The Sky Has Been Falling For 30 Years

Here’s a picture of a buidling you will never see in Delray.

I took a 5-minute stroll through Facebook recently and saw the following written about our town—Delray Beach.

“So glad I moved away.”

“My wife and I live a few minutes from downtown. We wouldn’t be caught dead there.”

“There is no difference between Delray and Fort Lauderdale.”

There was more—a lot more— but that last gem is my favorite; that’s the one trope that jumps off the screen and disturbs every fiber of my being.

I mean have you been to Fort Lauderdale lately?

Have you seen 100 Las Olas? It’s 46 stories and 499 feet tall.

In the last thirty years, the tallest building built in downtown Delray Beach is 6 stories high, and you can’t even build that anymore.

The downtown height limit has been lowered to 54’ from 60 feet and along Atlantic Avenue the height limit is 35’. There’s a big difference between Delray Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

A big difference.

And because of efforts—(mostly forgotten or flat out ignored) to maintain the city’s scale—we will never be Fort Lauderdale.

Let me repeat that, because you are sure to get a blizzard of campaign mail saying otherwise as we enter election season in Delray Beach.

We.

Will.

Never.

Be.

Fort Lauderdale.

We won’t be Boca Raton or Boynton Bach either—both of those cities allow much taller buildings than Delray does.

I apologize if this is personal for me, but I know the people who devoted their careers to creating something pretty special in Delray Beach. So, while people have a right to their opinions, it stings a little when you see criticism that— to put it plainly—is not rooted in facts.

Again, people are entitled to their opinions and if we are wise, we should listen to all views. But at some point, we have put unreasonable fears to bed. We will never be Fort Lauderdale.

Still, truth be told, our downtown, while vibrant, may no longer be everyone’s cup of tea anymore. Personally, I find the crowds to be a little daunting at times, and the feel is less village like and more Bourbon Street these days. Some people like it, some people don’t.

But that’s a different conversation, isn’t it?

That conversation is not about whether a building is one-story or three, it’s about demographics and changes that some may love, and others may loathe.

But the misleading vitriol gets old. And it’s used to scare people and demonize investors. I think that’s wrong. And it needs to be called out.

It also ignores some pertinent facts: Delray Beach is a good place.

And so, I ask, where is the civic pride?

Where is the acknowledgement that in the 1980s, we were blighted, and crime riddled with families looking to flee to other cities because parts of this place were circling the drain?

Yes, we’ve changed. That’s a given. To my mind, change is of a fact of life: death, taxes, and change. You can count on all three.

That said, I think we’ve done well. We’re a busy town. A vibrant place. As Yogi Berra once said: “nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Indeed.

The sky has been falling for 30 years.

As we embark on yet another campaign season in Delray Beach, you will begin to see and hear a steady drumbeat of misinformation. Much of the noise you’ll hear pertains to the villainization of the development community. The group, which by the way happens to include some of our very best citizens, is a reliable punching bag.

As Yogi also said: “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

To be sure, we ought to care about what gets built here and what it looks and feels like. And trust me a whole lot of smart people have spent a lot of time trying to craft codes to ensure that Delray keeps its human scale.

To wit, we have never granted a waiver or a variance for height, and there is currently no mechanism to increase density beyond 30 units to the acre downtown, unless— and only in some districts—you add workforce housing. Workforce housing is a good thing. We need a place for our workforce to live if we hope to be a real community.

Most places on planet earth do not consider 30 units to the acre overly dense (especially for a downtown) and besides it’s the design that matters. I can show you plenty of low-density projects that won’t win any beauty pageants and a few “high” density projects that look sharp.

Instead, we fight over whether a building should be 3 stories or 4, when we really should be focusing on design and whether the architecture enhances or takes away from the streetscape and the pedestrian experience.

Many don’t like multifamily development, but where are essential workers supposed to live? Isn’t that a better discussion to be having? Also, while we are at it, is it possible that a lot of the traffic we bemoan is the workforce having to drive miles and miles to get to their jobs in our eastern communities because of a lack of affordability?

I live across the street from a large apartment complex called Delray Station.

I’m on Lake Ida Road every day during the morning and the evening rush. I have never seen more than three cars coming out of that development at a given time and I’m looking every day. The truth is that people behave differently these days, some work at home, some work a hybrid schedule, some have odd hours and therefore don’t clog our roads during the traditional rush. Of course, these are all theories, but I can honestly say that I don’t even know those apartments are there. It has had no appreciable effect —one way or the other— on Lake Ida Road. Just my opinion….

It’s also my belief that the big bad developers that we all fear are not all that big or bad.

Like any other profession, there are good developers and there are bad ones. We’ve had some good ones—developers who have done solid work and given back, and we’ve had a few who were strip miners looking to take all the gold out of the ground without giving anything back.

All in all, I think the good ones far outweigh the bad ones.

If you look at philanthropy in our town, you will see developers digging deep to support local nonprofits.

You’ll see others giving their time, which is our most valuable resource. They are not volunteering so they can get a variance, they care about this place. Many of them live here. They are not in business to ruin their hometown.

I see these often vilified and lied about people creating jobs, allowing others to open businesses, and providing much needed housing.

We need more housing not less. For teachers, police officers, firefighters, restaurant workers, etc.

In Palm Beach County, 92,000 non-family households make less than $35,000 a year, according to the Florida Housing Innovations Council; 8,800 of those households are in Delray Beach. In fact, 41 percent of non-family households (individuals, roommates) make under $35,000 per year. Delray is the only city in south or central Palm Beach County where non-family households outnumber families and we have a disproportionate need for both affordable housing and what many call the missing middle; housing that isn’t for low-income people but for working families.

Based on fundamental economics—supply and demand—we can never meet this need unless we increase the supply. And yet…we fight endlessly over height and density.

I find this ironic because there as noted before there is no mechanism to increase either regardless of what your told by some politician seeking your vote by making you fearful that one day you will wake up and Delray will look like Fort Lauderdale.

Waivers and variances exist—for things like sight lines and other stuff that you sometimes need to make infill projects work.

But you can’t build taller or denser than the code allows, period, end of story despite the poop that gets shoveled at us (often anonymously) during our exhausting election season.

So, I think we ought to flip the script.

Let’s remain vigilant about development, let’s keep our human scale, let’s put the screws to developers on design and insist on great architecture but let’s call out the NIMBY’s (Not in My Backyard) types too. The peeps who oppose everything regardless of property rights (we do live in America) and regardless of whether the developer follows local land use rules.

Let’s ask them where our teachers, nurses, children, grandchildren, and young families or middle-income retirees should live.

Let’s call out the “I’m in the boat pull up the ladder” charmers who don’t think about working families or those looking to come back after going away to college or the military. Let’s ask them why the people who serve our community shouldn’t be able to live here.

 

Editor’s note:
We mourn the loss of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor who passed last week at the age of 93.

Justice O’Connor came to Delray Beach years ago and I had the distinct pleasure of greeting her when she gave a speech at Old School Square.

She was a kind person and as the first female justice, an historic figure in American history. She gave an amazing speech.

What a life. Her service to our nation will be remembered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waste Deep In the Muck

There are two things you can count on in every local election cycle: personal attacks and complaints about development.

Like clockwork— every January-March—we hear accusations that one or more of the candidates are on “Team Developer”, in the “pocket of developers” and or “on the take.”

Follow the money, we are told.

Delray has been ruined; we are told.

Downtown is so busy nobody goes there anymore (Yogi Berra would love that one).

We hear that candidates are evil, weak, and not who they say they are.

And we wonder why citizens want nothing to do with local politics and why promising leaders treat public service like it’s a manchineel tree—a single bite of its fruit can be fatal and touching the bark, sap, or leaves gives you painful blisters.

“Let’s jump into the polluted pool,” said no one ever.

We can do better, but we don’t.

And the cycle continues.

These days, the attacks aren’t limited to the candidates, they are also leveled at supporters of the candidates as well, local business owners who dare to express an opinion and even their innocent clients who might find themselves in the middle of a blood feud they know nothing about.

That’s a new wrinkle and a bad one.

But trust me, the fear is real.

I went to a “kick-off” party for a commission candidate recently and noticed that when asked to sign in some people refused. They were fearful of being “outed”, worried that they would be punished if they were seen at the “wrong” place with the “wrong” people.

“I have a business,” said one secret supporter to a volunteer. “I just can’t take the risk.”

I don’t know about you, but I think we should aspire to live in a place where we can safely express our opinions without fear of retribution or fear that if we do so, our business or favorite local charity will be targeted by vengeful politicians.

I want to live in a place where if I need an approval for a project or a permit to fix my kitchen, I don’t have to worry about who I was seen dining with at City Oyster or whose sign I have on my lawn.

Here’s a concept we ought to consider: how about we vote on the merits of the project? Let’s leave the personalities out of it.

Yes, I’m aware that we have a lot on our plates these days. We struggle with rising insurance rates, crazy grocery bills, high rents and the usual array of buffoonery coming out of Washington D.C.

It’s easy to see why people tune out local politics.

But local politics are important.

If we elect the wrong people, civic achievements like Old School Square can go away in one night and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Elect the wrong people and suddenly an independent CRA that got things done can be commandeered by politicians late one night (without public notice) and an important economic development tool gets compromised when those politicians promptly make the agency political—imagine that.

If we elect the wrong people the culture at City Hall changes.

What does that mean for you?

Well,  getting a permit for your home improvement project can turn into a game of attrition, a simple public records request may take months to fulfill (if it gets fulfilled at all, I’ve been waiting on one since before Thanksgiving) and you may wake up one day to a giant sucking sound of police officers and firefighters leaving your town for better pastures.

Speaking of fire, how long does it take to replace a fire station?

The one on Linton sits abandoned for years, while firefighter/paramedics work out of a trailer. And while we wait, the cost of capital and construction costs soar.

Hey, it’s only taxpayer money….

So, here’s the big reveal.

Local government matters.

Local leadership counts.

But the political process is ugly and awful at all levels.

It’s going to be hard to drain the swamp that is Washington D.C.

I believe, someday soon, that we will be forced to do so because if you keep smashing against the guardrails someday you break through and you go off the cliff. And then you have to hope you survive the fall.

Pause, breathe… whew… sometimes it feels good to vent.

But let’s bring it back home shall we; to quote “Tip” O’Neill “all politics is local” and while fixing D.C. will take a Herculean effort, we can surely improve our little corner of this country. Yes, we can. And we must.

How?

We can vote. So many of us don’t, but we should.

We can insist on empathy, kindness, and respectful debate.

We can ask candidates to debate their respective visions and discuss what makes them think they can deliver for the people they work for: namely us.

Your background, skill set, education and life experience is fair game and so is your record if you have one. But personal insults, lies and attacks on family–cross a line.  And once that line is crossed it’s hard to go back. And hard to move forward as a community.

As for development can we raise the bar on the discourse please?

This is so tiring, cycle after cycle of misinformation and scare tactics.

Good grief.

So here goes…

Not all development is bad.

Not all development is good either.

But eliminating development is an impossibility. We live in a land where owners of real estate have property rights. If we ignore or trample those rights, we will be sued and we the taxpayer will pay the bill.

So, the job of an elected official is to vote against bad projects and vote for good projects and to take those good projects and make them better.

Delray Beach has restrictive land development regulations. We don’t allow 10 or 12 story buildings like our neighbors in Boca and Boynton do. That’s a good thing. I don’t know of any candidate who wants that to change.

There has never been a project that has been granted a waiver or a variance for height. Not one. The big buildings you see in east Delray were built in the 70s, before lower height restrictions were adopted.

Our scale makes Delray Beach special. There is no appetite to raise the height limit and no mechanism to do so.

As for density, well…that’s a complicated subject for another day, but let’s just say that in Delray our density is capped depending on the zoning district and there is no mechanism to raise it, so a developer can’t even ask for an exception.

Which begs the question, what are we arguing about?

We should be talking about uses: what do we want to see in Delray?

We should be talking about design: do projects fit into the local fabric? Are neighborhoods losing their charm because new home designs are incompatible with our village by the sea ideal.

We should be talking about traffic, which I would contend —and many urban planners would agree— is at least in part created by people driving to work because they don’t live here, because they can’t live here.

Like most cities in America, we need housing—attainable housing for our workforce, teachers, police, restaurant workers, firefighters, nurses etc.

Now attainable or affordable housing is a difficult subject, because in a city where land can fetch millions of dollars per acre, it is hard for projects to pencil out for a developer who typically needs financing to put a stake in the ground. For many workers, the cost of a single family home in Delray Beach is way beyond what they can afford. Their opportunity to live and work here may be limited–for now anyway and maybe forever–to living in a townhome, apartment or multifamily condo.

I have to go all the way back to my high school economics class, but when supply of something is limited, prices go up. As a result, in order to achieve some affordability, we are going to have to discuss adding more product (i.e. density) —-where it makes sense. Let me repeat, where it makes sense.

These are good conversations to have, but we aren’t having them as a community or as an electorate.
Instead, we are bombarded with endless attacks on whose taking money from development interests.

Well, here’s the answer: everyone running for office.

Everyone on the ballot in March is cashing checks from people who have real estate interests.

But here’s the difference, some candidates are open about it and others are cashing checks and then whacking their opponents for doing the same.

In the interests of full disclosure, I work for a company that invests in real estate. We’re not developers, but sometimes we joint venture with a developer. As a result of my experience in this community, I have gotten to know many developers.

Some are good.

Some are not so good.

But good developers don’t mind if you have high standards. They are OK if your rules are tough. What they want most is a fair process that doesn’t take forever. They want a system that judges projects on whether they meet the city’s rules and not on whether they supported a particular candidate or were seen at the wrong kickoff party.

We need to raise the level of debate. All of us. Every side.

Currently, we aren’t hearing a debate about our community’s future.

We have water issues to discuss, we have economic development opportunities (if we choose to care about jobs and our tax base) and we have cultural issues at City Hall which have led to a revolving door of talent coming and going (and often suing when they leave).

We have to figure out Old School Square (and how to pay for it, now that the non-profit that created the place was kicked to the curb in the middle of renovations) and most of all, we have to figure out how to get along with each other. We can start by not electing people who divide us.

Indeed, there are issues galore to discuss and think about.

We need candidates willing to tackle what we used to call “The Big Rocks.”
I got an email last week from a young man that I mentored when he was in high school and college. He asked me what I looked for in a mayor or a commission candidate.

My answer: leaders who aren’t afraid to wrestle with the toughest challenges there are.

What I dislike most?

So-called leaders who ignore those challenges and worst of all create problems and divisions.

Vote accordingly.

 

Bricks & Mortar

Bricks and mortar is changing retail , but retail is not dying.

We’ve seen the headlines.

Macy’s closing stores.

Bed, Bath and Beyond closing stores.

Forever 21 going bankrupt (but being revamped).

It’s a “retail apocalypse” screams the headlines caused by Amazon and the big bad world of e-commerce.

Yes, the numbers look tough for brick and mortar retailers. More than 9,000 stores closed in 2019 which was more than 2018 and more than 2017—all record years.

Ugh…

But there’s a deeper story here.

My eyes were opened recently after reading a report by University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee. And as we plan our local cities and lament the lack of retail in places such as downtown Delray and Boca Raton we need to pay attention to societal trends and adjust our expectations and maybe our codes accordingly.

First, there is no doubt that e-commerce is growing by leaps and bounds. Twenty years ago, about $5 billion worth of goods were purchased each quarter online. Today, that number is about $155 billion per quarter.

But while that’s an impressive number it still represents only 11 percent of the entire retail sales total.

So almost 90 percent of goods are still purchased in a brick and mortar store and of that percentage, more than 70 percent of retail spending in America is in categories that are fairly well insulated from the internet due to the nature of the product or because of laws governing distribution.

These categories include cars, gas, food, beverage, drugs, home improvement and garden supplies.

So what’s going on out there?
Why is it so difficult for physical retailers to make it in the 2020s?

Goolsbee puts forth three societal trends as causes.

The rise of Big Box Stores—super centers and warehouse stores such as Costco actually ring up more sales than Amazon.

Income Inequality—as the middle class has been hollowed out, stores that cater to them have suffered or died. Retailers aiming at the high and low end of the income scale have found some success. So “dollar” stores have grown along with some high end designer retailers while retailers serving the once vast middle class— J.C. Penney and Sears have suffered.

Services Have Grown, Things Have Not—According to Goolsbee, with every passing decade Americans have spent less of their income on things and more on services and experiences. We are spending more on our health, more on restaurants, education, entertainment and business services than we used to and less on products sold in stores.

Here’s a cool stat: In 1920, Americans spent 38 percent of their income on food and 17 percent on clothing—almost all through traditional stores. Today, 10 percent of our income is spent on food and clothing eats up just 2.4 percent of our incomes.

So how does this affect our local communities?

Well, it might explain why Atlantic Avenue has become more of a food and entertainment destination than a traditional downtown where people go to shop for things like clothing and decorations.

The issue becomes more acute when property values sky rocket alongside rents. It’s hard for traditional retailers to pay high rents per square foot, especially since we still have a seasonal economy.

While we all (well some of us) love mixed-use development, it’s challenging to make retail work due to economic and societal trends. Of course, mixed-used does not have to be exclusively housing and retail, it can also include food and beverage, co-working, an educational use or something in the health or fitness space.

I have some very smart friends who have succeeded in real estate and they are having a hard time imagining what will happen to all the retail space we have built in Boca, Delray and Boynton Beach.

We definitely have a need for more housing, especially attainable housing and some of the overbuilt retail space can surely be used to add to our stock.

But that’s going to require some deft planning and a whole lot of political courage/hard work to convince residents who already live here why we need to make room for more people. P.S. if we do want our existing mom and pop retailers and family owned eateries to survive, density cannot be a dirty word. Let’s repeat: density done right is not a dirty word.

There was a time in Delray when density was encouraged in our codes and plans . And guess what?

It brought the town back to life.

Al Gore would call that an inconvenient truth, candidates running for local office would sooner break out in hives than embrace the concept but density designed properly and used strategically can do much to support the mom and pops and independent merchants we say we cherish. It’s also better for the environment than traffic-inducing sprawl like development.

Events too play a role too, by bringing people to town where they might stop and shop or come back to check out stores they might see while attending an arts show or festival.

As the son of an independent pharmacist, I have a deep appreciation for how hard it is to make it in retail and how important good retail is to a vibrant and vital central business district.

As we sift through the barrage of campaign attack ads already hitting our mailboxes and inboxes, it would be useful to see if any candidate offers ideas on how to grow the local economy in a high rent, seasonal environment with tons of competition from nearby cities, without an Office of Economic Development (the two member team resigned and have not been replaced) in a changing world being disrupted by technology and things we can never anticipate such as coronavirus.

It’s not an easy challenge, but real leaders…effective leaders…. ask the questions that matter and focus their communities on issues of substance. Or we can continue to accept vapid statements saying we are against crime, for good schools and against development.

Give me substance over tired canards.

It’s time.

We live in changing and complicated times. We need ideas and leadership.

Taking A Stroll

Last week, the Florida chapter of the American Planning Association was in West Palm Beach for their annual conference.
Hundreds of urban planners from throughout the state were in attendance to learn from each other and to pick up new ideas that can be tried back home.
West Palm Planner Ana Maria Aponte, a Delray resident, was in charge of hosting a mobile tour of local downtowns and Delray was chosen along with West Palm and Lake Worth.
I was honored and happy to take a bus load of planners on a walking tour.
Below are the notes I made of the points I wanted to make as we walked Atlantic Avenue, Pineapple Grove and the Old School Square Historic Arts District.

1. Public investment first. (In Delray’s case, the public made the initial investments in streetscapes, paver bricks, lighting, culture etc. and the private sector followed with colossal investment.)

2. Flexible zoning. Lenient parking regulations, densities. TCEA. First in state. Facade grants Cra. Rental assistance. (Flexible zoning is important where you are dealing with infill development. A reasonable parking code allowed for restaurants and an exemption from traffic concurrency rules allowed downtown to take shape. Without that “TCEA” there would have been no downtown. Density done right makes it possible for vibrancy to occur, for businesses to survive and makes our streets safer. It’s about design not density.
3. Built around culture, events. Tennis, festivals, Old School Square . (This stuff put us on the map and kept us there. Period. It created value, quality of life and wealth.)
4. We led with food and beverage. (But that was never the end game. Employment was always on the radar.)
5. Emphasis on downtown housing. (So important to support local businesses).
6. Open space preserved.
Citizens created OSS Park. City preserved Vets Park. Worthing Park etc.
7. Expand boundaries of downtown from I-95 to the ocean and two blocks north and south of avenue. We have good bones; a grid system.
U.S. 1 narrowed.  To stop speeding cars from flying past the downtown. So US 1 became a neighborhood instead of a highway.
8. Structured parking added. Land acquisition via Cra.
9. Future challenges.
Affordability: both commercial and residential.
Competition from other cities.
Managing nightlife.
Staying fresh.
Complacency  at the first signs of success when there is so much left to do.
I’m not sure I hit all of the points. We were walking fast, had limited time and I wanted to show them the Arts Garage where Marjorie Waldo graciously interrupted a staff meeting and a birthday party to give us an overview of her amazing facility.
We never did get to Old School Square where I wanted the group to meet Marusca Gatto who has done such a great job with the Cornell Museum.
Next time, for sure.
I like talking and writing about Delray Beach. I like sharing what we’ve learned with others trying to build their cities. I take great pride in the work that so many amazing people did over so many years. And I enjoy discussions of current and future challenges.
Cities are fascinating places. Ever changing. Always evolving. Always providing challenges and opportunities and so full of rich stories.
We are taking a few days off to explore some other cities. The blog will be back in a week or so.
Thanks for reading. Your attention is greatly appreciated.

Housing For Young People Needed

Delray’s Community Land Trust is an innovative organization supported by the Delray CRA and others.

The headline was a grabber: Are You a Millennial Looking to Buy a Home? It Could Take Up to 32 Years.

Only 32% of the country’s largest generation (which consists of 75 million Americans) own homes. Those that do are flocking to interior markets, which tend to be cheaper and more cost-effective than most coastal markets. In our neck of the woods, that might mean the western fringes which creates sprawl and traffic as workers head east for jobs. But even out west, higher end homes seem to be the order of the day and many of the communities cater to the 55 and over crowd. Redfin recently reported that the 33446 area code (west of Delray)  is pacing the nation in price appreciation.

 

As the front line of millennials enter their mid-30s, financial security is not guaranteed. Instead, the generation is beleaguered with student loan debt (which exceeds car and credit card debt) and salaries that are 20% lower than what their baby boomer parents earned at the same age, according to a report by real estate research site Abodo.

 

The average net worth of a millennial is $10,090, or 56% less than what it was for baby boomers at the same point in life, according to Federal Reserve data.

 

Coupled with rising home prices, it could take decades for a millennial to be able to afford a down payment on a house in places like San Diego or San Francisco. This may be why more millennials live with their parents than any other generation in the last 130 years, according to Bisnow Media.

Millennials living in the country’s biggest cities, including New York City, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles are especially challenged.

 

The average millennial makes $40,500 per year. Using that average, were one to save 15% of her income each year, it would take just over 18 years to save enough for a 20% down payment on a home in Boston. It would take 32 years for a millennial to afford the average $112,000 down payment for a home in Los Angeles. And as the father of a few millennials who are gainfully employed (thank goodness) I have a hard time believing that even the most frugal and disciplined young person can save 15% of their income.

The picture in South Florida is not much different than some of the aforementioned hyper expensive markets.

I remember moving here when I was 22 and thinking that relative to New York and the Northeast, Florida was very affordable. My car insurance was lower, home prices were reasonable, there was no income tax and property taxes were much lower than my native Long Island. Even homeowners insurance was nominal at first—before changing after Hurricane Andrew.

Still, according to researchers at Abodo, Florida as a state remains much more affordable than other parts of the United States. It would take 5-10 years for millennials to save up.

Hence, the desire for developers to build apartments and the willingness of underwriters to finance deals. However, finding sites in built-out and expensive Boca and Delray is challenging. With land prices soaring, rental rents are also rising and the uncertain regulatory environment (costly, lengthy and torturous entitlement processes, toxic politics, NIMBYism and an aversion to density) make it even harder for millennials to strike out on their own.

Another headline in USA Today recently also grabbed me: Where Did All The Starter Homes Go?

The article cited a byzantine maze of zoning, environmental, safety and other requirements that has led to a 35% decrease in housing construction across the country from previous levels. According to economists cited by USA Today, the lack of supply has driven up home prices by 40% over the past five years.

Single family home construction suffers from a lack of available land and a lack of skilled construction workers, according to the National Association of Realtors. Banks are also tougher on borrowers as a result of the housing crash in 2008.

The perfect storm has led the National Association of Home Builders to sound the alarm. The NAHB says that from 2011 to 2016, regulatory costs to build the average house has increased from about $65,000 to $85,000 and now represent 25% of the cost of a home.

Of course, we need regulations as long as they are necessary, fairly priced and serve a public purpose.

Still, the inability of millennials to gain a foothold in our community should be pressing concern for public and private sector leaders.

It’s important for companies to be able to recruit workers in order for the economy to grow. Workers, young families, entrepreneurs and established companies look at housing prices, quality of life, quality of schools and cultural amenities before making a decision on where to put down roots.

Unfortunately, the word density has taken on a bad meaning. But, truth be told, density done well (i.e. properly designed for great buildings and public spaces) is essential for cities such as Boca Raton and Delray Beach. Compact and walkable development is better for the environment than traffic producing sprawl which serves the needs of cars over people. It also allows for young people to form households and become part of the community injecting needed ideas, life, energy, monies and volunteer hours which make cities work.

The recent changes to Delray’s land development regulations for the downtown core which capped density at 30 units to the acre, was a big mistake. It virtually guarantees that millennials—who seek walkable environments and don’t want to be car dependent—can’t live downtown. By limiting the supply, you jack up prices and we end up with an eastern core that’s shut off to all but the very wealthy.

The 2001 Downtown Master Plan, which did much to build on the 1990s Decade of Excellence, was a community wide education effort that encouraged well-designed projects versus a fixation on density numbers. We saw visual examples of ugly low density housing and also saw attractive higher density projects which have the added benefit of increasing your tax base while also adding residents who can support local businesses. That was the guiding rationale behind the push to add downtown housing. We wanted a sustainable, year-round downtown.

The other areas that make sense to add attainable housing for millennials and others is North and South Federal Highway, Congress Avenue and the “four corners” of Atlantic and Military, which has zoning allowing for a mix of uses. The four corners zoning—done over a decade ago—will become increasingly important as we see pressure on the retail landscape increase with big box chain stores being driven out of business by ecommerce.

Delray is ready to offer shopping center developers more options for their properties should they decide to invest and change course.

The best incentives are not monetary—which almost always leads to an arms race you can’t win with companies taking the money until a better offer comes along. Rather, the best incentives are zoning, a tough but fair and timely approval process that emphasizes design and good uses and enough density to give the next generation a chance to access your city.

We were always ahead of the curve—which is why Delray succeeded. It’s important we stay there or we will be left behind. Right now, we’re losing ground.

Prepping For the Barrage

Promises, Promises.

Its election season in Delray Beach and the knives are out.

Sigh.

Over the next several weeks you will hear the following tired old phrases. So if your new to this or just plain curious, we thought it might be helpful to provide a glossary of terms.

“Special interests.” -anyone with a profit motive or an opinion contrary to those who really know best.

“Developers”–usually described as greedy, corrupting and insensitive to neighbors. You know, bad hombres.

Dark Money”-money given to PACs usually by greedy self -interests.  Of course, it’s OK for the “pure” candidates to hide the sources of their cash.

“Puppets”–corruptible elected officials who are typically weak and told how to vote.

“Puppeteers”–those who direct the puppets.

 “Overdevelopment”–most anything proposed in the central business district even if it meets the city’s rules, fits into citizen adopted plans and replaces blight or functionally obsolete buildings.

 “Recovery”–refers to the recovery industry includes sober homes.

“Lobbyists”–those who register to advocate for a particular good, service or project.

“Chamber types”-mostly small business people who care about the city. Some live and work here. Some just work here–that’s often not good enough for some despite the fact that some of Delray’s most valuable contributors have actually lived outside city limits. Also referred to as “good old boys.” Reality: step into the Chamber and you’ll see a lot of new faces, (and some older ones) and a whole bunch of smart women running and growing businesses.

“Slick consultants” – usually referring to the political type. If you use them you are not to be trusted. But frankly, trust has nothing to do with consultants. If you can be trusted you can be trusted. If you can’t, it’s usually not because you engaged someone to help you run a campaign.

 “For profit event producers”-those who stage events to make oodles of cash. PS. They typically don’t.

 “Resident taxpayers”—As Tarzan might say: renters no good. It also sometimes implies that business owners who live elsewhere are not qualified to volunteer for City boards even if they care, pay tons of taxes, donate handsomely to local nonprofits and want to serve and have the chops to do so. And sometimes it refers to people who live here and pay taxes.

“Out of control” –usually refers to events, development, spending etc.

You’ll soon be barraged by mail, robocalls and social media messages that will paint a dark picture outlining threats to the Village by the Sea by dark, greedy forces who ignore the people unless of course you vote for the protectors who will magically lower taxes, fight crime, stop overdevelopment, fight special interests and shut down sober homes.

You’ll also hear that while they care and have pure motives their opponents…oh their opponents…well they are just plain evil. Bought and paid for by dark money forces aiming to destroy our way of life.

What you are unlikely to hear is reality or any ideas. Oh they’ll say they have plans but you’ll never see details.

If I sound cynical maybe it’s because I am. Can you be a cynical optimist? I don’t know, but I do see bright skies ahead once the dust settles anyway that’s another blog.

But I would love to be wrong.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if candidates would just level with the voters?

What would that look like?

Well it might include the following:

We have a pretty terrific small city.

Lots of things have gone right.

Lots of value has been created out of a town that could have easily gone the other way.

Like so many other cities have.

But this town had guts. This town had vision. This town had leadership. And a great deal of unity too.

Great things were achieved. But more needs to be done. Too many people and neighborhoods have been left behind. And there are challenges and opportunities galore.

Schools that need attention—and yes the city has a role and there are ways to make a difference.

Too much property crime—if you don’t feel safe in your home and neighborhood nothing else much matters.

Opioids and terrible sober home operators who are exploiting people pose grave problems—but the issue is full of layers and complexities that don’t lend themselves to sound bites. A little empathy for people doing wonderful work in this field would go a long way.

Kids are dying. On our streets. Needles are everywhere. It’s taking a toll on our police officers and firefighter/paramedics. Our city needs great officers and firefighter/paramedics and they need to be supported not just with words (which are important) but with policies that ensure we are competitive and can attract and retain the best talent around.

Rising property values have made commercial rents skyrocket and many treasured mom and pop businesses are threatened as a result. This is a blend of “irrational exuberance” (and 1031 money sloshing around) and market acknowledgement that investors see great value in Delray Beach. But if we think the downtown is bullet proof, guess again. In order to remain sustainable, we need a mix of uses and more good jobs to complement a food and beverage based economy. Tourism is critical, but so is finding space for businesses, young entrepreneurs, family entertainment etc. We have to be concerned about demographics and keep our central business district attractive to people of all ages.

We lack middle class housing and need a passionate commitment to attract millennials  and jobs that will bring back our children after college. I’m seeing talented young people bypass coming here because they can’t get traction in our market. And yet we capped density where young professionals might want to live limiting supply and driving up already high prices. It’s about design folks—not some artificial number. We learned that lesson in the early 2000s, we need to learn it again.

Our community is divided–by personalities, history, perceptions, rumors, innuendo, social media, armchair critics, racial lines and even whether we like festivals or not.

You get the picture.

There are answers to all of those challenges or at least ways to make things better.

But an honest candidate would tell you that it’s hard to impact anything if your divided, focused on the wrong things and too busy labeling others to enjoy the good things in our community while working together on alleviating the bad and uniting against the ugly.

This March please vote. But kindly insist on honesty and experience in the candidates you ultimately choose to support. Seek candidates who have rolled up their sleeves and done something FOR this community.

It’s easy to discern those who are genuine and real from posers who divide and label in order to amass power.

Ask them what they will do with the power if they get it. Ask them how they plan to solve problems and seize opportunities if they divide, judge and label.

The truth is they can’t.

Because it really does take a village.

 

 

 

The Past Can Inform Our Future If…

 

Park Avenue in Winter Park.

Park Avenue in Winter Park.

In October 2014 I had the privilege of participating in a Urban Land Institute panel focusing on Winter Park.
ULI’s TAP program (Technical Assistance Program) brings outside help to communities seeking advice on how to seize an opportunity or address a vexing issue in their city.
It was a great honor to be chosen to participate, because I have long admired Winter Park and I’m a big fan of Bob Rhodes, who is a legend in Florida.

Bob was Chair for the Winter Park TAP and shortly after the exercise he was honored with a much deserved lifetime achievement award from Leadership Florida.

Led by Bob, the panel produced a document aimed at framing some issues that Winter Park was facing relating to downtown development and offering them some solutions to consider.
So it was interesting for me to return to the city two years later to see what was happening downtown.
We spent a day strolling, dining and shopping on Park Avenue over the holiday break.
It was a beautiful day and the street was bustling.
Park Avenue has a similar scale to Atlantic Avenue, mostly two and three story buildings. Winter Park has some distinct architecture and it’s streetscape is immaculate.
Gorgeous planters, attractive signage, cool little side streets and a lineal park that runs alongside Park Ave gives the city remarkable charm.
While Atlantic Avenue is restaurant heavy, Park Avenue is dominated by retail.
There are a fair amount of chain stores and franchises ranging from Gap for Kids and Restoration Hardware to Starbucks and Burger Fi.
But there’s also a decent number of independents—the feel is decidedly upscale but not pretentious.
It’s a vibrant street and just feels good.
What makes Winter Park interesting is it’s able to succeed as a counter to much larger Orlando which sits (looms) next door.
Orlando’s downtown has come a long way in recent years under the leadership of Mayor Buddy Dyer.

As a result, Orlando is now much more than just theme parks and vacation villas.
Still, Winter Park still feels like an oasis in Central Florida.

The city wants to keep that charm and I think it will. ULI was brought to the city as a result of a strong desire for Winter Park to remain special in a sea of sameness, sprawl and traffic.

We also visited Celebration which is known for its new urban layout and variety of architectural elevations.
Now 20 years old, Celebration looks better with a little age on it. A former Leadership Florida classmate was one of the developers of the landmark project–which has received a huge amount of press over the years– so I had some insight into the thinking that Disney was trying to achieve in Celebration. The goal was to replicate some of the best features of American town planning before cookie cutter design began to proliferate. Critics called it a “Stepford” community, almost too perfect to feel warm and authentic.
I remember visiting some years ago and it felt much more faux than it does today. It has aged well and even my kids–not usually attuned to such things–noticed how different the neighborhoods were in terms of design.
Celebration and Winter Park stick out in a region that is suffering from an acute case of sprawl with all of its attendant illnesses including choking traffic and soulless sameness.
I wish there were more places like Winter Park and our own Delray Beach.
I sense that there’s a large market of people who want a walkable lifestyle, distinct architecture, interesting shopping choices and good local restaurants. Throw in attractive open spaces and large doses of culture and educational opportunities and you have a recipe for enduring success. You also have a recipe for high housing costs, which price many people who would enjoy and contribute to these places out of the market. One answer is density–done well of course–which adds supply and is also better for the environment. But the “D” word is often a third rail in local politics and public officials unwilling to do the hard work of engaging the community in an education effort often abandon the types of development patterns that people long for and create value well beyond a bottom line.
Will cities like Winter Park and Delray change?
No doubt.
But as long as they keep their “bones” and scale intact they will continue to succeed.
We just need more communities to follow their lead. And more public officials willing to push for quality of design rather than simply judging projects based on numbers.

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.

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.

#Motivation Monday: Quotes That Make You Think

couragtolead

At YourDelrayBoca.com, we love quotes. Here’s a few we hope you’ll enjoy with some limited commentary.

“People make cities, and it is to them, not buildings that we must fit our plans.” – Jane Jacobs

“Growth is inevitable and desirable, but destruction of community character is not. The question is not whether your part of the world is going to change. The question is how.” – Edward T. McMahon, the ULI Fellow not the Prize Patrol guy.

“I have affection for a great city. I feel safe in the neighborhood of man, and enjoy the sweet security of the streets.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who would have embraced community policing.

“What is the city but the people? “- William Shakespeare

“He who tells the truth must have one foot in the stirrup.” – Old Armenian proverb

“A leader is someone who cares enough to tell the people not merely what they want to hear, but what they need to know.”  – Reubin Askew. We met Gov. Askew once, he was so very impressive.

“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” – Yogi Berra not, we repeat not, referring to Atlantic Avenue.

“How is a village a village? By including young & old, white & black, rich & poor, churches & shops.” – Anonymous.

“How many of you here think housing should be more affordable? (almost all hands rise) OK, now how many of those own your own home?’ (most of the same hands stay up) OK. How many of you want the value of your own home to go down? (lots of blank looks, and hands creeping down) You see the problem?” – Anonymous

“NIMBY reactionaries don’t stop change in the long run. They simply help to insure that it happens in the worst possible way.” – David Brain. Note his last name.

“The second shortest code in the world: Diverse, walkable and compact.”—Peter Calthorpe

“Anyplace worth its salt has a ‘parking problem’- James Castle. You’d rather have one, than not.

“Increasingly, we live in a world where cities compete for people, and businesses follow. This trend has largely been ignored by many cities, which are still focused on business climate and tax incentives. But I think the big question businesses will ask in the years to come is going to be ‘Can I hire talented people in this city?’ Cities need to be able to answer ‘yes’ to succeed.” -Carol Coletta. Carol worked on the Delray Cultural Plan. She’s amazing.

“Parking is a narcotic and ought to be a controlled substance. It is addictive, and one can never have enough.” –Victor Dover. Mr. Dover is a fan of Delray Beach. We are a fan of his work.

“The problem with planning is that it has been overtaken by mathematical models… traffic, density, impact assessment, public costs etc. discarding common sense and empirical observation.”—Andres Duany.

“I’ve always described Density in terms of dollars: The more you have of it, the more you can buy with it — referring to amenities, of course (cultural, entertainment, dining, etc.). When I get asked what’s the single most important thing that can be added to a city to help revitalize it (they are always waiting for the latest retail or entertainment thing…), I always say housing. “  Seth Harry.

“If buildings are beautiful, higher density compounds that beauty. Conversely, if buildings are ugly, then higher density compounds that ugliness.” – Vince Graham

“What kills a city are people who want only low taxes, only want a good deal and only want cities to be about . . . pipes, pavement and policing. “ Glenn Murray. It’s all about design, not numbers.

“You can measure the health of a city by the vitality and energy of its streets and public spaces.” – Holly Whyte.

“The opposite to bad development is good development, not no development.” – Padriac  Steinschneider.

“If you are an elected official lacking in courage and leadership, and you face even a peep of opposition to a project, fall back on perfectionism to find a flaws so that you can shoot down the project. Perfectionism leads to paralysis.” Dom Nozzi. It also leads to disinvestment, a bad reputation, loss of jobs and lawsuits.