Mysteries Revealed: The Gateway

Unifying east and west

Unifying east and west

Editor’s Note: An occasional series in which we go beyond the headlines to provide some needed institutional memory.

Today’s mystery: the origins of the “gateway feature”

Way back in 2000-01, a group of concerned citizens met to discuss the future of downtown Delray Beach.

The goal was to create a Downtown Master Plan—which sounds sinister but really was nothing more than an open process to forge a common vision for how to support a sustainable year-round downtown.

Countless meetings were held. Experts were hired. Data was generated and then shared in an effort to build on work that was done in the 80s and 90s by visionary citizens, city planners and elected officials. While it was a fun process, the Master Plan was conceived in the wake of a bitter debate.

In 1998-99, the city went through a bruising battle over a project called “Worthing Place.” The CRA had aggregated land downtown in what was known as Block 77. Developers were invited to present concepts and a local team was chosen to build condos with ground floor retail or restaurant space. The project was six stories tall—60 feet, the city’s maximum height. And it was 93 units to the acre.

The developers promised to build parking for the project and a separate public parking garage on First Avenue, which would later be named the “Federspiel Garage” after a beloved local attorney—Bob Federspiel– who had died tragically in an accident in North Carolina.

The Worthing Place project led to years of expensive lawsuits, with the city prevailing each time. But what was supposed to be the first downtown mixed-use housing project had actually ended up being among the last built thanks to the delays caused by litigation. The “for sale” condos became high end rentals. Today, when I show visitors the project and tell them the story about how divisive the battle was, they can hardly believe me. Worthing Place has become a valuable residential property and its businesses including Salt 7, a charming market and the wonderful Park Tavern have become local hot spots creating lots of jobs. Opponents feared traffic and said the building would resemble a tenement filled with raucous residents. They were mistaken.

The Master Plan process was designed to avoid future feuds over downtown development. We were a tad naïve I suppose. But the process was inclusive and included lots of opportunities for the community to learn about urban design, how traffic behaves in a downtown and what we would need in terms of uses and densities in order to create a sustainable and complete downtown.

Our major funder for the plan was the wonderful MacArthur Foundation, which at the time was very prominent in Palm Beach County. The foundation was active in our northwest and southwest neighborhoods which around that time were also heavily involved in a master planning/visioning process.

It was decided that it made sense to develop synergies between the various planning efforts and one of the earliest and most important decisions we made was to include the West Atlantic gateway and streets to the north and south as part of our Downtown Master Plan.

This was an historic; some might say landmark decision, to redefine the geography of our downtown to extend from I-95 to the ocean. Historically, and rhetorically when we referred to downtown Delray it was always East Atlantic Avenue—from Swinton to A1A. As a result of the master plan, downtown’s borders would expand and we would try to erase the Swinton dividing line; a major goal of race relations which was a front burner effort at the time.

Once the decision was made to expand the downtown to the Interstate, we (the hundreds and hundreds of citizens who participated) decided that we needed to make a design statement to signal to visitors and residents alike that when they exited I-95 they were entering a very special place—downtown Delray Beach.

That’s an important distinction to make. And it needs to be said. Because over the years, the bean counters have failed to grasp that important nuance. We. Wanted. To. Make. A. Statement.

We thought it was important to do so. We thought it would change the look, feel and brand of our downtown gateway and I think it has. We also wanted to unify the east and the west.

Great cities and great businesses don’t become great by accident or because they declare themselves so. There’s a moment—or a series of moments—when communities say “go”. Let’s go for it. Let’s be special. Let’s be different. Let’s be great. And then they plan, strategize and execute. That’s what happened in Delray Beach and what hasn’t happened in so many cities. They never say go…instead they waffle, they wring their hands, they hedge or they simply pronounce but lose the courage to follow through. And make no mistake, it takes courage to follow through. There’s always opposition, always controversy and obstacles to overcome.

Delray made a decision to “go” way back in 1984 when Mayor Doak Campbell formed the Atlantic Avenue Task Force, they doubled down on that decision with Visions 2000, Visions 2005 and the Downtown Master Plan.

Now back to our story…

After trotting out various design schemes, including a building in the median (which was rejected by the Department of Transportation), it was decided to move ahead with a large public art installation to be mostly paid for by the CRA. Total cost: about $1.2 million, with about $980,000 coming from the CRA and the rest from a state grant.

A team of residents and city staff worked with an artist (Michelle Newman) and eventually a design was chosen.

But the project didn’t happen right away. A lot of other stuff did—like the beautification of Northwest/ Southwest Fifth Avenue, the addition of paver bricks, decorative lighting and landscaping from Swinton to 95 and more–about $60 million invested on the West Atlantic corridor from 2000 forward by our CRA.

Still, the gateway came a little later but only after the CRA and citizens went back to commissioners to make sure they were still OK with the project. They were repeatedly assured that the gateway project was an important one and so it was built.

You may like it (I do) or you may loathe it. That’s what happens with art…I remember when the Public Arts Advisory Board commissioned a large piece on South Federal Highway and people went ballistic. I’m talking about the red noodle like sculpture near Knowles Park. I think it’s Ok, others don’t like it. Art is meant to be discussed and that piece certainly sparked conversation.

But the larger point is, the gateway is a statement. It says welcome to downtown Delray and it also says that this city is willing to invest west of Swinton which it has, largely through the unsung efforts of its CRA in partnership with neighborhoods and groups such as WARC. And largely as a result of the master plan, West Atlantic visioning, the Southwest Plan and the West Settler’s Historic District initiative we are beginning to see returns on that investment in the form of private development and new businesses. This is how it works, folks. Cities say “go” and execute and investors know its safe to make bets on your town.

Are more sidewalks needed? Certainly. Nobody is arguing that point. But come on, look around and take some time to enjoy the investment that has been made—plazas, a water park, a library, Spady Museum and yes a gateway feature.

Great cities—and Delray Beach is a great city—invest and reinvest in themselves. The return on that investment is quality of life, quality of place, quality of community and the spurring of private investment, which the West Atlantic corridor is getting (Atlantic Grove, Fairfield Inn, the Equity Project).

So when I see a suit stand up and take political pot shots at the gateway and moan about how poor and broke we are ($30 million plus in reserves, double digit property value increases, at least a half billion in investment dying to come here) I chuckle. As my beloved late mom used to say “we should all be that broke.”

If only we didn’t spend on the gateway…

If only we didn’t have a library…

If only we didn’t build that tennis stadium and try to put something in the place…

If only we didn’t have our own fire department…

If only we didn’t have an Arts Garage or festivals or an Old School Square or a CRA.

If only we would just pick up the trash and make sure the toilets flush—then our “problems” would be solved but we wouldn’t be Delray would we?

No, we would not.



  1. Jeff and Dave… I’m really enjoying ‘your delray boca’ blog. The walk (or run) down memory lane is fascinating. The gateway feature is a great example – everyone agreed we needed something… something big and bold… a statement that announced “welcome to our eclectic city of Delray Beach”. These public art panels met that criteria… not everyone loved the design but we all supported the “downtown” designation as I-95 to the beach and the need to shout your arrival to downtown. And this is what makes Delray special… We held tight to those things we agreed on – did our best to reach consensus on what we didn’t and then said… “GO”

    • Jeff Perlman says

      Thanks for your comments, Bill. You captured perfectly the old Delray formula for getting things done—strive for consensus but don’t wait for 100 percent approval because you’ll never get it.

  2. Robin Atkins Smollar says

    Why didn’t Delray make the Fairfield Inn design have more inviting Delray colors? It is a depressing and tired and uninviting design.

    • Jeff Perlman says

      Hi Robin:
      Not sure what “Delray colors” are. But I’m pleased we have the Fairfield Inn in town, especially in a part of town that some commissioners at the time thought couldn’t attract investment, not to mention a Marriott flag. Ya gotta believe, as Mets fans used to say.
      Regardless, I have been to several meetings at the Fairfield and the interior is lovely and the staff is wonderful. Thanks for your comments.

  3. Amy Oswald says

    I am really enjoying your blog! … As future residents of the downtown area of Delray, my husband and I would like to cast our vote for the Atlantic Commons mixed-use project. After an exhaustive search for a “new home” to enjoy in our early retirement years, we feel that the proposed project site, as you approach the intracoastal waterway, would provide for the ideal pedestrian-friendly downtown residential experience that we, like so many early-retirees, are looking for. It would be a perfect location to live while enjoying the shops, restaurants, water sports and cultural activities in the downtown area. Within close proximity to the beach, and easy access to A1A for enjoying biking, jogging, and easy travel to the neighboring cities north and south of Delray, the location couldn’t be better! What more could one ask for? Hopefully, those on the Delray Planning Commission will find a way to make it all happen!

    At this point in time, Atlantic Ave., as you walk east towards the beach, seems very isolated. There is a huge disconnect that makes the Avenue feel a little seedy as we walk towards the Seagate Hotel where we stay during our visits.

    Our hope is that all legal problems are resolved so that the project can proceed in a timely fashion!

    • Jeff Perlman says

      Glad you like Delray and really hope you decide to move here. It’s a great city. If we can help answer any questions let us know.

  4. Spot on…thank you!

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