Housing is the Killer App

Housing is a hot button issue

Housing is a hot button issue

I saw a poll last month and the numbers were clear: affordable housing is a priority in the hearts and minds of American voters.

Nearly 60 percent said that housing affordability was a key issue, and 74 percent said that they would be more likely to support a candidate who made housing affordability a focus of their campaign and a priority in government. Predictably, the issue weighed most heavily with the groups both major party candidates are seeking to win over: millennials (ages 18 to 35), those earning less than $50,000 a year, and those with children living at home.

We are the parents of four millennials; one of whom lives at home, two rent and one is off at college and living off campus in rental housing. So this issue is meaningful to this baby boomer and millions of baby boomers across the land who would like to see their kids move out—(even though we love them dearly).

In hot spots across the country, affordable housing is rapidly becoming a burning issue.

A planning commissioner in super expensive Palo Alto, California recently saw her resignation letter go viral when she lamented the high cost of housing in that tech hot bed which has prompted her to relocate. According to the Palo Alto Forward, the median home price in that city is $2 million. San Jose recently became the first MSA to surpass a $1 million median home price.

Civic leaders in Austin, Texas, another tech hot spot, sees an opportunity to better compete for companies and young talent with Silicon Valley: the high cost of housing.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent Austin, based blog: “The bureaucratic ordeal in getting a new software development project started at a large company is legendary, but pales in comparison to getting a land development project off the ground in Silicon Valley.

The Valley and San Francisco have their own versions of Microsoft Millionaires: Housing Millionaires. Folks who had the good fortune to own a house in San Francisco years ago and became lucky as their asset skyrocketed in value. Many of these folks have, understandably, become less concerned with making San Francisco a place where a new generation can make their fortune and more interested in protecting what they have. Despite (or perhaps because of) its reputation for innovation, San Francisco’s local politics is dominated more by discussions of the past than the future. Like a company that refuses to release new products out of fear of harming their current cash cow, the city has become extraordinarily conservative in its approach to new development. New developments must first prove that they will harm no existing residents in any way, rather than merely proving they will provide a benefit to new residents.

The results are catastrophic: San Francisco and Silicon Valley are failing at one of the core competencies of any city: providing housing. Tech workers spend enormous fractions of their income to live in poorly maintained homes in the Mission, while those outside tech frequently live far outside the city and commute long distances on congested roads. New housing for tech workers is protested as are buses to transport workers from homes in San Francisco to jobs in Silicon Valley. The city and the region understand that they are in an intractable mess of antagonistic politics, but still cannot do anything to extricate itself. San Francisco and the Silicon Valley are ripe for disruption.”


The conclusion: Housing is Austin’s killer app: specifically, walkable, bike friendly, transit-accessible, relatively affordable housing.

It’s an interesting observation and the author concludes by saying that business needs to be deeply engaged in public policy to ensure that local governments facilitate the construction of new units to keep up with the demands and needs of a new generation of workers and families.

Closer to home, the issue of workforce or affordable housing has ebbed and flowed with the strength or weakness of the market. I used to be on the board of the Affordable Housing Coalition of Palm Beach County formed during the previous boom. At the time, the issue was front burner but when the market crashed so did the profile of the issue.

Today, it’s back again.

According to a recent Harvard report, 11.4 million households pay more than half their income for housing, and the number of those who spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing has reached 21.3 million. And affordable housing isn’t just a problem for the working poor. In that recent poll, 47 percent said they have personally struggled to pay their rent or mortgage in the past 12 months, or know someone who has been in that situation.

“There are serious structural inequities in our country and within the housing market that can only be remedied with the private and public sector working together,” says Angela Boyd, managing director of Make Room, a national campaign focused on rising rents in America. (Funders of the effort include the Ford and MacArthur foundations). “About 90 percent of the rental housing market being built right now is for luxury, and a whole segment of the population is being overlooked — recent college grads with high debt, senior citizens with fixed incomes, working-class families. If there isn’t some sort of subsidy to fill the gap, some sort of policy that changes the equations, you will never be able to build decent apartments that people can afford based on the wages being earned right now.”

But even young college grads fortunate enough to earn a good wage are struggling to find housing that doesn’t consume the budget, especially if they have college loans to repay, a car payment, insurance etc., as many do.

And for starting teachers—my daughter for example—the issue is even more acute.

Locally, Delray historically has been active on this issue.

About 11 years ago, we formed one of the area’s first Community Land Trusts, passed a workforce ordinance (imperfect but used as a model by some other cities) and approved some projects that featured workforce housing including Bexley Park and Atlantic Grove (10 units).

While this isn’t a popular idea in some circles, it’s hard to achieve affordable housing without density. When land is expensive and densities are kept low, you just can’t add the product needed to address the issue. The Strong Towns movement also argues that this kind of development cannot be sustained financially because the cost of servicing sprawl outstrips the taxes it generates.

In Delray, the Congress Avenue Task Force, saw workforce housing as one of the key elements to jumpstarting the corridor and ensuring the city’s financial future. By creating a compact, mixed-use, transit oriented environment with amenities and affordable apartments, Congress has an ability to thrive by attracting millennials and others who would also work on the corridor.

It’s a long way from happening, but progress starts with a vision and if the right policies are in place, private investors will make it happen. There is certainly a need.

But cities, including Boca and Delray, also ought to look at the eastern cores to see if there is a policy tool to incent the creation of units for young professionals. Not only will they enjoy the amenities of living downtown, they will support local businesses year round. If we want to maintain the mom and pop establishments in an expensive environment, we have to do what we can to bring people downtown especially during the slower summer months.

The problem is a knotty one for cities, but there are policy tools available to create more opportunities for new households and young families. Like the Austin blogger notes, it may also prove to be a smart economic development tool. Housing may indeed be the killer app and lack of it may kill you too.

Why Wait for Valentine’s Day?

When we think of Boca and Delray’s assets we might think of beaches, Atlantic Avenue, Old School Square, maybe the Boca Resort and universities.
Assets all.

Valuable– in some cases historic– and of course cherished and appreciated.
But people are also assets and we are certainly blessed in that regard as well.

I just think that sometimes we lose sight of the special people, because– let’s face it– the whiners, complainers, haters, bullies, nitwits and nasties can eat up a lot of our time and energy. That’s why it’s important to pause and remind ourselves that indeed there are good people in our lives and communities quietly doing yeoman’s work not because it’s a photo op, or they are getting rich or because they are self-serving but simply because they are good people who care. We’ve done this before on the blog with a group of people and we will do it again. Luckily, we have an endless list of people to love, cherish and appreciate. So if your name isn’t below, it’s not because we don’t appreciate and love you. We do. Just give us a little time to catch up.
Here’s a look at a few human assets that make our community sing.
Gary Eliopoulos–architect, dad, savior of historic homes, former city commissioner and the funniest man I know (and I know funny people). Gary and I grew up together in Delray. We were in the same Leadership Delray class way back when and I’m a proud member of his occasional happy hour group at The Sail Inn (a Yankee bar) where Gary, a Red Sox fan, holds court and keeps us laughing. And you can’t put a price on that. He’s also an amazing architect who adores Delray Beach and we love him back.
Bob Barcinski-Mr. B as he is affectionately known served as assistant city manager during a golden age of Delray retiring a few years back before an adoring crowd at the golf club. Bob was never comfortable with attention, deflected credit and was loyal to his boss, his employees and his community. He’s a happy grandpa these days who can still be found at the counter of the Green Owl. If you worked with Bob, you realized how great he was. He got it done. And done well. Without fail. Every single time. If you want to pick a guy to be in a foxhole with look no further than Mr. B.
Evelyn Dobson-director of the Community Land Trust and past Northwest Neighborhood leader, Evelyn is a passionate crusader for homeownership and neighborhood revitalization. She quietly gets it done. Take a drive through the neighborhoods where the Land Trust has built homes and you will see success and families transformed through the pride of homeownership. Evelyn is one my heroes.
Pame Williams–Pame works for the City of Delray and has also been active in the community for decades. Whether it’s volunteering at events or working to improve her neighborhood you can always count on Pame and she’ll always make you smile. She will also put you in line if you misbehave. I like that. Little known fact: she secretly likes Neil Diamond.
Gary Ferreri-a detective and union leader, Gary has a reputation for always going the extra mile. Whether it’s helping a neighborhood or speaking out on behalf of his fellow officers Det. Ferreri is a leader. He has a lot of fans in Delray.  He has unlimited potential because he’s smart and has a heart and feel for the community he protects and serves.
Linda Ripps -founder of Golden Retrievals, a Boca based rescue organization for my favorite breed. Linda has a heart of gold too. She’s rescued retrievers locally and from far flung places like Korea too.  Her work not only saves great dogs but it enriches families beyond measure. I’m reminded of her big heart every day when I’m greeted by 90 pounds of love and hair named Teddy.
Kevin Ross–the visionary president of Lynn University, Dr. Ross has never been afraid to shake up his curriculum and look outside for inspiration which he then brings back to Lynn so his students can benefit. I admire that ethos and it ensures that Lynn will disrupt not be disrupted.  I love working with Kevin. He inspires because he aspires: for his students, his faculty, his friends, his alumni and his community.
Mike Covelli–a talented land planner and designer, Mike always makes his projects stronger. One of the smartest people I know. Every time I speak to Mike I learn something I never knew before. He has insights and sees things in a very unique way. He makes every project he touches infinitely better and he’s a good guy too.
Tony Allerton–I’ve known Tony for close to 30 years and he’s always been a leader and a gentleman. The founder of The Crossroads, Tony’s leadership has helped people for decades and his organization serves almost 1,000 people a day. Think about that times 35 years. Tony’s passion for people in recovery who are trying to reclaim their lives knows no bounds. He has quietly made a profound impact on countless families.
Tim Snow-Tim is just one of the good guys. As head of the Boca-based George Snow Scholarship Fund (named after his father) Tim leads a 34 year old fund that has awarded more than $8 million in scholarships to deserving students in our community. He has changed so many lives through the gift of education.
It’s all about the people. We hope to spotlight many more in the future columns.

It’s All Connected

Recipe for conflict. Every. Single. Time.

Recipe for conflict. Every. Single. Time.

Consider the following…

-When the CRA was founded in 1985, the total property value of the district was $245 million, today it is more than $1.6 billion and growing.

-In recent years, the CRA has received more than $6 million from the county annually in tax increment funding contributions; over the last three decades the total from the county is over $60 million. That’s funding that almost surely would have been spent outside the city if it didn’t go to our CRA.

–Over the years, our CRA has reinvested over $100 million in local TIF revenues in our city. The money has been spent on infrastructure, capital improvements, parking facilities, affordable housing, beautification efforts, economic development initiatives, land acquisition (turning unproductive property into uses that often produce jobs) and arts and culture that drive more jobs, tax revenues and quality of life. Signature projects include: the beautification of Northwest and Southwest 5th Avenue, Atlantic Grove, the Fairfield Inn, The Hyatt, Old School Square, the Delray Beach Public Library, Spady Museum, South County Courthouse (land acquisition), Worthing Place, the Downtown Master Plan, improvements to U.S. 1 and the new Uptown Delray project which includes plans for a long sought neighborhood grocery.

–From the Green Market and Municipal Tennis Stadium to historic preservation efforts and the Community Land Trust, the CRA has been an integral part of Delray’s fabric.

The list of achievements, public private partnerships, site development assistance, façade improvements and business grants goes on and on.

In other words, it takes a village to build a village.

And this village would not be nearly the same without its CRA. It has been far and away our best economic development tool and has only gotten more effective along the way.

CRA monies have always complemented the city’s budget, including paying for police officers to make our city’s downtown clean and safe and funding for planning and engineering initiatives that built a pretty cool city.

For most of the past 20 years, the CRA has been focused on the West Atlantic corridor and neighborhoods north and south of the avenue and east of 95.

More than $60 million has been spent on sidewalks, water pressure improvements, beautification, housing, lighting, parks, plazas and economic development initiatives.

This wasn’t a heroic contribution; it was the right thing to do. But it should be acknowledged as well.

Public spending should be directed where the needs are but this was not always the case in Delray Beach.

As late as the 1980s, large parts of the central business district suffered from blighted conditions and disinvestment. Pineapple Grove was an idea, but it was pretty decrepit when it was hatched. And that’s a compliment.

When I was elected to the City Commission in 2000, there were still a few unpaved streets in our southwest neighborhoods. Many blocks did not have good water pressure, sidewalks or lighting.

But there was a whole lot of vision and a lot of dedicated people working together on what became known as the Southwest Plan. When the citizen driven plan was completed and adopted by the city, spending by the city and the CRA was earmarked to bring the plan to life. And while much was done—see the above millions invested—it was clear that even more needed to be done to improve neighborhoods and to break the cycle of poverty that gripped many families in our city.

Beacon Programs—providing wrap around social, educational and health services—were created, a Boys and Girls Club opened with the invaluable help of Mayor Tom Lynch and former CRA member Marc DeBaptiste, the Village Academy opened and was expanded to cover pre-K through 12th grade and a Community Land Trust was established to add much needed housing in  underserved neighborhoods.

It’s a remarkable story of a community, a city and a CRA working together.

In community building, one of the first lessons you learn is that you are never “done.”

There is always more to do: more progress to be made, more challenges to overcome and more opportunities to seize.

That seems to be a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised as you make progress how many people want cities to declare victory and stop investing. That’s a mistake, complacency is a killer.

Usually, the argument is that spending needs to be directed elsewhere—and many times it does. But community building is not a zero-sum game.

You can and should invest in multiple neighborhoods. It’s not a choice between East Atlantic and West Atlantic or between the downtown and Congress Avenue as some elected officials wrongly claim. Sure, you need priorities, but that doesn’t mean that you neglect one part of your town in favor of another—especially when your city is interconnected and certain neighborhoods provide the fuel and the funding to ensure that needier neighborhoods can receive what they need.

A friend has pointed out to me that it is impossible to improve blighted residential neighborhoods without the cash generated by successful commercial development.

Residential neighborhoods—especially ones that have problems—do not generate the tax dollars to do the job. But successful downtowns do. And because East Atlantic has performed so well, TIF dollars generated as a result can be and have been (for a long time now) used to fund improvements to West Atlantic and adjoining neighborhoods.

The key to doing more is to keep your pump healthy—to maintain your focus on all parts of your downtown and to create new economic drivers such as Congress Avenue, US 1 and the four corners of Atlantic Avenue and Military Trail.

The other key is to support, collaborate with and sharpen your economic development agencies.

Schools, quality health care, a strong business community, the arts, recreation and open space are also critical components—along with safe streets and a city government that provides services efficiently.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. Remember, you are never done and if you think you are, complacency or smugness will bite you.




Making Room for the Middle

The lack of workforce housing has reached crisis levels in the Bay area.

The lack of workforce housing has reached crisis levels in the Bay area.

The headline blared “Build, Baby, Build” in Sunday’s New York Times.
The story focused on the growing YIMBY (yes in my backyard) movement in the hyper expensive Bay Area of California.

The lack of work force housing in the San Francisco area is stoking a movement to pressure local governments to allow the construction of more housing. Led by young professionals, groups are forming to confront those who fight new development.
Several cities are now facing competing lawsuits. For example, Lafayette down zoned a parcel that was zoned for high density multi family housing. Now the city faces a lawsuit by a group that wants multi family on the site and another who thinks the new zoning -for single family housing–is also too much.
High profile technology executives are writing checks to fight those who oppose multi family housing fearful that their workforce will have no place to live. The lack of housing has also been blamed for traffic because workers are forced to drive long distances to their workplaces.
Several local elected officials have welcomed the YIMBY movement saying it is important for young professionals to feel they have a future in the region and that cities need to be thinking about ways they can plan to accommodate their needs.
It’s an interesting debate and one that may soon break out in the Sunshine state.
In case you haven’t noticed, housing is expensive around these parts and if you know your economics one way to lower prices is to increase the supply.
While that is a simplification of the issue, it’s hard not to include density in any serious argument about addressing the need to create workforce housing.
In Boca Raton and Delray Beach, the issue of housing affordability has been around for decades. We are not talking about low or very low income housing but rather middle and upper middle class housing–places where teachers, accountants, police officers and others in the workforce can afford to live.
There used to be a joke among public officials in Boca and Delray. When asked where their workforce could find attainable housing, Boca officials would often answer: “Delray”.
That might have been true in the 80s and 90s but these days housing prices have accelerated to rival that of Boca. In fact, many neighborhoods exceed Boca prices.
Delray was considered a leader in workforce housing strategies during the last boom in the early and mid 2000s forming one of the first Community Land Trusts and passing what was then considered a model workforce housing ordinance.
A major part of Delray’s strategy to revitalize its downtown was to increase densities–an effort in part to add residents downtown to support businesses and increase safety but also an attempt to create some measure of affordability. But recent changes to the land development regulations capped density downtown at 30 units to the acre and a promised “bonus” program seems to have been lost.

With land prices downtown sky high, it seems unlikely that a meaningful number of units for young professionals will be created. That’s a big loss, since millennials would tend to be year round residents who would enjoy downtown’s vibrancy and would support local merchants.
Cognizant of the high price of downtown living, the Congress Avenue Task Force emphasized the need for workforce housing and higher densities along the 4.1 mile corridor.
Another opportunity would be at the “four corners” of Atlantic and Military Trail where moribund shopping centers could be redeveloped into mixed use lifestyle centers.
While Boca and Delray don’t yet face the pressures of San Francisco, the best economic development strategies would include plans to make our cities appealing to young professionals. There are several legs to that stool: abundant job opportunities, good schools, low crime rates, amenities such as arts, culture, parks and recreation, good transportation and attainable housing.
Regardless, to ensure a positive future you have to plan for it. The operative word is plan. Perhaps, there would be less antagonism toward new development if it was tied to a long term vision or strategy. If that strategy is to make room for young families or to plan for our kids to come home it may resonate. Still, just about any plan for the future would require making room for those who may wish to live here. “I’m in the boat, pull up the ladder” is not a strategy for economic sustainability.

The Vision Thing

Citizen driven

Citizen driven

iPic is a symptom.

Just the latest. There will be more.

The skirmishes over specific development proposals mask an underlying dynamic 30 years in the making: what do we want to be when we grow up?

That question was first posed in the 80s when the Atlantic Avenue Task Force and later Visions 2000 convened to talk about a future vision for Delray Beach.

At the time, we were not exactly a charming “village by the sea”. Sure, there were charming elements; a grid system, a nice beach and historic homes but vacancies were widespread downtown, there was a dearth of activity and our crime rate was horrible. People were clamoring for change.

The Task Force and Visions 2000 efforts were launched as a response to those conditions; nobody was arguing that vacancies were good or bragging that we had no place to eat. There was not a whole lot of crowing about property values that were stagnant and a real estate market that was hot in Boca and West Boynton but anemic in Delray.

Visions 2000 laid out a blueprint for renewal and listed projects to be completed in order to fix and— yes save Delray. Voters overwhelmingly approved the $21.5 million Decade of Excellence bond and city officials went about the task of renovating the city.

They did a remarkable job.

Delray won an All America City Award in 1993 and another in 2001. The city earned a ton of good press (which was very rare for Delray at the time) and Florida Trend named Delray the “best run town in Florida.”

Private investment began to flow into town, a coffee shop opened and oh did we celebrate. A few restaurants came…Damiano’s, Splendid Blendeds, 32 East, Dakotah..and we were off to the races.

But community building and downtown revitalization is not an overnight effort. It takes years and then some more years. Truth is, you are never done.

The first coffee shop went out of business. Some of the first restaurants didn’t make it. Retail had a hard time gaining traction. There was and is a lack of office space. Back then, nobody was living downtown. That would come later when some pioneering developers took a risk and put some townhouses on Federal Highway. Their efforts were mocked and there was strong resistance to projects that are now part of the fabric and filled with residents who are great contributors to our community.

I was in town for the Visions 2000 and Visions 20005 efforts—covering the process as a reporter for the old Delray Times, part of the defunct Monday-Thursday Papers.

There was talk about a village by the sea during those exercises, but nobody was calling for a sleepy or seasonal village by the sea. The consensus in the 80s and 90s and then again in the early 2000s during the Downtown Master Plan process was to create a dynamic village. Words such as vibrant, bustling, compact and dense, walkable and sustainable were used.

There was a desire to be a complete downtown; not trendy or seasonal, but year round and built to last. There were calls for mixed-use projects, the master plan emphasized design and yes—(horrors!)– density. We learned that design trumped density and that density was needed to support local businesses and was desirable because it was better for the environment than sprawl, which generates more traffic and is more expensive to service. We didn’t make this up, we brought the best minds in downtown planning to town over and over again and all of them cited the virtues of new urbanism, density, design and mixed used development. We just brought them back for another round and the message is the same.

And guess what? Unlike a lot of other places, this city delivered. We ought to be proud.

Delray Beach executed and implemented its citizen driven visions. Not developer driven, not staff driven, not even commission driven, but citizen driven visions. It takes a village…it really does.

So what you’re seeing today is a manifestation of 30 plus years of planning, execution and investment.

It’s not developers flouting rules or building things contrary to the vision.

Have waivers been granted? Yes. But never for height and density.

Have variances been given? Yes, but never for height and density. When you’re working in an infill environment, sometimes you need a little flexibility to make good projects happen.

Wait… there’s more.

Was conditional use employed; you betcha. Conditional use built Delray, because it enabled a generation of policy makers to support good projects and– just as important–reject bad ones.

So what we are seeing is not some aberration or abuse, it’s the result of a vision. Now, you may not embrace the vision or you might think the vision is misguided, outdated or moronic. I don’t. I suspect many others like what has happened. But I get that some don’t.

Maybe you think it’s time to put a lasso on the vision and shut it down. But please understand that what you’re seeing after nearly a decade of no development did not come out of nowhere.

Has it been good? I believe so.

So do many others who love and enjoy Delray Beach.

Have property values increased? Oh yeah, especially if you live anywhere near the urban core.

Is that a good thing? For most, it is. I’d rather have my home appreciate than depreciate, but affordability is an issue not only for homeowners but for mom and pop merchants as well.

Are there strategies to maintain affordability that we should be considering? Yes. Almost exactly a decade ago we were one of the first cities to create a Community Land Trust to keep properties in the trust affordable in perpetuity. We also enacted a workforce housing ordinance, a flawed but  sincere attempt to address a pressing issue at the time and one that is back in a big way.

Density was one of the strategies to create affordability as well. It may not be the silver bullet, but it’s hard to have affordability without it.

As for iPic, I would love to see it happen. I like that a corporate headquarters wants to be downtown and that 42,000 square feet of office space would be built. We need the jobs and we need to make Delray more than a food and beverage success story—that wasn’t the vision, only part of it.

The vision was to create a city that was more than a resort town. It was to create a sustainable, walkable village with opportunities for people of all ages, including young people and families that need jobs.

I understand why people are concerned and worry about losing the soul of the city. These are viable concerns that leadership needs to address. In my opinion these concerns can be addressed. Others would disagree that’s OK.

These conversations are important to have because all the “sides” in town love Delray Beach.

But before a meaningful conversation can take place it’s important to put the issues in context and understand where the latest project came from. Discussions about the redevelopment of the old library site date back more than a decade. The discussion began when the land-locked library decided to move from an antiquated facility to West Atlantic and when the chamber decided to move as well, rather than invest in an old building that was functionally obsolete.

The direction given to the CRA at the time was to redevelop the site and get it back on the tax rolls. There was a policy decision not to seek residential development which was well underway downtown but to seek retail and office space, which we felt was needed. It was later amended to consider a hotel and entertainment options. The hotel proposal fell victim to tough economic times and a new RFP that mirrored the old one was issued. IPIC responded and was selected.

There was never any serious talk of a park on the site in large part because we were creating a large downtown park adjacent to Old School Square and we already had Veterans Park, Worthing Park, The Skate Park and Teen Center and some small public plazas planned for West Atlantic, which is also part of our downtown. We felt there was a need for office space and year-round employment to support our merchants during the long hot summer months.

Right or wrong, that’s the back story. The rationale was in service to a larger vision created by citizens.





The Challenges Of Success

NYC's Famous Oyster Bar closed after 55 years in business when its rent went from $15k a month to $50k a month.

NYC’s Famous Oyster Bar closed after 55 years in business when its rent went from $15k a month to $50k a month.


There was a great story in the New York Times recently about a blog called Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York (https://vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com/).

Jeremiah (not his real name) chronicles the “hyper-gentrification” of NYC and the loss of landmark businesses from old dance halls and classic bookstores to delis and coffee shops.

The Vanishing New York blog has a scathing opinion of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg who ushered in an era of development that some praised and others despised.

NYC in many ways is celebrating a great renaissance with plunging crime rates, cleaner and more walkable streets and rising property values. But the flip side of gentrification is the loss of some charming pieces of old New York and the fact that the city has become unaffordable for a great many people.

Delray Beach is often likened to the Big Apple, but those who make that comparison are not paying the “village by the sea” a compliment.

We are a far cry from Manhattan, but the fear of losing what makes Delray-Delray is real and valid.

While stopping progress is neither wise nor possible, it is wise and possible to shape the future look and feel of your community.

One of the driving forces to do the Downtown Master Plan in 2001 was a desire to “keep the charm” and to talk about issues of growth and development that were raised by the controversy surrounding Worthing Place, a six-story, 93 unit to the acre mixed use project that became a lightning rod and a series of lawsuits that lasted for years.

I ran for office in the midst of the controversy and deliberately carved out a neutral position in the hopes that if I were elected, I could broker a compromise between the litigant Tom Worrell and the development team. I knew the players on both sides and at one time worked for newspapers owned by Mr. Worrell who at the time owned and had recently restored The Sundy House. While at the time I did not know Mr. Worrell, I figured our common background might give me a chance.

Shortly after getting elected, we brought the parties together at Old School Square and we came close to a compromise agreement but I couldn’t quite close the deal. Shortly after, a judge ruled on the final suit and the project was a go as originally planned. The lawsuits were counterproductive to my mind and the process produced no winners. Worrell lost the legal battle, but the developers lost valuable time and missed the market and instead of coming out of the ground as the first project downtown Worthing was among the last and had to be changed to a rental project; albeit a hugely successful one.

The concerns about Worthing centered on the scale of the project and how it might impact the downtown.

So we’ve been at this for quite a while.

Defining charm and what a village looks like is not exactly a measurable science.

Some would say Delray lost its charm years ago. Others would say the city’s vibrancy is its charm.

But when I read the story about Vanishing New York and the reports last week that the “George Building” sold for nearly $1,300 a square foot I immediately thought that it is getting tougher and tougher to make a go of it on Atlantic Avenue if you are an independent.

The economics are changing—rapidly. Word is we already have a restaurant paying over $100 a square foot in rent. When I moved to Delray in 1987, rental prices on the avenue were $6-$8 a square foot and vacancies were 40 percent.

A whole lot of economic value has been created for property owners in the ensuing decades; lots of jobs as well.

But the key to success is sustainability not just economic sustainability, but a city that continues to delight.

We have a strong desire for mom and pop retail and independently owned restaurants. A large part of our charm is the uniqueness of our businesses and the vibrant street life that has taken root here.

So if the avenue becomes overrun by chains we risk our point of difference as a city.

But when it comes to ensuring the viability of independents, you run up against a whole lot of headwinds:

  • Price—it’s hard for independents to pay high rents and hard if not impossible for landlords buying properties at big numbers to offer inexpensive rents. Even long time property owners who bought low are hard pressed to keep rents affordable if the market is commanding higher rates.
  • Seasonality—Better than it has ever been but it’s still a long, hot summer for small businesses.
  • Societal trends—Retail is always a tough game and not getting any easier thanks to the Internet. But societal trends are also favoring authenticity, uniqueness, craft and localism, all of which favor small independents and regional operators.So how can we preserve our uniqueness?
  • Here are a few thoughts, none of them fully baked, but perhaps these are topics that can be explored.
  • Successful cities are the places you fall in love with; it’s hard to fall in love with something generic, easier to fall in love with something local, independent, unique and valuable. So there’s also a very compelling case to fight for independents and small businesses.
  • Maybe having some regionals and some chains can actually help local retailers by driving customers to the downtown. Where’s the balance? Hard to say, but there is definitely a tipping point somewhere. Independent restaurants can still make it because we have become a dining destination, so we really don’t need an Applebee’s downtown. But independent retail is another story. They need help. Campaigns to urge people to “shop local” etc.
  • The Downtown Master Plan contained some solutions; a cluster study was done to determine sales by area cluster and also determined gaps that economic developers and property owners can use to recruit desired retailers. That study needs to be continuously updated and used. In addition, the master plan called for “development without displacement” and as such a Community Land Trust was formed and has been very successful. Perhaps, a commercial land trust can be explored for key parcels. An interesting concept (maybe), but difficult and costly to implement.
  • Trading of Development Rights—this tool could be used to help finance/subsidize retail districts. Again, is this the role of government? If not, will the “free market” knock out mom and pop and usher in Walgreen’s etc?
  • The encouragement of “pop up retail” or retail incubation to test concepts inexpensively that can then be rolled out downtown.
  • The development of the “nooks and crannies”. We are already seeing lots of great activity in the Artist’s Alley area. Look for US 1 to become a hot neighborhood in the near future. As US 1 is narrowed and beautified and made safer; it will become less a highway and more of a street. And streets will create opportunities for entrepreneurial independents. But prices are rising on the corridor. We have seen prices of $1 million or more per acre on North Federal.
  • Density…the dreaded D word. But if you want independents to thrive, they need people living and working (not driving) downtown. That means downtown residential is a good thing and so is office space. Downtown residents and workers will shop and dine downtown; studies done in the early 2000s show that.As we noted earlier, restrictive land use codes create scarcity and lead to two one of two outcomes: devaluing property or increasing values because you’ve limited the supply of buildable space. Not all of what we are seeing can be attributed to the city’s codes, a lot has to do with economic cycles and what some would call “irrational exuberance” in which you start to see prices that just make you scratch your head and wonder.Atlantic Avenue and its side streets and now corridors are a strong brand and people are willing to bet millions on real estate and restaurants in the downtown corridor.
  • Whether that’s good or bad is immaterial, it’s probably both. But it’s also reality and that’s what communities and policymakers have to deal with. Wishing it away, won’t change reality.
  • Regardless, there are consequences to cycles, codes and human emotion.
  • These are just some thoughts I’m sure there is a body of case studies out there that can be used for further conversation. But the challenge is here and the time for this conversation is now.