The Planning Gene

Delray has a long history of innovative planning

Delray has a long history of innovative planning

The City of Delray Beach has hired Dana P. Little as its new Director of Planning and Zoning.

He will begin his tenure June 16.

 Mr. Little has over 20 years of urban design experience and an extensive background in town planning and urban revitalization honed most recently in his position as Director of Urban Design for the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council.

At Treasure Coast, Little, a University of Miami graduate with a degree in architecture, led teams of architects, engineers and economists on a wide variety of town planning efforts.

That’s the stuff you’ll see and read in city press releases and introductions. And it’s all true and good.

But here’s the inside scoop from someone who worked closely with Dana right here in Delray Beach.

He’s certainly got all the right credentials and the professional pedigree:  a member of the Florida Chapter of the American Planning Association and the Florida Chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism, he  has also served as a member of the West Palm Beach Historic Preservation Board.

Dana has won his share of awards including the Award of Merit (2013 from the American Planning Association Florida chapter) and the Award of Excellence (2006) and the prestigious John Nolen Medal (2005) for contributions to urbanism in Florida from the Florida Chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism.

As director of the design studio, Dana and his colleagues worked on transit oriented development policies for the state of Florida and on projects to revitalize downtown Stuart, Riviera Beach, West Palm Beach and many other cities.

But I got to know him from his work beginning in 2001 on Delray’s landmark Downtown Master Plan, a citizen driven effort that helped to leverage and expand the work the city did beginning in the 1980s and through the Decade of Excellence in the 1990s.

I co-chaired the effort along with Chuck Ridley and the city and CRA hired Treasure Coast to assist with developing a comprehensive vision for our downtown.

The timing of the effort was fortuitous. The city had just finished a hugely controversial and contentious process relating to Worthing Place, which was to be the first large “mixed use” project on Atlantic Avenue.

The size of the project (six stories and over 90 units per acre) divided the town. Proponents wanted to see people living downtown to help stimulate the economy, make downtown safer and support local merchants. Opponents worried about height, density and traffic.

The project barely passed and was immediately greeted with a series of lawsuits. But the debate over growth and the future of downtown pointed out the need for a citizen driven downtown plan. The commission I served on agreed with the idea and I petitioned Mayor David Schmidt for the chance to co-chair the effort. He graciously agreed.

Our first three decisions proved crucial: we wanted to bring in experts from the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council to guide us, we wanted to expand the definition of downtown to include West Atlantic Avenue to I-95 and we wanted maximum public participation. We also decided to incorporate a race relations component to the plan in an effort to acknowledge and hopefully erase the imaginary dividing line between east and west that existed at Swinton Avenue. It was an ambitious effort, but it was an aspirational time.

Dana, Treasure Coast Director Mike Busha and their team held educational seminars and together we put together a steering committee of stakeholders and opened design studios on Swinton and invited citizens to watch architects, urban designers and planners sketch out ideas that came from the public.

The charrette attracted a large crowd and so did the makeshift design studios. In fact, it got so busy that the designers had to eventually close the doors so they could catch up with the amount of ideas being thrown at them.

Dana was at the forefront of this effort, working hand in hand with our community, our planning staff and CRA. He has a great feel for people, understands town planning and new urbanism and has an innate talent for creating places where people like to be.

He understands people’s fear of change, traffic, noise and density and was invaluable in addressing concerns and in helping our community draft a plan that gave birth to modern day downtown Delray Beach.

The plan strived for a human scale downtown that emphasized walkability, sustainability, quality architecture and design.

The plan called for a “gateway” feature at Atlantic and 95 so that residents and visitors alike would know they were entering a special place. It called for architectural design guidelines and parking codes that encouraged business and preserved valuable land. Other elements included:

  • Downtown housing
  • A “cluster “study to understand the retail/restaurant mix and the downtown’s economic impact
  •  A narrower U.S. 1 to improve safety for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians.
  • The opening of the one-way pairs to two-way traffic to improve traffic flow and take advantage of our valuable grid system.
  •  Beautification of West Atlantic, including plazas and a complete redesign of Northwest/Southwest Fifth Avenue.

Dana, our new planning director, played an instrumental role in the plan’s success.  And make no mistake about it; the plan was successful leading to a significant amount of public and private investment that continues to pay dividends today in both tangible (jobs, tax base) and intangible (quality of life) ways. In fact, last year, we won our own Nolen Award from the Congress for New Urbanism.

In Dana Little, we have a new planning director who can build on the fine work done by our excellent planning staff (past and present), city employees, citizens, past and current commissions, public safety personnel and private business owners.

When FAU did a study of our region’s strengths and weaknesses a few years back, Delray was cited as a jewel of the region because we had a “planning gene.”

With Dana at the helm that legacy of greatness will reach new heights.

Welcome aboard.