Density, Design, Planning & Values


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?




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.


  1. Patrick Ross says

    I believe there is a VERY fine line between acceptable density, and density which pushes people away from enjoying what does exist. Perhaps the logic of Yogi Berra says it best … “It’s so crowded there, nobody goes there anymore.” No one has a crystal ball to help determine when “enough is enough” of acceptable growth and development … “density.” I belive most people would choose to err on the side less density than more. Sure, even with “acceptable” growth and development, we are going to see impact … i.e. …traffic increase. In the short period of time that the development at Linton and Federal has been open, major traffic issues are occurring. Another development is just underway on Federal between Linton and Lindell Blvd.. What additional traffic might this bring? For the homeowners in this area, it’s not a pleasant uptick in daily life, I also believe most people would say the narrowing of Federal Hwy., running both north and south, from 3 or 4 lanes to two lanes, was nothing less than irrational. A Planning Board could not see that the increased growth and development would impact on traffic on US 1 to the point of congestion occurring throughout the day, not only at peak period rush hour times? With all this being said, my wife and I LOVE Delray Beach, which was just named the #1 town (out of 38) in Palm Beach county. Jeff, we very much appreciated your time as Mayor, and wished you could have continued in that position. We love your continued passion, concern, and dedication to what you believe is best for Delray beach. Please carry on.

  2. Amen.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.