Water Cooler Wednesday: Urbanism’s Holy Grail


Vibrant—adjective: having or showing great life, activity, and energy.

We took a ride Sunday afternoon to visit Abacoa in Jupiter.

We had a nice lunch at JJ Muggs and decided to walk around the town center before making the long trek back to Delray Beach.

There were about six other people in the restaurant at lunch hour and when we walked around we saw no cars, no pedestrians, no activity and no energy.

Sure, it was a hot day in the middle of summer but when we cruised Atlantic Avenue on our way home, we saw lots of people walking, biking, shopping, dining and taking advantage of the shade at Worthing Park.

There was life.

There was activity.

 There was energy.

In short, Delray Beach is a vibrant place.

Even at 3:30 in the afternoon. Even  on a very hot summer day.

I don’t mean to disparage Abacoa, it’s a very nice place and maybe it was having a bad day, but I raise the issue of vibrancy because when it comes to urbanism and redevelopment it’s the Holy Grail.

Vibrancy is what you strive for. It’s what citizens in Delray Beach have dreamt about since the 80s, when Mayor Doak Campbell formed the Atlantic Avenue Task Force in an effort to rejuvenate a decaying downtown.

Cities are interesting because they are full of life. It’s fun to walk around a city because you get to experience sights, sounds  and other people. You never know who you’ll bump into. The magic of cities happens when those collisions occur. Is the experience always pleasant? No. But it’s life and that’s good.

The great place making philosopher Jane Jacobs once said that “the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. Almost nobody does such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.”

Delray Beach worked a very long time to attract street activity. Once upon a time it was front page news when a coffee shop named “Java Junction” opened in the site of a long shuttered shoe store. The proprietors were slightly ahead of their time. There wasn’t enough foot traffic and the business closed.

Back in the 80s, when vacancy rates downtown were 40 percent and businesses closed for the summer, citizens and elected officials dreamed of a day when Delray would have a parking problem.

Vibrancy was the goal; but not an end unto itself. Agree or disagree with whether or not it happened –but the goal was to achieve a vibrant downtown without losing the city’s inherent charm.

Thus the tagline of the 2001-02 Downtown Master Plan was “keeping the charm.”

The goal was to blend the old with the new, to keep a human scale in terms of building heights and to increase vibrancy by encouraging sidewalk cafes and downtown housing while also creating open spaces and cultural amenities that would appeal to people of all ages.

When the long desired parking problems arrived, new garages were planned, built and financed and surface lots in some cases became parks. These decisions did not take place in a vacuum. Citizen input was solicited at every step along the way.

What resulted was a downtown that has achieved national prominence and recognition. City officials from all over the state and nation have visited for ideas and inspiration.

They don’t visit to see empty streets. They come to study the elements of what makes a town lively and to bring back ideas that they can use to breathe life into their own cities.

A few nights ago, I had the pleasure to speak to the Parrot Cove Homeowners Association in Lake Worth.

The discussion centered on the challenges and opportunities facing their community. I am part of a team that plans to renovate the historic Gulfstream Hotel, which the city sees as a catalyst for their downtown.

We talked about what went right and what went wrong in Delray and the truth is redevelopment has its hits and misses. But we talked about how  it’s important to keep iterating, engaging, planning and implementing.

There were three takeaways from my experience in Delray that I wanted to share.

First, how important it is for the community to be involved. Second, that even if you achieve some success you can’t become complacent—“downtowns are never done” we used to say and third in order to keep a place safe and sustainable—you need vibrancy.

Very simple concepts; but not so easy to achieve.