you get the picture.

Sure, every other nation on Earth has its fair share of maladies but this is more about our inability to respond and collaborate than it is about the issues themselves. Truth is, if you are able to respond, work through problems and find common ground, you can solve just about anything or at least make things better.

But I see our nation’s leaders more focused on sticking it to each other than buckling down and working to create a better world for future generations. By the way, that’s what leaders do, focus on leaving a better world. So if you are failing the present and letting down the future you are not leading.  You are laying an egg.

But this is a hyperlocal blog, focused on our community so how does this all relate?
Well, glad you asked.

Boca and Delray are two very successful communities—not trouble free, not perfect, not without challenges and real issues, but fairly successful nonetheless. But like America, if we rest on our laurels, we will be passed by. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday for sure.

The core question then is how to do we survive our success?
Atlantic Avenue is so popular that it’s literally bursting at the seams.

Now that’s a better problem to have than tumbleweeds on your Main Street, but it is an issue.

If I was still a policymaker (and thank goodness I’m retired) I would be worried about high rents on Atlantic fueled by sky high acquisition prices forcing establishments to sling high margin drinks to make ends meet. This leads to a Bourbon Street feel that some people like and others don’t care for.

Now I remain a fan of downtown Delray and take pride in our success, but I’d be concerned about those trends, competition from nearby cities and the need to spread the crowds to other parts of our downtown and make sure that the offerings appeal to a wider demographic.

I know far less about Boca, but I spend a lot of time in that city and I see traffic problems caused by sprawl and hear a lot of angst about the future.

The bottom line is that cities– and nations– no matter how successful can never rest.

Complacency is a killer.

A smug attitude will set you up to be knocked off your pedestal. You have to wake up a little scared every morning…especially when things are going well.

For so long, America led the world and we still do, but our future hegemony is not guaranteed. And the nitwits in D.C. and cable news pundits should be putting America before party loyalty…and that’s directed at both the left and the right.

Back here at home, we can’t assume that Delray will always be the reigning “hot spot” or that Boca will always be “all that” as they say.

Cities need constant renewal. They need vision. They need leadership and competent management and an active, engaged and dedicated citizenry.

No shortcuts.

And no exceptions.

 

 

 

 

The G Word

There’s a new book out about the gentrification of Brooklyn and how it went from crime riddled to cool.
As the book “The New Brooklyn: What it Takes to Bring a City Back” notes, ask any mayor–well not any mayor– what they want and they’ll say safe and bustling streets,  events, culture, busy stores and restaurants, jobs and visitors.
In other words, gentrification. Only we don’t say the word.

Because it’s loaded.
Because gentrification often comes with displacement. When values go up, poor and middle class residents often get priced out. And when rents go up, it can mean the loss of treasured retailers and restaurants.
Gentrification yields winners and losers. There’s no doubt. But the book on Brooklyn notes that when cities decline everyone loses. So why not just leave everything alone then?

Well, it’s just not that simple in most cases. Change is a constant–unless you live in an historic district. Most of us don’t.

I was thinking about this when we ventured to Olio restaurant on a recent beautiful Saturday night.
We hadn’t been to Olio in a while.

It’s located south of Atlantic in what some are calling the “Sofa” district for south of the avenue.
Downtown was mobbed, lots of people walking, dining and riding the Downtowner.
We ran into two friends from Pittsburgh who visit for a month every year and they were astounded and delighted by the action and the new businesses.
They loved it.
Sitting outside at Olio and enjoying a wonderful evening, I thought to myself if I didn’t already live here this is where I’d want to be.
A small town with big city amenities–great restaurants, interesting shops, great hotels, culture and a beautiful beach.
At least that’s how I see downtown Delray Beach.
But we had to park a block and a half away and when we left the restaurant and went home there was a back-up at the intersection of Swinton and Atlantic. For us, we didn’t mind at all. It’s ok to walk a block or so to park. If we wanted too, we could have taken an Uber or a Lyft or the aforementioned Downtowner, which fortunately serves my neighborhood.

As for the back up at Swinton and Atlantic— eventually it moves and it doesn’t happen all year–only during “season” or during weekends when stores and restaurants are doing brisk sales. I can live with the slight inconvenience (emphasis on slight) because I want to see downtown businesses thrive.

But others don’t see it quite the same way. They consider parking a hassle or worse and traffic and congestion as a terrible inconvenience.
They see some favorite businesses close or move and it bothers them. I get it. I miss a few of those places too. (To paraphrase Simon & Garfunkel: “where have you gone Green Owl, a breakfast crowd turns its lonely eyes to you”).
But…
Things change.
Cities change.
Downtowns evolve.
Sometimes they boom.
Sometimes they bust.
When they boom there are winners.
And there are losers.
But when cities bust, there are only losers.
I’ve lived here 30 years.
Our downtown has changed during that time.
There wasn’t much south of the avenue in the 80s and 90s–a sausage factory, empty lots and blight. Today, there’s Sofa, the apartment complex, an indoor cycling facility, Olio and more.
I like it. Based on the crowds we’re seeing and the property values of nearby neighborhoods I’m guessing others do too.
When I moved into town, Pineapple Grove was anchored by a tire store, empty streets and a self service car wash. Today, there’s Brule, Papas Tapas, the Coffee District, Christina’s, a bookstore, gym, other great restaurants, the Arts Garage, Bedner’s and Artists Alley.
I like it. It’s better than it was. A lot better, in my opinion.
There wasn’t much happening on 4th Avenue north of the avenue. Today, Beer Trade Company is killing it and Ocean City Lofts is a coveted address.
West Atlantic Avenue has been vastly improved since the 80s.
It still has a long way to go but it’s been beautified with paver bricks, the Elizabeth Wesley Plaza, a gateway feature and improved by investments such as the Fairfield Inn and Atlantic Grove which has some great spots including Ziree and Windy City Pizza.
It’s a lot better and vastly safer than it was when hundreds of people would be hanging out near the old Paradise Club on Sunday nights. Police officers and firefighters were routinely showered with rocks when they responded to calls for help.
Change is not always easy and it always comes with trade offs–create a place that is attractive and you get traffic.
Raise rents because your successful and beloved stores may leave. But because your successful you won’t see vacancies.
You get the picture.
Gentrification has winners and losers, decline has nothing but losers.
The key is to be aware and to be sensitive to those impacted and find creative ways so they can win too.  Create housing, job and cultural opportunities for all, get involved in your schools, encourage the private sector to offer creative space and not chase away artists, develop other parts of your city. But don’t stop paying attention to your core.

Be hyper vigilant about what’s happening and do what you can to create opportunities for all–small businesses, young families, kids returning after school, retirees, start-ups and growing companies.

Manage but don’t stifle.

Encourage ideas.

Reach out to your citizens  and don’t keep your own counsel.

Lead with humility, praise others, model civility, inclusiveness, exhibit gratitude and foster civic pride.

Repeat. Because you are never done. And that’s what’s so fascinating about cities.

FAU Scientists to Study Traffic

FAULOGO

FAU has received a $300,000 grant from the Florida Department of Transportation and a $100,000 grant from the City of Miami Beach to research and test more efficient traffic signals.

Traffic jams not only make daily commutes exasperating, they also contribute to excessive fuel consumption and air pollution. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, outdated traffic signaling accounts for more than 10 percent of all traffic delays. Adaptive traffic control systems or “smart” traffic lights allow intersection signals to adjust to real-time traffic conditions like accidents, road construction and even weather. In the U.S., adaptive signal control technologies have been in use for approximately 20 years, but have been deployed on less than 3 percent of existing traffic signals. Florida, California and Michigan are among the states paving the way to make traffic signal improvements a priority.

Researchers in the Laboratory for Adaptive Traffic Operations & Management (LATOM) in FAU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science have received a $100,000 grant from the City of Miami Beach to test two adaptive traffic signals being considered for one of their busiest corridors in South Beach – Arthur Godfrey Road (41st Street). Miami is among the 10 U.S. cities with the worst traffic. In addition, FAU’s LATOM recently received a $300,000 grant from the Florida Department of Transportation to research use of high-resolution data, from signal controllers and detectors, to monitor performance of traffic signals.

“Timing for research in adaptive control systems is right and perspectives are exciting,” said Mohammad Ilyas, Ph.D., dean of FAU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science. “With better sensing technologies such as wireless communication and personal mobile devices, smarter algorithms, and more processing power, we are moving towards an era of much more efficient, safer and eco-friendly traffic signals.”

These complex systems require extensive surveillance and communication infrastructure to enable connection either among local controllers or between a central system and the local controllers. FAU’s LATOM is a one-of-a-kind simulation lab equipped with software, hardware and institutional capabilities, providing regional, national and international partners with opportunities to develop new and use existing methods and tools to monitor, manage and control transportation infrastructure.

“Congested roads have long been a headache for contemporary cities and we need to look at innovative ways to deal with traffic,” said Aleksandar Stevanovic, Ph.D., PE, director of LATOM and associate professor in FAU’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatics Engineering. “While better management of traffic signals won’t reduce the number of cars on our streets, we can do a much better job in adjusting signals to work more efficiently.” He adds, “Smart traffic lights are one way to address urban traffic congestion, and if timed properly and continually, they can both reduce traffic delays and improve public safety.”

Conventional signal systems use pre-programmed, daily signal timing schedules. Adaptive traffic control systems on the other hand, adjust the timing of red, yellow and green lights to accommodate changing traffic patterns. Duration of the green lights is usually a result of a complex compromise between the needs of a single intersection and the needs for good connection/progression with other surrounding intersections. Adaptive traffic control systems create such compromising solutions ‘on the fly’ by extensively using wires embedded in city streets, or other forms of detectors, to sense changes in traffic demands and its patterns.

As a relatively new technology, adaptive control systems are still somewhat expensive. Therefore, municipalities often seek advice from experts and research labs to pre-test effectiveness of these systems in the lab environment before the systems are deployed in live traffic.

“In our lab, we are able to work with our partners to model or ‘simulate’ different traffic patterns throughout a day – and on weekends and during various other scenarios – where virtually the same technology that controls traffic in the field is used in simulation to test its effectiveness and reliability,” said Stevanovic.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, on average, smart traffic lights improve travel time by more than 10 percent, and in areas with particularly outdated signal timing, improvements can be 50 percent or more.

For more information on FAU’s LATOM, visit latom.eng.fau.edu

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.