You Get More With Sugar…

The Delray Community Land Trust celebrating 10 years of excellence is a joint effort with the city and the CRA.

The Delray Community Land Trust celebrating 10 years of excellence is a joint effort with the city and the CRA.

Imagine someone walking up to you on the street and smacking you over the head with a baseball bat.
Imagine that the person who hits you over the head is someone you know, have worked with and trusted.
In your mind, you’ve done right by that person.

Performed well in the past, felt you were still doing well and looked forward to more success in the future.
You’d probably be shocked and a trifle upset wouldn’t you? Sure, nobody is perfect, but a public beat down?

Well that’s what happened to the Delray Beach CRA last week when they went before for the city commission and received some “tough love”.
Tough love. That’s a heckuva phrase.
Usually it’s reserved for wayward children who are on the wrong track. You do something dramatic, maybe even shocking, to get their attention so they can button up and fly right.
But typically you don’t spank partners when they are kicking butt.
The Delray CRA kicks butt.
Take a look around Delray Beach. Take an inventory of what you like about this place.
Delray Center for the Arts, the library, Spady Museum, The Green Market.

Do you like the look and feel of Atlantic Avenue? How about Northwest/Southwest Fifth Avenue? Do you like Atlantic Grove? Or do you miss the drive through liquor store?

The list goes on and on and on.

But it’s not just the big important projects that make our CRA special. It’s the small but equally important stuff: the charming Community Land Trust houses, affordable projects like Carolyn Holder Court and a nearby senior housing project,  facade grants, business assistance grants and the Eagle Nest program which has helped scores of kids discover a career path in construction. I know many of those kids, we are sending a few to college via Dare 2 Be Great and they have told us what that program has meant to their lives and their neighborhoods.

For 30 years, the CRA has been a valued partner, a policy innovator and a proven implementer. Their work has impacted the entire city not just their district.

The agency built Delray, along with residents, city staff and other agencies.
They deserve applause not a whack upside the head.
Tone matters in politics.
If you want to build a strong and caring community you have to be cognizant of words, tone, context. Think it’s sappy, guess again, it’s essential.
Elected officials need to wield both carrots and sticks. But the good ones know when to use them.
It’s important that leaders possess an ability to show respect and gratitude. They go hand in hand.
If you start a conversation with “thank you for all you do now let’s do even better” most people are all ears: eager to change and embrace new ways.
But if you if ignore someone’s worth and kick them in the teeth, the reaction is not enthusiasm, its deflation.
This issue is close to me. And admittedly I am biased. My wife ran the agency for 13 years. I know most of the agency’s staff. They are dedicated, hard working, honest, smart and incredibly effective public servants.

They are good. Very good. But they are not perfect. Neither is the City Commission or any group or agency for that matter. But the CRA should be a source of city pride; the agency deserves respect. They have done and are doing great things and they can be even better. They have also helped the city with expenses, including police and engineering services, money for the tennis tournament and for key non-profits like the library and the Delray Center for the Arts. They can be effective with less money and that’s the conversation that needs to take place.

But there seems to be a true disagreement over the agencies mission, spending and priorities. That deserves discussion and debate, not from dueling daises, but in conversation between the two agencies as Commissioner Katz wisely suggested.
Sometimes we act as if the money spent by the agency is lost. It’s not. It’s invested here not in some foreign country. And if you can’t see the return on that investment I can’t help you.
Wiping out this agency, taking it over and or beating it into submission would be folly. A mistake that won’t be forgotten and one that will have implications far beyond the terms of the current commission.

The direction given the CRA was to prioritize spending west of Swinton. Hmmmm… that’s been the priority of the CRA for at least the past 15 years. During that time, more than $45 million has been invested in our neediest neighborhoods, neighborhoods that the city neglected for generations. From housing and sidewalks, to water pressure upgrades and paving streets the CRA has used money generated by the success of the eastern portion of the district to improve the west. These improvements were done in partnership with residents and were based on citizen driven plans. And it’s first now beginning to yield results, with projects like the Fairfield Inn and the coming soon Equity mixed use development.

The neighbors called the promise to invest in the west “the covenant”. The covenant called for patience, but the promise was the monies generated in the east would help improve the west. Now that doesn’t mean that every dollar goes west. You still have to take care of infrastructure in the east and projects such as Delray Center for the Arts which by the way is for everyone to enjoy. I’m sorry that Artist’s Alley is in jeopardy because a private investor bought the warehouses, but I wonder if we’d be talking about art in the Grove if not for CRA investments in the Art Warehouse and Arts Garage. U.S. 1 is about to blossom because of CRA implementation of our master plan.

Now we’re told that the plan is old and things have changed. Yes they have. But concepts like  walkability, sustainability, a need for independent retail, mixed use development, culture, mobility and affordability are still viable, desirable and needed. We are told that downtown is done. Nope. Sorry, it’s never done. That was a  lesson learned many years ago that’s been forgotten, at least by some.

We are told to move everything to Congress Avenue and we are hard at work on a solid plan to do so. But none of it works, if we  neglect the heart. City building is not a zero sum game.

You can pay attention to the east and the west and you should.
I’m a fan of city government– especially of this city’s government– despite its flaws. There are a ton of very good people who work at City Hall.
But to think they can do what the best CRA in the state has been doing exceedingly well for 30 years is just plain wrong.
A city needs a CRA and a CRA needs a city. You work together. Like you have for 30 years, a time frame that built a great city.
And if you think politicians should sit as the CRA good luck with that one. Instead of having volunteers with specific skill sets concentrating on redevelopment you’ll get people worried about “optics” (man, I abhor that word) and their next election.
Don’t fix what isn’t broken. Make it better.
And fix your own house first.
Unsolicited advice I know. But hey it’s my blog.
The CRA should be a source of civic pride not derision.
I heard so many falsehoods uttered last week that I lost count.
It seems that there’s a concerted effort to deny this city’s success and civic achievements. I heard the word disconnect used countless times; yep there’s a disconnect alright.
You can’t “fix” or improve by tearing things down. This city has come a long way and we love it. Lots of people have benefitted, all five commissioners included. Work with your partners.
That’s how Delray was built.


Yes to iPic

Not a multiplex.

Not a multiplex.

By now, if you’re paying attention you’ve been inundated with information pro and con about the iPic theater project seeking to come to Delray Beach.

We’ve heard the benefits:

–A corporate headquarters coming to town

–400 plus jobs

–Much needed downtown office space

–Family entertainment downtown

–Summer time commerce

We’ve heard the negatives too:


–Alley issues




Let me state right up front, that I support the iPic. Why?

Because for 30 years we have envisioned getting beyond food and beverage.

The Downtown Master Plan’s philosophical foundation was to give us a strategy to create a sustainable downtown.

That meant having density and like a sound investment strategy, a diversified portfolio: housing, arts, restaurants, retail and office uses.

We need people living downtown in order to support mom and pop merchants and you need people on the streets to create vibrancy and a safe environment. We learned that design was more important than density and that we needed to get away from numbers and concentrate on scale and creating a human feel downtown.

We led with food, beverage, culture and festivals because that was a strategy to breathe life into a town that desperately needed it.

We followed with downtown housing, which is also an essential element to a sustainable downtown. We invested in our parks and created new open space…including a central park where a parking lot once existed near Old School Square, we also opened a teen center and a skateboard park and invested in new parks like Catherine Strong and old parks too.

But the missing piece remains employment.

And we seem to be chasing it away.

Don’t tell me we’re not.

We are.

And no you can’t put everything on Congress Avenue. People want to work downtown. We should be happy that they want to.

I don’t have any special insight into tonight’s vote, but I think the tone of the debate has not been our finest moment. I have seen a lot of misinformation about this project. We are not positioning ourselves as a city that wants to create jobs in our central business district. And that hurts us more than any one project.

Our approach to growth and development in Delray Beach leaves a lot to be desired.

Every election cycle we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars bashing developers and hinting at corruption. Folks, it ain’t that black and white.

There are good developers and crappy ones. Just like any other profession.

So regardless of where you stand on the development spectrum, I think it’s safe to say that there is only one way to stop it; become a city that nobody wants to invest in.

So assuming that’s off the table, we need to take a more pro-active and intelligent approach.

My idea is simple: create a design studio staffed by architects and urbanists (yes urbanists because we are a downtown, not a suburb) who can vet projects before they are submitted and put through the meat grinder that has become the Delray “process”.

This is precisely what architect Andres Duany proposed when he gave his town hall lecture. Talk to developers early in the process so that they can make adjustments and understand local sensitivities and sensibilities.

Smart developers will adjust their plans, because smart developers want to build, not get put through an expensive and uncertain process. This kind of “process” is also exhausting for the public.

But a mindset change is also in order. Let’s go back to current example of iPIC.

When it comes to infill development there are always problems to solve, things to worry about and designs to be improved. That’s why we have a planning department. And engineers. Oh and city commissioners too.

But instead of trying to solve the issues, we seem to be debating the very use, need, process and rationale for this project. Everything it seems, but trying to make it work.

Should it be a park? Was there a scrivener’s error on some legal document?

Hello, how about rolling up your sleeves and making it work or at least try?

These are jobs we are talking about; that’s precious in this economy and worth fighting for.

The goal of returning the old library site to the tax rolls has been a work in progress since 2001. 14 years… that’s how long it has taken to move the library, move the chamber, clear title via referendum on parcels, market an RFP, lose the first deal to a recession and inaction on the winners behalf, remarket the property, select another proposal and move through the process. Along the way, we built a 500 plus space mixed used parking garage replacing an ugly surface parking with open space near Delray Center for the Arts, (there’s your park and it’s bigger and more centrally located. How about making that park great as the commission I served on envisioned?).

During this time, the city helped to move the library with CRA support, bond issue money and private funds working a complicated deal with the county on a parking garage.

The point is, time didn’t start when this project was submitted to the city’s now byzantine and cumbersome “process” but many moons ago. This is the 7th inning not the first. And this project is in service to a vision…not owned by any particular commission…but a citizens vision to have a complete and sustainable downtown. Adding jobs, a corporate headquarters, much needed office space and family entertainment diversifies our portfolio. This investor–he’s not a developer–has “compromised” by adding more parking, improving internal circulation and agreeing not to have a restaurant that would compete with nearby establishments.

Did he get a deal on the land? Sure. He bought it coming out of the recession and before the eye popping deal for the George Building, which will do a lot to raise rents and property values in our core. But do we really think if we send iPic packing and get more for the property that we’ll get less development? Friends, that’s not how it works.

I happen to think this project is terrific. I also think it is manageable. We have restaurants that will draw more people than this theater.

I feel strongly about the jobs and about the need to move beyond food and beverage and to give families an entertainment option. I think it will boost summer foot traffic downtown and help mom and pop merchants.

That’s my opinion and I think it’s shared by many. Check that, I know it’s shared by many.

I’m sure many others disagree, I get it. And their concerns are valid, but so are the viewpoints of those who want to see this happen.

This project did not spring out of the thin air and I believe strongly that cities need to be seen as problem solvers and try and make projects work.

If you don’t agree with development on that site –valid but I disagree-that decision was made many years ago by a commission I served on. There was a lot of support for the concept at the time. We were clear, no residential on that site. Return it to the tax rolls, office and retail are Ok. No restaurants. A theater was added later as a desired use.

I think we ought to be proud that we have built a city attractive enough to lure investment. But as good as the downtown is the mission isn’t over. We need year round jobs to be a sustainable downtown.

We also need to be thinking about the bigger questions.

How and where will we create employment downtown? Or did I miss the vote and have we decided to stick with food and beverage and become a seasonal resort town?

Can Congress Avenue thrive if downtown wanes? The answer is no. While I share the opinion, it isn’t mine. It’s what I am being told by property owners on Congress.

–Is Atlantic Avenue bulletproof? Nope. See Boulevard, Las Olas, Street, Clematis.

What worrisome trends are we seeing and what strategies can we employ to reverse course? Worrisome trends include very high rents, some vacancies, an influx of national retailers, restaurants struggling, parts of the avenue not as strong as other parts, young professionals buying homes in neighboring cities because we have affordability issues and a lack of middle class housing and schools that continue to cause concerns.

We need to raise the level of discourse on these issues and more.

iPic is a symptom, we will see the same exhausting process play out when Sundy House and other projects submit their plans.

Our elected leaders need to get out front and shape these projects, but with a mindset of making things work (assuming they are within our rules and the uses are desirable).

“How can I stop you”, sends a horrible message. “How can I make your project work” will make for a better downtown, jobs for our kids and better designs that work for all.

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.





IPIC: Because Delray Needs Jobs


The sky has been falling for 20 years.
Paver bricks on Atlantic Avenue–women will never come downtown because they will trip in their heels on the grooves.
Worthing Place–it will turn into a low income rowdy tenement.
Pineapple Grove–a pipe dream.
Atlantic Avenue–won’t happen without an “anchor” department store.
Townhouses on Federal Highway–nobody wants to live on a highway and besides where will they barbecue?
I can go on.
But needless to say plenty of women and men enjoy strolling on the avenue, Worthing Place is fully leased (and pricey) and you hardly know it’s there, Pineapple Grove is a cool street, we didn’t need a department store to revitalize Atlantic Avenue and townhouses on Federal Highway remain hot commodities.
So I tend to grin when I hear the latest hand wringing concern–whether it’s festivals “destroying” our quality of life or development choking our city to death.
But before you get all wound up at my cavalier attitude let me say two things.
First, I respect contrary opinions so please respect those who don’t agree with your assessment of the latest project.
Second, I’m not an anything goes guy either.
We have had good developers and we have had awful ones.
In my opinion most of our developers have been good corporate citizens. There I said it. And I can prove it too.

We have been fortunate that most of our projects have been built by local developers who live here, work here, pay taxes, volunteer and raise their families here too.
Not all are greedy and callous. In fact, we have been fortunate to have many who are the opposite.
Sure they are motivated by profit and they seek a healthy return. Last I checked, we live in a capitalistic society where profits are a goal.
But profit motive aside, many of the developers  I have known want to build projects that work for the city as well as their wallets. Most also give to charity, have served on community boards and are in a field where the risks are enormous.
In other words developers are people too. You wouldn’t have known that from our last municipal election.
We are better than the current state of our development debate.
Still, the concerns are legitimate. We should seek smart growth which I would define as human scale, well-designed, with green elements, pedestrian friendly, mixed use where possible and oriented toward the street.
Projects that aren’t should be sent back to the drawing board.
But that’s where the opportunities are…
When a good use comes to town— say a downtown theater– that includes corporate jobs, office space and other desirable facets we should communicate with the developer/investors collaborate with them and where possible shape the best outcome.
Collaboration: what a concept.
Now if they don’t listen– and a few won’t— send em packing.

But most developers I have known will listen because they want to their projects approved and don’t necessarily enjoy being pariahs.
It’s easy to pontificate from a dais or wall off your planners and other city resources. But really what does that accomplish?
I had two experiences where we sent developers packing because they simply would not listen to community and city input. But I had many more where our CRA or Planning Department were able to make projects better because they looked at site plans and found things to improve whether it was design, traffic flow or street level orientation. You got to give your staff some room to make things work and as a policymaker you have a unique opportunity to make improvements as well.
Collaboration works, unless of course, you think Delray stinks. A few of you do, but most of you don’t.
So why not work to make projects better?
And if you think that we should merely shut the town down and say no more I have some disappointing news. It’s not going to happen.
Delray is a wildly desirable market. Not because it’s been ruined but because it was carefully planned and is a great town. People want to be here. People want to live here. People want to work here and people want to invest here.
They don’t want to ruin it, they want to contribute. If their ideas make sense we ought to help them. And we need to engage early, as Andres Duany advised us at one of the first town hall lecture series meetings.
If developers have bad ideas we ought to intervene–early.  If they are tone deaf, again send them packing. Smart developers, the kind we want to work in our town, welcome input and collaboration. It saves them time, money and aggravation. It also saves the public time, money and aggravation.
“Just say no” may have been a great anti-drug slogan but it’s no way to run a railroad. People are going to want to build here. We ought to worry if they don’t.
As for IPIC… when the RFP came out I liked the European theater concept..still think that would work elsewhere in our city.
But I’ve warmed up to IPIC. I like the idea of entertainment downtown. I like that it will bring people during the slow summer months and I love that this is a corporate headquarters deal with hundreds of jobs.
We need the jobs. We need the daytime workers. Jobs sustain towns.
We can also plan for the traffic. We know when shows begin and end. This developer/business owner has stepped up and listened.
Downtown residents will walk to the movies and others will drive–most with other people. After all, when is the last time you went to the movies alone?

We are not putting in a multiplex, but a luxury theater, with a few hundred seats.
This is a good project and we ought to be proud that Delray is desirable for such a cool and growing company.
The sky will not fall.

US 1: A Long and Winding History

Lancaster Boulevard before...

Lancaster Boulevard before…

And after....

And after….

Contrary to urban myths, the idea of narrowing Federal Highway was first broached in 1991 and not as part of any shady deal with dreaded developers.

In those days, development interest in Delray was scant; to say the least.

It was about a year after the important 1990 election that brought Tom Lynch, Jay Alperin and Dave Randolph into office and the team was starting to come together.

A new city manager was hired, a new police chief, a new chamber president and a new CRA Director too.

The story I heard (direct from the sources themselves) was that Chamber President Bill Wood was taking a walking tour with CRA Director Chris Brown when they approached Atlantic and US 1. I’m not sure if it was 5th or 6th Avenue.

Both noticed cars whizzing by the city’s still barren main street and both men realized that having a high speed highway bisect your downtown was probably not good for business or for pedestrians.

US 1 served as a natural barrier, with many pedestrians turning around at the intersections unwilling to cross a high speed, wide road. You could sit at the corner back then and watch the behavior with your own eyes.

And so the idea of narrowing was born. But it took until 1996 for the project to become part of the city’s engineering and planning process and another five years until the debate reached a full boil during the Downtown Master Plan process when Treasure Coast, our CRA and city planners recommended the narrowing of Federal Highway.

As co-chair of the process and a city commissioner at the time I wasn’t convinced. The idea seemed counter-intuitive to me. We were talking about adding downtown housing and we were being educated on the many benefits of density as a strategy to ensure that local mom and pops could survive year round in what was then a very seasonal economy. (P.S. it’s better today, but still seasonal).

“How can we add more units and lose a traffic lane”? we wondered.

It was an obvious question and the planners, engineers and urban designers we were working with provided us with answers.

  • People aren’t moving downtown to drive. They would move here to have a walkable lifestyle.
  • Residential development doesn’t generate as many trips as commercial development.
  • There was a demonstrated history of high speeds, accidents and even fatalities on the road. (Buildings, including a wine shop next to the Colony Hotel , were hit by cars)
  • It makes no sense to have a highway running through your central business district, speeding people away from your shops and restaurants.

Still, while the commission at the time was not completely convinced, we were also open-minded and willing to listen and experiment, despite some nasty emails saying we were caving to the dreaded developers trying to sell urban lifestyles on Federal Highway. One of those developers is now our mayor. We caught quite a bit of grief when we approved Mallory Square on the site of Steve Moore Chevrolet.

How could we allow a dense development (it isn’t dense) and who would want to live on Federal Highway? Well it turns out quite a few people and they were willing to shell out big bucks too. And residential development did generate far  less trips than a busy dealership, which had a lot of workers and customers taking test drives 7 days a week.

But people remained concerned about the loss of a lane on US 1,  so we launched an experiment in 2005 and installed ugly white poles to simulate the narrowing of the road and we studied traffic during all seasons of the year to determine whether this made sense or not.

The results were compelling: speeds had been lowered, accidents were down, pedestrians felt safer crossing the street and studies showed we had plenty of capacity to narrow and grow.

So the decision was made to move ahead and once the money was gathered from the federal government, the project proceeded. It took until 2009 for the final design to be approved. Whew…that’s 18 years of talking, experimenting and planning and it’s still under construction.

And it has been a mess. But….now that the dust is clearing I think it will be one of the best things ever done for the downtown and for Delray. It will benefit pedestrians, cyclists, golf carters, businesses and even motorists because it will be safer and much more attractive.

Now I understand that people will disagree vehemently and I respect that.  But….let’s wait and see what happens because I have a prediction to make.

Actually, I stole this from Fred Kent, the founder of the Project for Public Spaces, who recently lectured at the Arts Garage. Kent is a placemaking guru, known worldwide. He happens to have a winter home here in Delray. He likes some things and he despises others. He’s not afraid to voice his opinion and he breaks a lot of eggs in the process. That’s OK because he also makes you think, which we can all benefit from doing.

Kent believes—as I do—that the beautification, narrowing and safety efforts on US 1 will open up lots of cool opportunities because we will convert Federal from a highway into a street. And highways—which are meant to move cars rapidly—are never as charming as streets, which are meant to be safe, warm and charming if done right.

So…I’m bullish on US 1 and the “nooks and crannies” of Delray. I think it will become a nice neighborhood and a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of Atlantic Avenue.

I hope we get some eclectic uses, some independents and something different.  I think it will begin to draw people off the main street as they explore other parts of an expanded downtown.

Other places are catching on to the benefits of designing places for people not cars.

South Dixie in West Palm Beach is being re-imagined with the help of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council.

Lancaster Boulevard, in car centric Lancaster California, has been transformed into a beautiful street made for people– not cars.

The city of Lancaster, CA, has taken a decrepit nine-block stretch of downtown and transformed it into a vibrant, walkable destination, making it a superb example of a community reinventing itself.

“There’s a stereotype that small towns don’t have the wherewithal to carry a project like this off,” says Elizabeth Moule, principal of Moule and Polyzoides, the architecture and planning firm involved in the revitalization. “But they did carry it off. The city had a strong idea of a successful vision, and they single-mindedly made it happen.”

We did too. We just needed a little convincing.


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 (

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.

Density, Design, Planning & Values


Delray Beach is the first city to ever win the prestigious John C. Nolen Award which recognizes responsible, smart growth.

The award is a big deal.

We won because over a long period of time the public and private sectors worked together on a series of citizen led visions—namely Visions 2000 and the Downtown Master Plan. We had vision. We had passion. We had political will and we stayed focused on the big picture.

As a result, Delray Beach changed. Some people liked what happened. Some people hated it. But there’s little argument that the downtown went from sleepy to vibrant.

Personally,  I  think we have a great downtown.

Not a perfect downtown. Not a downtown devoid of problems or annoyances, but a downtown enjoyed by thousands; a downtown that has been a source of great civic pride.

But we didn’t celebrate when we won the Nolen Award. We should have, but we didn’t.

We should have taken the time to invite our residents, new and long time, to mark the occasion. We should have shown before and after pictures and explained the rationale behind the innovative strategies, policies, risks and investments that were made to transform Delray.

It was a teachable moment and a chance to thank people for their involvement in making it happen. But we passed. And that’s a shame because those civic pride moments are important if we are serious about building community.

The central business district in our village by the sea survived the worst recession since the Great Depression better than just about any other city you can name.

Sure, there was pain. But you could have stood on Atlantic Avenue at the height of the financial crisis and not known that there was a global meltdown occurring.

We didn’t have major vacancies. The streets were alive, the restaurants were full and property values didn’t plummet like they did in other cities. Downtown proved to be an enduring economic engine, providing needed jobs and tax revenues.

In fact, downtown sales increased 35 percent from $175 million in 2008 to $237 million in 2013, according to the Florida Department of Revenue.

“That is about three times more than the growth Palm Beach County saw, “reported the Sun-Sentinel.

Did this happen by accident? Did it happen because we planned poorly? Was it all, dumb luck?

Did nobody other than greedy developers benefit?




And no.

It wasn’t an accident. It was planned and at every step along the way there was an opportunity for public input and debate.

The revitalization of Atlantic Avenue dates to 1984 when Mayor Doak Campbell convened the Atlantic Avenue Task Force because the State DOT, in its infinite wisdom, wanted to widen East Atlantic Avenue to speed hurricane evacuation.

If that had occurred, there would have been no downtown to save, take back, enjoy or savor.

We would have had a highway, not a main street.

Visions 2000 picked up where the Task Force left off and citizens got together and voted to tax themselves to beautify their town.

The Visions 2000 process led to the $21.5 million Decade of Excellence Bond issue, which passed overwhelmingly in 1989. Shortly thereafter, we saw an old school transformed into a cultural arts center and the addition of paver bricks, decorative lighting and landscaping. Thanks to the CRA that beautification extended to the Interstate over the years and to side streets as well.

With the public commitment to beautification and progress evident, the private sector started to invest. Some of these investors were merchants, some were homeowners, some were small business owners and some were developers. Many people made money, but more than a few didn’t. Even developers lose and when they lose, they tend to lose big.

Now I hear some people who ought to know better question how the public has benefitted from all of this….and I have to scratch my head because I think the value is self-evident and abundant. But if we must, here we go: we saw crime rates plummet, property values increase, jobs created and quality of life and place get better. All of these real and intrinsic benefits were a direct result of smart, responsible growth.

Yes there are impacts. There’s traffic and there’s noise and most of the time we can no longer pull right up to The Green Owl and find a space. Sometimes we have to walk a few yards, sometimes half a block. That’s Ok, because I’d rather have traffic, than no traffic. And I’d rather live in a town with a lively downtown than a dead one; I’ve lived in both and I prefer vibrancy. I don’t think I’m alone.

So yeah…there are benefits and impacts. I get it.  And I understand that there are people who miss the “old Delray”, but unless your colonial Williamsburg or Charleston, you can count on change happening. Even Charleston has hired new urbanist Andres Duany to help navigate development pressures. But if we can’t stop change, and we shouldn’t want to, can we manage it? I think we can and I think we have. We can also focus on some positives…there has to be things we aspire to have, not just prevent.

A friend of mine lives in the Lake Ida neighborhood.  He bought his house about 14 years ago for a little under $200,000. Today, he can get over a million dollars. Some homes in Lake Ida are selling for over $2 million. Not all are on the lake either. Lake Ida is a beautiful neighborhood but with all due respect to my friends in Lake Ida, if they lived adjacent to a dead main street I’m fairly certain their homes would be worth far less money.

Could it be that home values spiked because Lake Ida residents can take a golf cart and be in a rocking downtown in a few minutes?

Just taking a guess, but I would venture yes.

After the Decade of Excellence was successfully implemented, the CRA issued an RFP for block 77, a blighted section of downtown at Atlantic and First.

Worthing Place was awarded the bid and the town went bonkers; split between those who feared density and what they were sure would be a low grade “tenement” and those who thought that having residents living downtown would benefit mom and pop retailers and make the downtown a safer, more vibrant place.

I ran for office a year after the project was approved—six stories and 93 units to the acre and inherited a series of lawsuits filed by Tom Worrell, then owner of The Sundy House.

At that time, I had never met Mr. Worrell, even though I had worked for nearly a decade for one of his newspapers. I only met him when he introduced himself to me at a ribbon cutting on South Swinton.

I tried to broker an end to the suits—the developers were willing to chop off units and a floor or two, but we couldn’t quite get there, despite a long day of shuttle diplomacy with the parties parked in different rooms at Old School Square.

The city won the suits, but the developers missed the market and instead of being the first project out of the ground, they were among the last to build and only after they constructed the Federspiel Garage as they had promised to do.

I was shaken by the division I had seen over that project and it prompted me and others to create a process to create a downtown master plan and launch a communitywide conversation about what we wanted to see happen to our downtown.

Mayor Dave Schmidt– a terrific leader– enabled me to run with the process and I co-chaired the initiative along with Chuck Ridley, a neighborhood civic leader. Together, with hundreds and hundreds of residents, we redefined the downtown to include everything from A1 A to the Interstate. We felt it important– and yes historic– to include the West Atlantic corridor in our planning area.

I think the process was terrific. The Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council did a remarkable job and the effort attracted hundreds to weigh in– so many that we had to shut the doors late at night at the temporary studios on Swinton to give the architects, planners and urban designers a chance to draw. We were amazed and gratified at how many people came out to talk about their ideas for their downtown. It was a citizen driven plan and it was a damn good one.

One of the enduring lessons that came from the process was that design mattered more than density. And that it was possible to change and keep our charm, a lesson we ought to be thinking about today. We learned not to fear density, but to see it as a tool for creating vibrancy and sustainability.

In fact, generating density downtown was a goal, because we felt we couldn’t have a safe or sustainable downtown without it.

Here’s an excerpt from the plan:

“In order to maintain the overall “Village Atmosphere” of the

City, but at the same time create enough density to encourage

a variety of local services and a more balanced mix of

retail in downtown, the Master Plan’s recommendation in all

the reviewed cases consistently supports higher densities

within the CRA’s downtown district, especially in the four

blocks north and south of the Avenue. It is this Plan’s additional

recommendation to include a minimum density

requirement in the zoning code. Within the downtown area,

low, suburban densities will cause more harm than slightly

higher ones. Within a downtown area, density is directly

associated with the health and success of downtown.”

Well…times have changed and I get that.

Strategies have to change as well. But certain fundamentals should never change.

Engaging the public and stakeholders should be sacrosanct. That’s what builds community. If we want to be ignored, we got Washington D.C. to blow us off –they’ve been ignoring us for years.

I want my commission to talk to people and get a range of opinion before they change something important.  Yes, I’ve heard the arguments, how the commission gets nothing but complaints about growth and development. I got them too. But I also heard and continue to hear from a great many people who love what happened downtown and would like to see more smart growth in strategic areas. I hear from entrepreneurs on a daily basis who would love to have their offices downtown and from others who wish they could afford to live downtown so they can walk or bike ride to services, restaurants, stores and cultural venues. I also hear from people who want jobs and students who would like to come home after college and work in Delray.

Sadly, many of these people don’t write commissioners and don’t speak up at the microphone at City Hall. They should.

But whether they show up or not, we have an obligation to consider their opinions and needs as well. I once cast a regrettable vote against a neighborhood plan when a group of irate people showed up at the last minute to protest. Mayor Schmidt glared at me and told me that the group didn’t represent the majority of the neighborhood. I should have known better but I didn’t make that mistake again. I resolved from that evening on to support good projects and vote against bad ones.

I think downtown is more art than science, so I like policies that enable commissioners to kill bad projects and make good deals happen, even if they need a little relief to make it work. We called it conditional use, which before it was wrongfully demonized, did a whole lot of good.

Conditional use killed a bad hotel project on A1A and it killed the first version of Atlantic Plaza. It also enabled City Walk and Ocean City Lofts to be built and the code allowed us to get the Seagate Hotel built.

I think those are nice projects, you may or may not agree.

But conditional use is not the same thing as a waiver or a variance. Waivers and variances were never granted for height and density. Never.

I think giving your policymakers discretion is a good thing. If they make mistakes—and they will—vote them out, especially if you think those mistakes were dishonest ones fueled by campaign contributions or favors. But making downtown codes prescriptive won’t give you better designs…and neither will lopping off floors. It will, however, stifle creativity.

Few people, even professionals, can tell the difference between a 54 foot building and a 60 foot building when they walk by.

So why care?

Well on Feb. 3,  there will be a first reading on new rules governing our downtown.

I see the downtown as easily Delray’s biggest, most unique asset; as valuable as the beach.

Lots of cities have beaches; there are very few Atlantic Avenues or Pineapple Groves.

As a recent lunch partner told me—“downtown is magic. It’s like The Beatles, it just feels good.”

Well, you don’t mess with The Beatles and you shouldn’t mess with the downtown either, not without a whole lot of analysis, input and dialogue.

Last week, I read the umpteenth version of the suggested changes…the ones on the city’s website don’t match what I saw on the Treasure Coast’s website. If you wonder if you missed the charrette to discuss these changes, don’t worry– there wasn’t a charrette to miss. The powers that be will tell you there was ample time to weigh in during commission meetings or presentations to the alphabet soup of boards we have in Delray. But in my opinion, this was not an inclusive planning process. Not even close. That’s a shame, because that’s part of our DNA.

Yes, we brought back Treasure Coast for this exercise and they have said on the record that they didn’t think our codes were broken. In fact, they take pride in Delray and they should. They nominated us for the Nolen Award because we were one of the few cities that stuck to our guns and had the political will to implement the people’s vision.

But the changes to the code that I see trouble me.

As mentioned, we skipped the master plan process; also known as public input.

I’m not sure we took the advice of Treasure Coast and I’m quite certain we ignored a lot of the advice of the experts that came to town to discuss density, design, parking, housing trends etc.

Treasure Coast put together a great speaker series, with the best thought leaders on the planet, coming to Delray. But I sure wish we had taken their advice and I wish this process included more input from the public because I don’t think that even the smartest elected officials have all the answers. In fact, I think the smartest elected officials understand that and then seek input and collaboration.

I don’t care whether our height limit is 60 feet or 54 feet. But I do think four stories will restrict our ability to get better designed projects and I think it will hinder, certainly not help office development, which we need desperately. To be honest, we are all guessing here, because there has not been any economic analysis performed, to my knowledge at least.

I don’t think putting a hard cap on density is smart public policy. I think there are strategic areas where you want to see density. I know saying “Delray is the incentive” is an applause line, but guess what, we may need incentives to get some things we desire. Incentives are tools that can be used to land good projects. The best public policy is aspirational and seeks to create something, not prevent it.

I think well designed projects trump density in importance, I think density gives you a chance for some level of affordability (giving young professionals an opportunity to live downtown) and I think it is better for the environment. I also think density gives independent retailers a chance at survival.

Stricter height limits on Atlantic Avenue make sense to me, but I think we should have created a transfer of development rights program, so that developers could have purchased those air rights to compensate property owners and maybe make the city a few bucks so we can pay our cops, firefighters and general employees.

My college economics class is a dusty memory, but it seems when you create scarcity one of two things can happen.

You either devalue property because you have new restrictions to abide by—which may concern an owner and should concern us as taxpayers since we rely on property taxes and higher valuations to pay for services– or you increase the values because now  you’ve  created scarcity.

Will we see commercial rents continue to climb as a result?

If so, will we lose the mom and pop retailer? We are already seeing the nationals come to town.

Will capping density forever hinder affordability downtown, robbing our CBD of young people who may want to live there before buying a single family home?

We needed an inclusive and deliberative process that allowed us to hash out where we are and where we want to go: we didn’t get one. We needed more study and analysis too.

We missed a chance to gather, talk, study and unify. That’s what towns pay Treasure Coast to do. It’s a worthy investment.

We paid for a form based code. But we didn’t get one.

A form based code, by its very definition, puts a premium on design not numbers. But we went right back to the numbers and we have tied the hands of future investors and policymakers.

I hear the arguments and I respect them. I truly do. This town has been damaged by some votes that left a tremendous stench. These changes will certainly disrupt those situations, but the cost is discretion and an ability to land a good project that may need some flexibility to work.

I witnessed a vote on a project in the southwest neighborhood that during my tenure we embraced because it was an opportunity to introduce middle class housing into a neighborhood that wanted it and needed it.  All across the country, cities were getting away from concentrating poverty. But when a subsequent commission approved a vastly different version of the project over the objections of citizens, staff, advisory boards, the CRA etc., I was literally nauseated. I got in my car and drove and drove and drove. I felt we had lost Delray Beach that night.

I understand wanting to stop that. I really do.

But I’m also concerned that future elected officials won’t have the discretion to make good projects happen.  And a hard cap on density, with no regard to use or design and no bonus program, is deeply problematic.

We’ve labeled our codes antiquated and our master plan dated—instead of appreciating that they built a pretty nice place and a whole lot of value.

If you tell people that you want to make something better; they are all ears. They’re in. But if you tell them that policies they took pride in were ruinous and that  you are here to save us, you begin to lose people who are proud of Delray.  Your “fix” begins to feel punitive and corrective.

We should ask Treasure Coast what they think of this process and its outcomes—give them diplomatic immunity and allow them to answer. Treasure Coast isn’t afraid of density, they know it’s all about design, use and urbanism. Bring back the experts we saw during the lecture series and see what they think. And next time we take a look at the rules—and there will be a next time– we should go back to the old way—citizen driven planning.

It works pretty well.  Just take a look around.

Water Cooler Wednesday: Design & Use

Vibrant, fun and beautiful. Our Delray

Vibrant, fun and beautiful. Our Delray

In the 90s, Delray Beach was making great progress.

The city was successfully completing its “Decade of Excellence”, a $21.5 million bond issue program that beautified downtown, repaired aging infrastructure, fixed streets and drainage and refurbished parks and fire stations.

 Significant public investment was made in the downtown, including a complete reconstruction of the streetscape; the preservation and reuse of Old School Square (an abandoned school) and the renovation of the Municipal Tennis Center including the addition of a tennis stadium built to host a women’s event on what was then called the Virginia Slims tour.

The public investment was the result of an in-depth civic visioning process that unified the city. Back then, there were divides between east and west, black and white, police and residents etc.

Visions 2000 and the resulting Decade of Excellence bond proved the power of civic engagement, visioning and detailed conversations about the direction of our community.

That power was verified when voters overwhelmingly voted to tax themselves and go into debt in order to build a better city. It was also an opportunity for the downtown to be thought as belonging to everyone as it was positioned as a gathering place for the entire community, an amenity for all to enjoy.

When the bond projects were first announced, communities west of I-95–at the time a major voting bloc– balked somewhat because the spending was concentrated on older eastern neighborhoods and the downtown. But by the time it came to vote western residents were convinced that Delray was one community and if a neighborhood had needs it was important for other neighborhoods to show support.

In the late 90s, still hoping to jumpstart downtown, the CRA issued an RFP for Worthing Place, which was slated to be the first major mixed use downtown project.

The project was hugely controversial when a developer team proposed a six story, 90 plus unit per acre project on the site.

The project seemed to divide the city in two; with proponents saying it was needed and opponents saying it would ruin the downtown forever and eventually end up as a tenement type building.

The debate was heated and ugly. When the commission approved the project, a series of lawsuits were filed that took nearly seven years to resolve, with the city winning every case.

But the suits, while legally unsuccessful, delayed the project and the development team missed the hottest real estate market in memory. The terms of RFP also required them to build a public parking garage before they broke ground on the actual project, a huge cost for the developers but a big bonus for the city.

While the project was voted on by a prior commission, the commission’s I served on beginning in 2000 inherited the angst caused by concerns over height, density and development.

So we decided in 2001 to create a Downtown Master Plan and to engage the community in a deep discussion over how our downtown– now defined as spanning from A1A to I-95 with a few blocks north and south of Atlantic Avenue–should look and feel. I co-chaired that effort with a neighborhood leader named Chuck Ridley.

The Downtown Master Plan included discussions about a range of issues including: the viability of downtown retail, the importance of people living downtown, the need for employment beyond food and beverage, the importance of design and the need to expand opportunities west of Swinton. We talked about development without displacement, the need to build a complete and sustainable downtown and the importance of slowing traffic and making it easier for pedestrians and cyclists to get around town. The discussion also included the need to buffer neighborhoods and even included race relations and heart felt conversations about workforce housing, historic preservation and creating a community where our kids and grandkids may want to return. It was the single most rewarding experience of my civic life and it culminated in a charrette that attracted a record crowd.

When our partners in the process, the terrific people at the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, set up design studios on Swinton Avenue they had to work late into the night because people poured in to share their thoughts and vision for their city.

When the dust cleared and people went home from the charrette, I remember feeling an incredible sense of pride in the process and the level of debate. This was not an “all developers are evil and greedy” exercise nor was it an all people who are concerned “are NIMBY’s who must be bulldozed” process, it was an inclusive, intelligent and rewarding civic bonding experience, the kind of experience you can’t have at any other level of government. It took time, it cost money (although the MacArthur Foundation graciously underwrote much of the cost) but it was worth it.

But before I could reach my car at the conclusion of the charrette, I was stopped by Marcela Camblor, the amazing planner/designer who worked with us as part of the Treasure Coast team. She told me that support for the Master Plan would never be stronger than it was at this moment in time and that with every day that passed; support for the plan would wane.

Now, this was a depressing message to hear and frankly it puzzled me at first. But then I got it. Marcela’s message was you better start implementing and you can never stop educating and talking to the community. Because while almost 500 people showed up for the final meeting, 60,000 stayed home despite our efforts to get them to participate.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that as our commission votes on new Land Development Regulations beginning next week; I think we missed an opportunity to have another conversation.

The Mayor did a wonderful job of bringing thought leaders to Delray as part of a speaker series, but too few people attended and I’m not sure based on my reading of the proposed changes that we are taking the advice of the experts we brought here (just my opinion; I am not a planner).

The lessons from the Master Plan that we took away was that density did not matter as much as design; and to prove the point our consultants showed us pictures of ugly low density projects and beautiful high density projects and vice versa.

I think what matters most is good design, which admittedly is hard to codify, define and regulate. I remember catching hell from residents on projects that I liked and scratching my head at some others that people found appealing but I thought were ugly or generic.

We tried to install Design Guidelines and had to change them when architects and developers told us they were simply unworkable. Still, I think a form based code that does not get hung up on numbers, setbacks, floor area ration etc. etc. may be what we need. Perhaps, we can create a design studio like other cities have done where architects and developers can take their projects for some early feedback and advice on local sensitivities and desires.

I read the proposed changes to the LDR’s and it feels prescriptive to me; part form based and part old school zoning and I wonder if it will truly address what people are concerned about.

My read is that people are concerned about traffic, design and use; i.e. too many apartments, chain stores, cookie cutter architecture and overbuilding of what can be financed instead of what is needed or desired—like office space (creative not just class A).

I could be wrong about the proposed changes and I hope I am. But I’m proud of that master plan and what it brought to our town in terms of investment and quality of life.

 We have a vibrant downtown, full of energy and people and that didn’t happen by accident, it happened as a result of a smart plan, good codes, great developers, citizen input, vision and political leadership that engaged, educated and defended the vision. I also think city staff should be given lots of credit as well.

We are not a perfect city by any stretch and we are not done either. There is so much left to do. But I’m not convinced that Delray needs radical surgery, nor do I think we should argue over numbers or six feet in height. I do think we ought to look at our performance standards to encourage uses that we need and take another whack at better design.

Good plans are meant to be flexible and change with the times so I don’t come at this issue saying the master plan should be sacrosanct. Much of it was accomplished and I think we have a better city as a result. But I do have a sense that we skipped an important step—i.e. engaging the community in an intelligent conversation about where we want to go from here.

Some want to stop or slow things down and that point of view should be respected. Others want more of what we have and feel we are on the precipice of attaining some things we have long desired—including opportunities beyond food and beverage.

But we need a plan to attract and retain artists and we clearly don’t have enough office space to house the entrepreneurs who are attracted to our community.

I’m not sure we soothe fears or improve uses or design through numbers and setbacks. Just my opinion. I do know that we can make a dent through dialogue and visioning. We have done it before, with spectacular results. We should consider doing it again.



Water Cooler Wednesday: Urbanism’s Holy Grail


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

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

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

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

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

There was life.

There was activity.

 There was energy.

In short, Delray Beach is a vibrant place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very simple concepts; but not so easy to achieve.



Water Cooler Wednesday: R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Plans are meant to be living, breathing documents

Plans are meant to be living, breathing documents

I’m big on gratitude and respect.

I think if we are grateful we are happier.

I think if we respect others, we tend to be respected in return.

I’m also big on words. I believe they matter. I think tone and context are important as well.

So let me first say that I am grateful for people like Frances Bourque, Elizabeth Wesley, C. Spencer Pompey, Ruth Pompey, Vera Farrington, Father Chip Stokes, Nancy Hurd , Perry Don Francisco and others,–many others who gave their time and their talent to Delray Beach.

For those who are new to the city, those are only a few of the people who made modern day Delray what it is today. Whatever success that has been achieved didn’t happen by accident or dumb luck.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I was glad when Anthea Gianniotes presented suggested changes to Delray Beach’s land development regulations at Tuesday evening’s City Commission meeting and said the suggestions did not mean a change in the city’s vision plans, which include the Downtown Master Plan and the city’s plans for the southwest neighborhood and West Atlantic Avenue.

Anthea and her team from the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council (including newly hired Planning Director Dana Little) helped to draft, coach and conceive Delray’s Downtown Master Plan, which not only has worked but has helped cement Delray’s leadership position as a community known for visionary planning and policy innovation. The current crop of commissioners and CRA are to be commended for re-engaging Treasure Coast to take a fresh look at the vision; plans are meant to be living, breathing documents that adapt to the times.

 I can’t say I was surprised when the team did not suggest wholesale changes to the vision, the plan or the codes. But I can say I was grateful and felt that Treasure Coast’s work showed respect for the vision of hundreds of stakeholders and city staff who worked diligently over the past decade to implement the plan.

Their work not only landed the city a coveted Nolen Award from the Congress New Urbanism but attracted huge investments, created jobs and most importantly helped to build on the Decade of Excellence which created a quality of life and place that is hard to match.

Has the plan/vision been perfect?
Not on your life.

Have there been projects that were ill-conceived and ugly? I can think of a few.

Where their missteps along the way? Sure there were.

But the plan and other visions conceived by citizens, led by elected officials and implemented by talented and dedicated staff got a lot of things right. And the reputation we have earned as a progressive, entrepreneurial city can only be squandered if we fail to understand or respect where we came from or if we become complacent. As they say: nothing recedes like success.

Sure, there was much to work with in Delray Beach; a grid system, human scale, some quaint, historic neighborhoods and a main street that empties into an ocean. But despite these “good bones”, Delray was indeed “Dull Ray” until it was rescued by strong leadership, an active involved citizenry, talented business people and yes even some very innovative developers who risked millions of dollars on a vision that called for creating a vibrant and walkable downtown.

Developers are often vilified so maybe they deserve a mention: Bill Morris who weathered a blizzard of lawsuits but never wavered in his belief in Delray and stuck it out to build Worthing Place,  Scott Porten and Morgan Russell who believed in Pineapple Grove when few others did and redeveloped the Esplanade and created CityWalk and then got deeply involved in the community as philanthropists and volunteers, Tim Hernandez and Kevin Rickard who along with some non-profit partners took a $40 million risk on West Atlantic Avenue and made the first large scale private investment on the corridor back in 2001-02 with Atlantic Grove and Tom Laudani, who built Ocean City Lofts and several other projects, including a beautiful development near the city’s marina in an area that had been left for vagrants and drug users.

There are others…the common thread being they believed in Delray’s vision and this city’s ability to get things done and to work together for the common good.

Treasure Coast’s new ideas still have to wend their way through the city’s boards and City Commission. They made great suggestions on everything from building heights to civic space—and a few provocative ones as well especially in relation to parking. Here’s hoping we have what we had in the 80s with the Mayor’s Atlantic Avenue Task Force, the 90s with Visions 2000 and the 2000s with the Master Plan—intelligent discussion on important issues among people who care deeply about Delray Beach. We didn’t always agree, but we all agreed that Delray came first before egos and personal agendas. What a concept….

Words matter. Tone matters. Community involvement matters. Respect for the past, present and future matters.

And that’s why I am grateful that Anthea, Dana Little and Treasure Coast honored our future by honoring our past.