Trying to Make Sense of Density

Worthing Place

Note: I’ve been involved with the Urban Land Institute (ULI) for close to 20 years now. It’s a wonderful organization with chapters throughout the world dedicated to real estate and land use. Over the years, I’ve been asked to work with ULI panels to help cities navigate issues and seize opportunities. I’ve had a chance to work in places like Winter Park, Tamarac, West Palm Beach, and Fort Lauderdale. Recently, the City of Deerfield Beach engaged ULI in a community wide discussion about density. I thought I’d share my talk since it focused on our experience with the “D” word in Delray Beach.

 

The story of density in my hometown Delray Beach can be told through the saga of one project: Worthing Place which is located on Atlantic Avenue in the heart of our downtown. My hope tonight is that the Delray story—what worked and what didn’t– can offer you some insights that might help your city as you move forward.

Worthing Place is a 6- story, 60-foot tall apartment building with some restaurants and shops on the ground floor. It is set back from the street and sits behind a small pocket park which has become a lively space to watch the hustle and bustle of a very busy downtown.

It features 217 units on about 2.4 acres, which works out to roughly 90 units per acre, or three times the current density allowed in our downtown.

The Delray Beach CRA assembled the property in the mid-90s with a goal of creating a mixed-use project that would replace blight with vibrancy. We believed that housing was an essential component to jumpstarting a downtown that had shown some signs of life after a very rough decade in which we experienced 40 percent vacancy and virtually no nightlife. You could have gone bowling on Atlantic Avenue in the 80s and not hit anything.

 

The RFP was awarded to a team of experienced local developers who agreed to build a public parking garage before breaking ground on the apartments and retail. That offer, to build a garage benefiting the public before building apartments, was seen as a key to the winning bid.

But the size of the project—it’s height and density—split the town into two warring factions.

The project was approved and the city was immediately hit with lawsuits that prevented the project from moving forward. The developers built the garage—as promised, but litigation meant that they could not build the actual project.

When I was elected in 2000, the commission I served on inherited the lawsuits—I believe there were six or seven of them—but we also inherited the division over growth and development that this project ignited in our city.

Delray Beach is a very special place—we guard our charm and strive to maintain the brand of being a village by the sea.

We don’t allow tall buildings, but we do fight over 3 and 4 story buildings and density is a very, very touchy subject.

Mindful of these dynamics and wanting to unify the community after the tough fight over Worthing Place, we decided as a city commission to bring the community together and create a downtown master plan.

We did a massive public awareness campaign to get as many stakeholders to the table for a series of charettes or public meetings where we could brainstorm, draw, share and learn together. Our goal was to plan for a sustainable downtown that managed to be vibrant while being respectful of property rights as well as the look and feel our town.

Our tagline for the effort was “Keeping the Charm” and that was the goal.

Mind you, that’s not an easy task for a city…my idea of charm or of a village by the sea may be very different from my neighbors. Some may want a vibrant, bustling village and others may want a sleepy village. But we tried to work together as a community to come up with a consensus vision and policies to preserve, protect and enhance our downtown.

We produced a large document…but if I had to boil it down to a single theme it would be this: “Design matters more than a random density number.” In cities, we often get hung up on dwelling units per acre. We should be thinking about how projects fit in to the fabric of our communities.

In the master plan process, we learned that density was needed to provide housing opportunities for people who wanted to live downtown, we learned that if we wanted mom and pop businesses to survive, we needed a certain amount of density to support those businesses and we learned that density was better than sprawl in terms of the environment.

But the key message was the importance of design and scale…new development needed to be attractive and ideally enhance the charm and character of our downtown.

What I’m describing is a great aspiration.  But it can be hard to achieve because design is subjective.

We came away from the Downtown Master Plan process unified—at least among the few hundred who showed up to participate. But when you have 65,000 people, a few hundred, while good, is not enough to sustain an effort to shape your downtown. So, we worked hard to promote the plan, to educate the public on why density– done well– was important for our community.

And for a while we succeeded.

The city won all the lawsuits relating to Worthing Place and the project got built. It was supposed to be the first mixed-use housing project downtown, but the litigation delayed things and it ended up being among the last to be built.

Many other projects— not nearly as tall and certainly not as dense— were built. There has been a massive amount of public and private investment. And it has paid off.

Downtown Delray has become a regional attraction, with over 100 restaurants, tens of thousands of weekly visitors and a very low vacancy rate.

But success comes with challenges.

Rents have increased from $5-$7 a square foot when I moved here in 1987 to as high as $165 a square foot for prime restaurant space. It’s difficult for mom-and-pop businesses to pay the rent.

When you experience success, it’s not uncommon to want to try and ratchet things back.

So, after I was termed out, a subsequent commission lowered the height limit to 54 feet, 35 feet on the avenue itself, and capped density at 30 units to the acre in most of downtown Delray. There are a few places in town where you can exceed that amount, but by and large density has been capped.

You don’t tend to cap things that you view as virtuous. If density was popular, it would be encouraged not capped. Besides, our language has changed—instead of encouraging density in strategic places to achieve civic goals, we are warning developers about density.

After spending a lot of time, money and effort trying to sell the virtues of density and great design—we stopped engaging residents on these topics and now every election cycle is about the evils of growth and development. We no longer talk about smart growth or good development; we only seem to talk about traffic and whether we have lost our charm.

Density has become a dirty word in a town that used it as a tool to become a national model for how to revitalize a downtown.

Now, I understand the sensitivities…I understand the frustration caused by congestion, even though we experience more traffic driving on multi-lane suburban streets than when we drive downtown where we can use our grid system to get around efficiently.

I am immensely proud of my city and what we were able to accomplish. But I also understand it is not everyone’s cup of tea. And I understand that change cuts both ways: it can be good, it can be not so good. But all in all, I think Delray did a nice job.

We don’t allow big buildings, especially when compared to our coastal neighbors, which allow heights more than twice as tall as we do.

Efforts have been made to limit massing and maintain the human scale that is our calling card. We narrowed US 1 in our downtown to make it more of a neighborhood and less of a highway. We improved pedestrian safety and we have created a year-round economy in what had once been a seasonal town.

 

But in many ways, even though others think we have done a good job, we are losing the argument.

City planners and new urbanists are often fans of Delray. I’m here, 17 years after being term limited, because ULI views Delray as a positive example.

But as the kids say when talking about relationships—it’s complicated.

When politicians look at our city and see their best chance of being elected as running against what has been achieved downtown because density was used wisely— something has gone awry.

So as Deerfield weighs its next move relative to density, growth and change…I would offer up Delray as a good comp. We are both a success story and a cautionary tale.

We succeeded because we revitalized what had been a declining downtown. The revitalization has stood the test of time—we survived the financial crisis, Covid, competition from other cities and changing tastes. I would argue that density done right—done gently as my friend Juan (Urban designer Juan Mullerat) would say–helps you build wonderful and memorable places.

I commend you for engaging with ULI and inviting the public into this process, much like we did when we crafted our Downtown Master Plan in 2001.

But I would urge you—from experience—to never stop engaging, educating, and learning together as a community. We stopped doing those things somewhere along the way…because after all politicians come and go. But the need to keep dreaming and implementing never goes away. That’s the beauty of cities. You are never done, especially if you get some kind of success. You can’t be complacent. Complacency is a killer.

As a former elected official, I know you can never please everyone. And you can really set your community back by trying. But you can and should take a long-term view and try and move the big rocks.

The best piece of advice I ever got was that elected office is a job to do, not to have.

You need to take some risks to move the needle and make things happen in your city. But you have to bring the community along with you…they have to buy-in and say yes. And they have to keep saying yes. That means a never-ending conversation about the future of your community. That’s the fun part.

I’m a fan of Deerfield Beach, I’m in the Cove for dinner, I love your beach and I used to have an office in town. So, I am rooting for you.

I’ll conclude by telling you what happened with Worthing Place.

It succeeded. It never became the blighted tenement that opponents feared would forever scar our downtown. Instead, it became a catalyst for activity and additional investment.

The restaurants downstairs have become popular spots…the apartments are coveted, and the garage is well-used and a money maker for the city. A few months ago, the company I work for, a family office, bought the building from BlackRock for over $100mm. So, you can see that the project that divided our town has a whole lot of value.

It’s a full circle moment for me and a major investment in our downtown for my company. I’d like to think that density —done well—created an ecosystem that remains an attractive place for people to live, work and play. Thank you for this opportunity and good luck with your wonderful city.

 

 

 

 

 

Embracing The Oops

A good quote stops you dead in your tracks and makes you think.

I ran into two quotes recently that did just that.

“A city is not gauged by its length and width, but by the broadness of its vision and the height of its dreams.” – Herb Caen, legendary San Francisco based columnist.

“Better an oops, than a what if” – author unknown.

I like them both and they go together.

If you are going to have a broad vision and big dreams, you are going to have to take some risks. And with risks come the inevitable “oops.”

Those that make a dent in our world risk the “oops” because they fear regrets more than they worry about mistakes. We need these kinds of people in our world. They are the ones who move the mountains, and we need those mountains to move.

I’ve been thinking about vision, dreams and risk a lot lately.

We are a little more than a month away from another big election in Delray Beach. In March, we will have a new mayor. That job means a lot, even if we have a “weak” mayor form of government. City Managers run the day to day—and obviously that’s important. We need our toilets to flush, our roads to be free of potholes and our taxes to be spent efficiently.

But mayors and commissioners are important too. They provide leadership, set policy and if they are good, they are stewards (and sometimes architects) of a city’s future.

A good mayor can move mountains. I’ve been watching mayors in this town since I arrived here way back in 1987, when this was a very different town.

I’ve seen good mayors and frankly I’ve seen awful ones too. The good ones make a difference, they leave legacies. The bad ones leave scars—opportunities lost, dreams dashed, investments and human capital chased away.

Leaders come in all styles.

Some are quiet, some are charismatic. But in my mind, the good ones have courage and pride themselves in being servant leaders. They work for the people, too often we get that equation all wrong. They are kind but willing to make tough decisions. They can bring their neighbors together and they also have the fortitude to look them in the eye and say what needs to be said.

I write this during yet another ugly election season.  Last week, I spent an hour of my life watching a video produced by the Sun-Sentinel in which they “screened” candidates running for Seat 1 on the commission, that happens to be my old seat.

It was an ugly affair.

It wasn’t illuminating but it was telling.

I saw anger, accusations, ego and “gotcha” questions, I did not hear any discussion of ideas, solutions, or dreams of what this town can be.

That’s the good stuff folks.

We need more signal and less noise. We’ve lost that on the national level years ago and I fear we are in peril of losing our nation as a result. We are less about delivering results for people and more about ensuring that our enemies fail. It’s ruinous and it makes me angry. We the people deserve better. Our children and grandchildren will suffer. History will not be kind.

Locally, we used to be oasis from that nonsense. We are no longer. And that’s why it is becoming harder and harder to find people willing to run and expose themselves to a toxic stew.

We can do better. But we don’t.

I’m what they call a super voter. That means I get a lot of campaign mail.

It’s often a steady dose of misinformation, innuendo, and pandering. We hear about “overdevelopment” but nobody defines it—do we think a four story building is too tall, do we pretend there’s no property rights or even more important— a need to create housing or expand the tax base?

Where are teachers, cops, nurses, firefighters, and those who work in service industries supposed to live? “Who cares” is not the answer. If you are in the boat, please don’t pull up the ladder, let’s responsibly make room for those who drive our economy.

Let’s welcome them to our community, let’s give our children a chance to come back here to live, work, play and serve our town.

Candidates vow to tackle traffic, taxes, and crime but I don’t see detailed plans to do any of those things. My hunch is they don’t have a plan other than to pander to your fears and get your vote. Last week, I got a mailer from a candidate promising to lower my homeowner’s insurance rates? Really?! Give me some details, I’m all ears.

The media doesn’t do anyone a favor by majoring in the minor. How about some questions about sea level rise, the housing crisis, the fact that Old School Square is still an unresolved mess/opportunity. What’s your vision for economic development? What’s your vision for the arts and culture in Delray Beach?

What skills do you bring to the dance? Because if you are elected, your job is to drive positive change not sit up there and bicker, harass staff and punt on important decisions.

In the interest of transparency, I am supporting Ryan Boylston for mayor and Jim Chard and Nick Coppola for City Commission.

Ryan is a hard-working commissioner, he’s aspirational and we need aspiration—desperately. Nick is a kind man. He connects with people. He chairs our code enforcement board and is VP of the Sherwood Park Homeowners Association. He’s involved in several local non-profits as well.

Jim has worked harder than just anybody in town over the past two decades on a vast array of issues. He’s smart, kind, and knowledgeable.

I’ve spent time with all three candidates over the years, they are community builders. They aspire.

None of them have all the answers, nobody does. The two best mayors I’ve seen here or anywhere else were smart, honest, and courageous people. Their names were Tom Lynch and David Schmidt. I covered Tom when I was a reporter, and he became a friend and mentor. I sat next to Dave for a few years on the Commission before succeeding him when he termed out. He taught me and others by example. Dave handled every issue with grace and humility. He empowered people. He was quiet but resolute.

Tom and David’s greatness stemmed from their inclusiveness—they listened to their fellow commissioners, they worked well with staff, and they listened to the community. They made sure we had goals and strategic plans that involved all the stakeholders in Delray. They didn’t divide, they didn’t pander either. They were willing to risk their seats—they embraced the ‘oops’, because they believed in the what ifs.

 Note:

We got an email last week letting us know that Rev. Juanita Bryant Goode has resigned from CROS Ministries.

Juanita is a friend and has been a wonderful community servant. She is embarking on another chapter where she will work directly with people during challenging times of illness and hospice care.

Juanita has a huge heart and for nearly three decades she served CROS Ministries in a wide variety of capacities including overseeing the Delray Beach Pantry and The Caring Kitchen Program.

She will be missed. Thanks my friend, for all you have done and all you will do.

The Lies That Grind

I’ve never been called a ‘good ole boy’.

Last week, I think I might have been.

I wasn’t singled out, and names have not been released, but I think I might be in this group called the ‘good ole boy network’.

For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to assume I’m in the network. I hope I am because I’d be in good company.

It seems there is a group in town who support the mayor and Commissioner Juli Casale. They are on a mission to clean up the “mess” the good ole boys made of this place and replace it with what?

Good government?

That would be nice. We haven’t seen that around these parts in quite some time.

The crew that opposes the good ole boys  have been all over Facebook vowing to clean up more messes if they continue to have the votes on our City Commission.  A friend of mine and his good ole boy friends were advised to “buckle up.”

Hmmm….

Anyway, this mission to clean up the “mess” some of the best citizens of this town created would explain why Old School Square was kicked to the curb without a plan at a cost of millions of dollars, why we may need to sell part of our golf course to pay for millions in deferred maintenance and why we’ve gone through more city managers in recent years than the fingers on both hands. It’s all the fault of the good ole boys!

Who knew!

We’ve  been warned that the anti good ole boys are the “nightmare” we all feared and it was mentioned that past leaders lacked the guts to do what needed to be done to fix our hometown.

Well, they are right on the nightmare assertion. Finally, a point of agreement! We agree that we are living through a nightmare.

But not for the same reasons—and therein lies the difference and the choice we face in the March 14 election.

There’s a lot to unpack here but let’s not leave the “good ole boy” comment quite yet.

I wanted to better understand the allegation, just in case I’m being lumped into that group, so I did a little research.

According to the New York Times, during the heyday of the Civil Rights movement, the Northern press began to refer to sheriffs, prison guards and anyone with either a bullhorn or a German shepherd as a good old boy.

Hmmm…I’m a Jewish guy from Long Island, I’ve never owned a bullhorn and I have a golden retriever and a chihuahua not a German shepherd, so maybe I don’t qualify.

My friends don’t meet that criterion either, besides many of the people I believe being referenced are—-wait for it—- women.

But I didn’t stop there. I didn’t want the New York Times to be the last word on this fascinating subject.

The Oxford dictionary defines good old boy as a “man who embodies some or all of the qualities considered characteristic of many white men of the southern US, including an unpretentious, convivial manner, conservative or intolerant attitudes, and a strong sense of fellowship with and loyalty to other members of his peer group.”

Well, this a mixed bag.

My peer group is a loyal bunch (we call it friendship) and unpretentious. But intolerant is a stretch; kind is a more apt description of the people I’m thinking about.

But here we are.

We live in a strange universe where many of our best citizens and most generous contributors are on the outs.

There is a real attempt to rewrite local history, recast heroines as villains and try and make the case that everything that came before this current group was wrong, corrupt and incompetent.

Not exactly.

Luckily, the truth is a stubborn thing. While lies get halfway around the world before the truth puts its pants on (to borrow from Mark Twain) the truth has a pesky way of shining through. In other words, truth endures.

Which means that every time the civic achievements of a generation of kind and giving people are denigrated, it diminishes those that do so.

In the past few weeks of this heated election season, I’ve seen some of our best mayors made fun of—with suggestions that a few should seek memory care. And I’ve seen a narrative that said redeveloping downtown Delray was easy and could have been accomplished by just about anyone.

I don’t think so.

It took an army of talented people. An army….who knew how to work together, knew how to engage the community and knew how to collaborate with each other.

As for the mayors, well, I don’t think dementia is something to joke about, besides I know those mayors and on their worst day they can run circles around these social media legends.

But I digress.

I do not think anyone is above criticism.

If you venture into the “arena” you can count on it. And truth be told, plenty of mistakes were made; that’s what life is. Hopefully, you fix them and don’t repeat them.

But I also don’t think it’s healthy or wise for a community to chew up and spit out those who gave their time, treasure, and passion to a place.

I almost felt bad about some of this nonsense, but then I remembered a scene from the movie Good Will Hunting and I felt better.

In this pivotal scene, Robin Williams, who plays a therapist named Sean, confronts Matt Damon who plays the genius Will. Will had criticized a painting in Sean’s office and by extension Sean’s life.

Here’s a snippet of the script. It’s terrific.

Sean: I thought about what you said to me the other day, about my painting.

Will: Yeah?

Sean: Stayed up half the night thinking about it. Something occurred to me…and I fell into a deep peaceful sleep and haven’t thought about you since. Do you know what occurred to me?

Will: No.

Sean: You’re just a kid, you don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about.

Will: Why thank you.

Sean: It’s all right. You’ve never been out of Boston.

Will: Nope.

Sean: So, if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.

The scene proceeds with a dissertation on war, women, and life itself. It’s a masterful piece of screenwriting but there’s a profound lesson baked into the scene as well. Sean has hard earned experience, while his critic, in this case Will, lobs missiles from the cheap seats, from a place of anger and insecurity. That’s where bullies live.

Life, business, leadership always seems easier from the outside looking in. But if you examine every success story you see the struggle. I have yet to encounter a single “overnight” success story. It takes grit, hard work, sacrifice and this is going to sound odd—a fair amount of failure to succeed.

Why failure?
Because you learn from your mistakes.

So, when you see and experience criticism, please consider the source. Is he or she credible? Have they been in the situations that they are opining about?

Have they run a non-profit arts organization?

Have they made decisions that impact their neighbors?

Have they taken a risk, failed, got up, wiped the blood from their nose and tried again?

Meanwhile, this is a partial list of who is on the outs in Delray Beach these days. If you see these good ole boys and girls give them a pat on the back. They’ve earned it.

A veteran public school teacher who won a “Woman of Grace” Award recognizing her lifetime of volunteering for good causes.

A founder of an arts organization widely credited with leading the renaissance of downtown Delray. She recently won a “Distinguished Achievement Award” given by the University of Florida in recognition of her work as a champion of historic preservation.

A local business owner who gives to just about every charity in town, raises money by organizing a banquet honoring police officers and founded two charitable organizations that give back to local non-profits.

A semi-retired real estate developer who has spent the past 20 years serving on non-profit and city boards while supporting local charities just because he loves this place and wants to see it thrive.

A local contractor who has devoted himself to all things Delray for over 25 years.

A dedicated community servant who is involved in education, the environment, historic preservation, economic development and making sure we have a tree canopy.

A small business owner and philanthropist who has been involved in everything from the arts and culture to making sure we have trained Santa’s at the tree during the holidays.

I can go on and on.

These people are not entitled, elitist or self-serving—they are interested, generous and passionate about our hometown.

Something is amiss when they’ve been sidelined, kicked to the curb, and ridiculed.

Good ole boys?

Well, they are good.

Some of them are old (but young in spirit). Besides there is absolutely nothing wrong with being old.

Lastly, none of them are boys. They are men and women who care.

Period.

And win or lose tomorrow they won’t be silenced. They won’t be bullied.

Vote accordingly.

 

The Ties That Happily Bind

Rex’s Hairstyling has been a community institution and a source of community for close to 40 years.

I miss the movies.

I miss newspapers.

I miss magazines.

I miss bookstores.

I miss albums (and getting lost in a great record store).

I miss civility.

I miss the America I knew in the 70s and 80s. But I’m still filled to the brim with patriotism.

I miss sleep.

I miss endless summers.

I miss boring hurricane seasons.

I miss Blood’s Groves.

I miss Ken and Hazel’s.

I miss seeing my buddy Perry at Boston’s on the Beach.

I miss 32 East.

I miss Chip Stokes at St. Paul’s.

I miss listening to stories in Mr. and Mrs. Pompey’s living room.

I miss Joe and Carolyn Gholston.

I miss visits with Libby Wesley.

I miss Sister Mary Clare’s brogue.

I miss roasts. (And when this town had a sense of humor).

I miss charrettes.

I miss optimism.

I miss the sense that anything was possible.

Because it was.

 

Celebrating A Friend

A few months back, I wrote a tribute to Karyn Premock who died tragically in an accident in Tennessee. https://yourdelrayboca.com/remembering-our-friend/

Karyn, who used to work at Rex’s Hairstyling, is beloved in Delray Beach. She touched so many lives.

I had the honor of speaking at her “celebration of life” at The Dunes over the weekend. The place was packed, and it could have been filled four times with the number of people who wanted a chance to mourn and celebrate.

Karyn is missed. I find myself thinking about her often, especially when I pass her old house in Lake Ida on the way to the park near the Delray Playhouse.

The celebration was closure for many of us, but it’s still difficult to reconcile that she’s gone. One minute you’re here…the next your gone. It’s sobering but also clarifying because it’s important to cherish the people who enrich our lives and communities.

We live in coarse times.  And you have to ask why?

Why?

Karyn was a bright light. She made us smile. You can’t put a price on what that’s worth. Her warmth, her energy, her caring made a real and lasting difference.

Earlier in the week, we learned that Rex’s will be closing Dec. 30.

Another Delray institution passing into the history books and memory banks.

Words cannot express how special a place Rex’s has been. How important it has been to this community. The scene of countless first haircuts, endless conversation, loud laughs and love. Lots and lots and lots of love.

When you walk through the doors you got more than a haircut, you got community.

The special people who work there adore each other and their customers. In today’s often toxic world, you can’t put a price on that.

Karyn created a family in that shop. She leaves behind a legacy of love and warmth.

So does Rex’s Hairstyling.

We need more of these great places….

Untimely Loss

Speaking of untimely loss, we were stunned to hear the news of Anthony “Rumble” Johnson’s death over the weekend.

The MMA legend was a neighbor for a few years and always kind and friendly to everyone, especially the children in our neighborhood who loved his big truck. He died after an illness at 38.

Rest In Peace.

 

I’m glad the Election is over.

What a waste of money…what an exercise in (fill in the blank).

I don’t care what side of the divide you’re on, all of us were inundated with an endless barrage of mud that did not offer a single thoughtful solution or a way forward, only reasons why should we fear/hate each other.

Let’s hope the upcoming municipal elections in March will offer us more substance.

There are real issues to discuss; the Delray bond issue, water issues, what do with Old School Square, where to site a new fire station now that we are losing our long term (and mutually beneficial arrangement with Highland Beach), issues at City Hall, workforce housing, dispirited non-profits because of attitudes at City Hall and the CRA’s politicization and implementation of draconian terms to accept grants.

As for the election results, it was a monumentally consequential election for Palm Beach County.

A political earthquake.

Reliably blue Palm Beach County turned red. Not only did Gov. Ron DeSantis beat Charlie Crist but two prominent Democrats lost County Commission races.

County Mayor Bob Weinroth lost his seat to newcomer Mari Woodward and longtime civic leader Michelle McGovern lost her bid for a commission seat as well.

While both races surprised me, the Weinroth loss was a stunner.

Bob was a hardworking and highly visible elected official with lots of experience in city and county government.

I went to his opponent’s website to learn more, and she seemed to be a one-issue candidate with lots of words about Covid lockdowns. It will be interesting to see how she performs.

But it’s clear to me, that experience matters less than the team you’re on. You are either a D or an R. And neither side will consider voting for the candidates outside their tribe.

In those kinds of races, money (Weinroth had a bunch) matters less than turning out your team.

Personally, I don’t understand why the County Commission is a partisan body.

And love him or loathe him, Governor DeSantis had some serious coattails.

 

A Year Of Darkness

There’s a darkness in the center of town.

Anniversaries are funny things.

We mark the dates we like to celebrate—weddings, first dates, the opening of businesses. But we also mark the dates we’re troubled by—the loss of a loved one, the break up of a relationship, hurricanes etc.

For many in our community, 8/10 has become a date they will remember.

On August 10, 2021, the Delray Beach City Commission voted 3-2 to sever their relationship with Old School Square and terminate a 32 year history with the organization that created and largely funded that magical place on the corner of Atlantic and Swinton that catalyzed the rebirth of our downtown and became the creative hub of our  community.

A year later, the theater and museum remain dark despite sssurances from the commission majority and the City Manager that there would be a “seemless” transition with more and better cultural opportunities.

Instead, we’ve been left with expensive litigation, embarrassing headlines for the city and big bills ahead for taxpayers to get the place up and running again.

Over the past year, we have witnessed oodles of accusations against the volunteers and donors who lovingly supported Old School Square and worked on behalf of our community for decades.

Some of those volunteers and donors have been so poorly treated that they have vowed to never serve again. Others are steadfast in their resolve to not be bullied and have vowed to continue their efforts to bring a modicum of common sense back to a town that once was a beacon for other cities to admire and follow.

But divisive politics and a nonstop turnstile of staff at City Hall have left us with a lot of damage  and dysfunction.

Everywhere you go these days, people ask “what happened to Delray? “

We used to hear: “I wish our town got along as well as your town does.”

That’s a big swing in sentiment.

So why does it matter?

After all, the downtown is teeming with visitors, property values continue to soar and tourists are still flocking to “America’s Most Fun Small City.”

Indeed, all of those things are true. And I would argue that’s a testament to the good work that began in the late 80s with the Atlantic Avenue Task Force, Visions 2000, the Decade of Excellence, the Downtown Master Plan and other efforts large and small ranging from the Community Land Trust, the Cultural Plan, Southwest Plan and an important and groundbreaking initiative to improve race relations. There was a lot of good work done in this town. The success we’ve experienced was not an accident. It was planned and made possible by a generation of volunteers who cared passionately about working together to buld a better community.

At the center of it all was Old School Square.

Not only was the project a catalyst for downtown revitalization and civic renewal, but it was a place to gather, dream, talk things over and soak up the arts with a slew of memorable performances and exhibitions lovingly curated and made possible by local leaders who dreamt of making this a special place —and succeeded.

So this anniversary is a sad one.

Because we have lost so much. And I contend that the success mentioned before is endangered by a political culture that prizes personal retribution over doing what’s best for the community.

A month or so ago,  the city went back to the old playbook and held a charrette, or gathering, to determine what should happen at Old School Square.

Charrettes are great and there is a rich history of successful ones that made a profound difference in our town.

But the spirit of a charrette is to allow stakeholders to dream unencumbered and this one violated that basic and fundamental tenet. Attendees were told to focus on  “what” should happen at Old School Square not “who” should run the place.

That struck many as unfair.

But the city didn’t want to be embarrassed because the optics would have been bad if the stakeholders said they liked what they had. Besides, a majority of the commission had already decided that they wanted the Boca Museum and two local artists to be in charge only to see that idea fizzle out.

Lo and behold, the outcome of the charrette proved quite interesting and predictable really. The stakeholders who attended—many stayed away because they didn’t trust the process—said they wanted largely what they had before with the organization that was booted from the premises.

Many of us were not surprised because while Old School Square was by no means perfect or all that it could be, they were doing a whole lot right and there was no public clamor for a change.

So why was the group booted from the place they created? Why was there a sense of urgency to get rid of a group that provided 75-80 percent of the funding to support things like free concerts, art exhibits, theater productions and classes?

The answer to those questions can be found in one word: Politics (with a capital p).

Pure and simple.

The board, the donors and the volunteers pissed off a few people who had the power to break the place.

Why?

What did these people do that was so heinous?

Well, they didn’t support the right candidates as deemed by the powers that be.

And that’s why we hear the refrain that whoever inherits those buildings should be apolitical or perhaps from another community entirely. Really?

We should ask involved citizens to not have an opinion? We should ask another community to come in and run cultural programs in our town?

So I wonder.

I wonder if the board, donors, volunteers and supporters of Old School Square had supported the so-called “right candidates” if there would be a clamor to make non profit board members apolitical or if there would be this need to bring in Boca to run our community’s beating heart.

I doubt it.

Granted, non-profits should not be political.

But individuals who choose to volunteer shouldn’t have to disenfranchise themselves to serve. Old School Square was not political. But the people involved do have opinions and they are entitled to be citizens. Instead of doing what you can to “make those people go away” perhaps the powers that be ought to look in the mirror and ask why a large segment of community leaders and volunteers are unhappy with their politics. Maybe, they should even talk to those who disagree with them. I know that’s a radical concept, but some dialogue might have saved the taxpayers millions of dollars because that’s what it is going to take to fix this mess.

For the past year, the board, donors, volunteers and supporters of Old School Square have been excused of being “political”, “double dipping” (whatever that is) and even worse. But all they’ve been doing is fighting for something they believe in. Bullies don’t like that. They like to dish it out, they don’t like it when you push back.

There have been no conversations to solve this expensive problem, no efforts to settle the litigation, establish dialogue or work things out.

Instead, we’ve seen a once effective CRA weaponized by politics and used as a cudgel to strike back at those who have dared to stand up for what they believe in. The latest is the CRA effort to get the Small Business Administration to investigate PPP funds used to get Old School Square through a horrible  and unforeseen pandemic.

All of this matters because all of this comes with a cost.

It will take millions of taxpayer dollars to bring Old  School Square back on line. Millions of dollars to make the darkened Crest Theatre function again and get the museum up and running. PS those millions were already raised and being deployed when the plug was pulled.

The generous donor who paid to improve the Cornell Museum, renovate the Crest Theater and add a long coveted commercial kitchen so the organization could host more and better community events pulled her funds and recently spoke before the commission to ask what happened and why those beloved buildings are still dark a year later.

I wonder if other donors were watching and thinking maybe they ought to invest elsewhere. Yes, there is a hidden cost to this brand of politics.

A year ago, I wrote two emails to our latest City Manager Terrance Moore.

The first was to welcome him to our city and wish him well. I wished Mr. Moore success because we’ve had 9, 10 or a hundred (I forget)  City Managers come and go (many humiliated and two with lawsuits) since David Harden retired in 2012 after 22 years in the job.

We need a good manager. We need one to succeed and build a staff that can effectively serve our community.

I got a nice reply back from Mr. Moore at the time.

My second email was a cautionary one after the August 10 decision. I felt that the Manager’s messaging was political and that it was dangerous because managers need to serve both sides of the divide. I also felt,and still do, that he does not grasp the enormity of the mistake that was made and the monumental task it will be to bring back Old School Square.

Those who know would have cautioned Mr. Moore that the transition would not be seemless and that there are many moving parts to consider and understand that he simply doesn’t get. How can he? He’s brand new to our community.

I don’t fault Mr. Moore for the decision.  He didn’t make it. But I do fault him for not speaking truth to power and for failing to talk to a wide swath of the community on this issue to gain a better understanding of the importance of Old School Square.

The lesson here, as we mark a sad anniversary, is that before you break something you really need to be confident you can put it back together again.

I’ve seen a lot of things broken in recent years by people who weren’t around when things got fixed.

Cities are delicate organisms—resilient only to a point. Pull a thread here and there and you may get lucky. But pull the wrong thread and a place can unravel.

The sad lesson is something that can take 30 plus years to build can be broken in one night by one vote. And it wasn’t even on the agenda…so you , the ones who pay the bills, didn’t get a chance to say stop.

 

In Search of Hope & Joy

“Stay gentle, keep the eyes of a child

Don’t harden your heart or your hands

Know to find joy in the darkness is wise

Although they will think you don’t understand

Don’t let the world make you callous

Be ready to laugh

No one’s forgotten about us

There is light on your path

—“Stay Gentle” lyrics by Brandi Carlile

 

This will be my last post for 2021.

I want to wish you all a happy, safe, and joyous Christmas and New Year and I want to thank you for reading. I’m grateful for your time and attention every Monday (and sometimes Wednesdays).

This column is a labor of love and something that I look forward to every week.

I cherish your feedback and take it all to heart.

As we wrap up 2021, I find myself thinking about the twin concepts of hope and joy.

Those words were planted in my brain by none other than Stevie Van Zandt, guitarist for the E Street Band, and the guy who played Silvio on The Sopranos.

I just finished Mr. Zan Vandt’s awesome autobiography “Unrequited Infatuations” which has become a surprise best seller. The book is terrific, and I love the title because it summarizes the experiences of most guys I know. Sigh.

Littler Steven is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, consigliere to Bruce Springsteen and a political activist who played a prominent role in the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. He’s also quietly been at the forefront of everything from satellite radio and Netflix’s international expansion to the resurgence of arts education through his “Teach Rocks” foundation and curriculum.

He seems like a cool guy and is certainly a larger-than-life figure hanging out with the likes of Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, James Gandolfini and Little Richard. Now that’s a dinner party!

A minor but recurring theme of the book is the notion that we, as a society and as a nation, have lost our sense of hope and joy.
Stevie feels that those words were a common thread behind the spirit of the 1960s, but somewhere along the way we lost our mojo.

There’s no joy in Mudville as they say. Little hope that the world we inhabit will get better.

The 60s were a turbulent era—war, assassinations, street protests, struggles for civil and equal rights. But despite the chaos, Mr. Van Zandt says there was joy and hope in our music, in our culture and even in our politics. There was a sense that we were working toward a more perfect union.

I’ve been thinking about these heavy topics amidst the turbulence and division of 2021.

We’ve lost 800,000 plus Americans to Covid; but instead of this threat binding us together; the virus has driven us apart—physically, spiritually and politically.

We hold elections and a great many no longer trust the results.

Faith in our institutions—government, courts, media, schools, universities, the financial system and businesses are suffering according to public opinion surveys. Attendance at religious services— in person and on-line— is dropping.

It’s a scary time of public health crises, inflation, climate change and spasms of gun violence.

We fear and loathe those who do not think like us.

Right here at home, we end the year with arguably our greatest civic icon, Frances Bourque, embroiled in a lawsuit pitting Old School Square against the City of Delray Beach. Think about that for a moment. It’s just a big, loud (and sad) wow.

Which begs the question; is there still room for joy? Is there space for hope to take root in such a climate?

I believe there is.

I have no evidence to support my feelings. No magic formula that says things will get better other than faith.

I still have faith.

It may be misplaced, it may be delusional, but I still harbor a belief that before we sink further our better angels will wake up and save the day.

As Mets fans used to say: “Ya Gotta Believe”.

Reknitting our torn social fabric is the leadership challenge of a lifetime. The stakes could not be higher. I believe the survival of American Democracy is at stake and because we remain a beacon for the world, if we fail, there will be grave global implications. The world needs America. And we need her too.

So, what should we do?
Well, we need to re-establish the existence of objective facts. That won’t be easy but if half of our population says today is Monday and the other says Tuesday, where does that get us?

If half the nation wants to try and address climate change but the other half doesn’t– what happens to our world if the overwhelming majority of scientists are correct and we are indeed experiencing an existential crisis affecting every corner of our globe?

If we hold elections and half the country doesn’t trust their basic integrity how do we function as a Democracy?

And if we lose faith in our courts and large swaths of our nation decides to ignore rulings where does that leave the rule of law, the basic building block of a civilized society?

I don’t know the answers or even where to begin, yet I remain full of hope that we can somehow find a way forward.

It seems to be that most people I interact with—on both sides of the aisle—are pretty miserable these days, especially at the state of our politics—on all levels federal, state and local.

There’s no joy and where’s there no joy hope wanes.

As someone who believes in the power of community, I believe the answers start right here at home.

We can resolve to be kinder to each other. We can resolve to talk more and shout less. We can resolve to listen to those who are disaffected.

We can make it a point to confront bullies and not cede them the public square.

We can resolve to respect each other, to listen and to be stewards instead of bulldozers.

We can summon the courage to stand up and be counted— in a respectful way of course. We can stop pretending that we can’t be found when our friends ask us to stand up for what’s right.

We can show up and speak truth to power even if that truth may hurt our interests in the short term. It’s called doing the right thing.

We can react or we can respond.

From Seth Godin: “When we react to a medicine, that’s a bad thing. When we respond, it’s working.”

We can throw a tantrum or we can respond—with something that works. With an approach we’re proud of, proud of even after the moment has passed. It’s not easy, it’s often not fun, but it’s the professional’s choice.

It’s also the citizen’s choice. We need to become citizens again.

We can save our communities. We have the power to do so.

It starts with kindness and empathy and ends with joy and hope.

Joy keeps us going. So does hope. Right now, we have to keep moving forward even when we feel tired and want to chuck it all. Especially when we are tired. We must never ever give up.

Wishing you a wonderful holiday season and a safe New Year.

I’ll leave with part of a  poem called “One Today”  that I recently discovered. It’s by Richard Blanco.

“We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight

of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,

always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon

like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop

and every window, of one country—all of us—

facing the stars

hope—a new constellation

waiting for us to map it,

waiting for us to name it—together.”

 

 

 

The Language Of Reconciliation

“I believe we will soon see leaders using the language of reconciliation, of healing and unifying. Perhaps the noise of the present has been drowning out the voice of reason—the voice of the future that is still there.” —Frances Hesselbein, chair of the Hesselbein Leadership Forum at the University of Pittsburgh and former CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA.

I admire Frances Hesselbein.

I read her leadership themed email every day.

She is optimistic.

Leadership by definition is optimistic.

We have been missing the voice of the future for a long time in our community and that absence has created a tremendous amount of damage. When you stop focusing on the future it passes you by.  You tend to get bogged down in the mundane daily battles that blur with time and don’t add up to anything productive.

It’s the day after the Delray Beach municipal election—another bruiser that did little to elevate the conversation around town and a lot to take us further down the “hey, let’s continue to hate each other” rabbit hole that simply does not work.

So let’s congratulate Vice Mayor Shirley Johnson and newcomer Juli Casale on their victories and hope that in the midst of a huge national crisis, we are able to come together in Delray.

But before we move on and the election fades from our memories, we should do a brief post-mortem.

So what did we “learn” over the past two plus months of intense campaigning?
Here’s a brief primer in case you might have gone numb.

Election Narrative: All developers and all development is Bad—It doesn’t matter what the project is, it’s all no good. Developers are rapacious, corrupting criminals and somehow we’d be so much better off without them.

Reality: Without investment we’re dead.

Healthy cities need to grow their tax base. Healthy cities need to create jobs and they need to offer housing especially attainable housing so that families and young people have a way of becoming part of our community. We need good development, smart growth, attractive design and policies that promote economic and environmental sustainability. We didn’t get that discussion in this election cycle or in past cycles either to be fair. And until we have that conversation as a community, we are doomed to keep slinging a lot of lies and innuendo at each other. How sad for us. How unproductive. We need to do better and we can do better.

Election Narrative: Business interests— but especially developers —are a “special interest” and therefore not worthy of participating in our local elections.

They shouldn’t make a donation to a candidate who they think might be good for Delray; they can however continue to pay taxes and shut their mouths when it comes to endless approval processes and endless insults relating to the damage they are allegedly doing.

So it doesn’t matter that maybe you hope to exercise your property rights or whether you are following the city’s codes or acting on a vision…. say to jump start the Congress Avenue corridor or create a job or provide a home for a young family. The message is clear: how dare you. I’ve met a slew of developers over the years. Some were terrible. I mean lock the doors, check your wallets and take a shower after meeting them bad. And some were terrific.

Reality: In my experience, the good ones don’t want to buy anyone and would never do so. That’s one of the reasons they’re good.  They believe in their projects and their vision and are willing to take risks to make things happen.

They don’t mind tough standards as long as the playing field is level and the process is not endless. Candidates often decry “developer money” flowing to their opponents, but why would developers support candidates who base their campaigns on stopping development? Not bad development, all development.

Election Narrative: Endorsements are worthless and reflect poorly on the candidate who receives them.

So if the police and fire union endorses you, it’s only because they want bigger pensions and higher salaries. It can’t be because you have been supportive of police and fire or they think you’d best serve the people of the community they are sworn to serve and protect.

Reality: Never mind the fact that in the last contract negotiation they agreed to give up benefits. Never let the facts get in the way of a good mail piece.

Let’s pretend that it makes sense to portray our police officers and firefighters as mercenaries. Hey I get it, unions and all. But, I’ve known two-plus generations of officers and firefighters; they care about Delray and will do what’s right for the city when it comes to crunch time. If you think the best way to “deal” with them is confrontation you are wrong.

Election Narrative: Challenger vs. Corrupt Establishment

We can’t discuss issues in any kind of depth because we get caught in the endless spiral of attacks and counter-attacks.

So here’s how it goes: Challenger (usually inexperienced with little in the way of a civic resume takes on “establishment” candidate (which is code word for someone who has spent at least a few years working in the community or serving in office).

Challenger attacks record, character and integrity of their opponent. Opponent feels compelled to strike back and call the challenger inexperienced, a bully and a liar. And so it goes down into the gutter.

To be fair, in this particular cycle, several of the challenger candidates ran very positive campaigns—a few didn’t. All are to be commended for running because it’s a huge commitment.  I hope commissioners seek to put several of the candidates on boards where they can get experience and learn more about the city they seek to lead.

 

There’s a lot more to discuss. Campaign finance reform, an apparent disconnect between the stated level of spending and the amount of mail we receive, the divisions in our city. Especially the divisions and the need to move past issues once they are decided.

 

The re-elected, the newly elected, the incumbents and we the people have an opportunity here to heal those divisions or at least agree to disagree in a more civil manner.

Our first order of business is to make it through the virus—which is sure to change our world and our local community in ways we can’t even begin to fathom yet.

But this too shall pass—and we have a responsibility to each other to find a way forward together.

The election was close—and it was a split decision. Which means there is an opportunity for all “sides” and viewpoints to reach out and be inclusive.

 

 

A Better Way Forward

In a few days, voters will head to the polls in Delray Beach to fill two seats on the City Commission.

I’ve been observing elections in this town for 33 years now and friends can I tell you something? They are getting worse every year.

Nastier.

More expensive.

Devoid of ideas and vision.

It wasn’t always like this.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

And if we are smart, steps will be taken to change the tone of politics in our community.

Because make no mistake, these kind of campaigns leave a mark or should I say a stain on the soul of our community.

Delray Beach is at a crossroads.

The city needs hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure repairs and upgrades, sea level rise is a real threat to coastal neighborhoods, homelessness appears to be on the rise, our city staff has suffered from rampant turnover (the fire chief quit yesterday) and we seem to have stopped prioritizing economic development—as evidenced by an empty Office of Economic Development and ugly attacks on just about anyone who wants to invest in Delray Beach.

Despite the serious issues outlined above (and there are more) the three biggest issues in this election appear to be the positioning of a valet stand, how to handle traffic coming and going from a popular shopping center and the settlement of a lawsuit related to our Delray ATP tournament, a lawsuit– mind you– that the city was told it had no chance of winning despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. Your dollars.

We can and must do better.

Regardless of where you stand, we all seem to agree that Washington is an intractable mess.

The potential for change, solutions and innovation resides in our cities. But it seems our city is sliding more and more into the abyss of division and dysfunction. We are majoring in the minor when we have big rocks to move.

I’m sure the valet stand issue has merit and I know the traffic flow in and out of Delray Plaza is important to my good friends in Tropic Isle. But, there’s more to Delray, much more.

Where’s the vision?

Where’s the aspiration?

How will we weather climate change?

Do we care about jobs, attainable housing, and better schools?

Or is it all about development and traffic?

We act—if you believe the election mail pieces and social media chatter—as if all development is bad, no more is needed and that somehow we can resist change and pretend that property rights don’t exist.

Let’s talk about those issues shall we?

I get it, people hate traffic and congestion.

They also fear over development and losing the charm of our village by the sea. So do I, as do most of the people I know on both sides of the local divide. But we are not having meaningful conversations on these issues. We are yelling past one another. And it is getting us nowhere.

All candidates say they have a cure for traffic—but the truth is they don’t.

Personally, I find I can get around Delray pretty well, but I can’t say the same for Glades Road in Boca Raton or I-95 which can be parking lots.

Is Atlantic Avenue congested? You betcha. A lot of people worked very hard to make it so. You know what the opposite of congestion is? Empty streets and empty storefronts.

So sure, it takes some time to cruise the Avenue, but if you want to zip around town, please use our grid system, it works pretty well. We made a choice years ago to create a bustling, dynamic and vibrant downtown and we pulled it off.

There are trade-offs when you do that; especially when you succeed and Delray succeeded.

A pretty cool little downtown has been created and it has endured through the Great Recession, hurricanes and all sorts of political shenanigans.

So we may have to slow down– especially in season. We may get caught in traffic if we decide to take Atlantic from Swinton to A1A.

Next time you get annoyed—and I get annoyed too sometimes— consider all the jobs that have been created, all the tax dollars that have been generated, all the great businesses that have sprouted and think about how much more your home is worth than the days when this town was known as “Dull Ray”— a time when you could have gone bowling on Atlantic and not hit anything because it was empty and depressed.

So yes, the bridge will go up every 15 minutes or so, but guess what? It does go down and we will make it across. Parking may be tough—but that’s what they call a good problem to have. It means that people are flocking to your city’s central business district ringing cash registers and supporting the local economy.

We can add more parking infrastructure and pay for it too– if we want too. We can move toward solutions on issues big and small if we insist that our elected officials stop focusing on politics and each other and start focusing on serving the community. All of the community—not just their base of supporters.

As for development, I can understand the concern. But I think the way we are having this conversation is all wrong. All we have to show for it is years of frustration and anger.

Here are some facts to frame the situation:

Things change, it’s the only constant.

Property gets developed and redeveloped.

Owners of property have rights to develop that property within the rules set forth in our codes.

We do not allow tall buildings like our neighbors in Boynton Beach and Boca Raton do. But we do allow buildings that are 54 feet in height in some areas of our downtown.

I have never seen a developer get a height variance. Never.

I have never seen them get a waiver for density either.

I have seen developers create ridiculous inconveniences for long periods of time during construction and that’s something that needs to be looked at.

We had one project that took up a block and a half of parking for a decade right smack in front of small businesses and right now we have a hotel project blocking half of Pineapple Grove which damages a lot of very cool independent mom and pop businesses. There has to be a better way.

There also has to be a better way to discuss development and a better way to disagree on the issues without burning each other’s houses down.

We have to elevate the conversation and not make development a zero sum game where either the investor or the residents lose. We can create win-win scenarios but it will require us to agree that we must be civil when we discuss development or anything else controversial in our community.

Just because you favor a project does not mean that you are on the take or corrupt, it might just mean you like the project and feel it’s needed. Conversely, if you oppose something you are not necessarily a NIMBY, unless of course you oppose everything then maybe the shoe fits.

All I know is right now, everyone seems miserable and I think we need to reframe how we discuss these issues.

We have had a few spectacularly crappy developers come to town. They tend to not build their projects, because they don’t have the requisite skill set to do so.

But we have also had some really talented developers work in Delray, a few who have chosen to live here. While we have had a few developers who have acted like strip miners, taking every morsel and giving little to nothing back, many have been extraordinarily generous with their time and their philanthropic donations.

They have created some pretty special projects too. They have contributed to the vibrancy and to the tax base while taking spectacular risk.

If we chase away all development and treat every project as if it will kill Delray–we can count on taxes increasing and needed projects and services not being funded.

We desperately need— and I believe we desperately crave —real discussion on things like design (example: should we have modern homes on historic Swinton Avenue?), traffic flow, floor area ratios, density and uses.

Right now, there is a one way conversation taking place on social media and in the campaigns that tends to be lacking in facts, context and balance. Discussions about our CRA are especially nauseating because that organization has been invaluable to Delray Beach. I admit to bias on that front, but if you scratch beneath the surface on just about everything that has been accomplished in east Delray over the past 30 plus years you will find the CRA as a driving force for good. Has the agency been perfect? Not on your life. But subtract the agency from the Delray story and our story looks a whole lot different and I would argue a whole lot worse.

But everything begins and ends with the five people we elect to the commission. Get it right and good things happen. Get it wrong….well you can figure it out. Either way, we have to improve the tone of the town.

I make this statement based on watching this stuff for 33 years.

The fact that we are locked in a cycle marked by the politics of personal destruction ought to give us all pause. Because this becomes a spiral to the bottom.

Not only will good people not run for office, they will shy away from the process entirely which means serving on boards, volunteering for key non-profits etc. I would argue this is already happening.

Without casting aspersions, we are seeing some of the ripple effects of the nasty political climate in the sheer number of inexperienced candidates who are running for office in recent cycles.

I maintain and strongly advise that the job of city commissioner is not an entry level position. It is hard to be a good commissioner if you have not put the time in to learn about how the city functions, where it has come from and where it’s going.

You can be educated, sincere, driven and caring—but there is no substitute for time spent in the trenches. There are many candidates running this year that we have never seen involved in past visioning exercises, key boards and organizations. They are introducing themselves to the community in one breath and asking for your vote in the next.

It is important for candidates to have experience before they are given the keys to a $100 million plus budget and responsibility for major decisions that impact our quality of life and our future.

It is also important for the community to get to know the candidates. Do they play well with others? Will they show up at meetings, will they do their homework, can they listen? If they lose a vote, will they move on or will they declare war on those who disagree with them and spend their terms seeking revenge?

There’s simply no way of knowing if we have not seen how they approach community service.

By the way, there are examples for every terrible scenario I just listed—commissioners who are AWOL at key meetings and commissioners or their surrogates who hunt, harass and bully those with whom they disagree.

I am not advocating that we turn politics into some sort of genteel afternoon tea; that’s unrealistic and it never existed even in the good old days. So if you are a bully you should be called out for your behavior. If you have a past you probably should expect it to surface and if you have voted poorly or made mistakes you should be called to account.

Issues are fair game too.

Tough debate on the issues is fair, but we seem fixated on personalities, feuds and alliances.

Lately, I haven’t seen much substantive debate. So I really can’t tell where the candidates stand other than they oppose taxes, crime, traffic and developers. I don’t see any real solutions or any new ideas.

We need both.

Desperately.

I would add that we need aspiration as well.

If you’re ambition as an election official is to block every project, I’d like to ask what you’d like to see happen. If your unofficial tag line is “I’m in the boat, pull up the ladder” when it comes to housing projects, I’d like to know what we tell young families, police officers, teachers and our kids when they ask us where they can live in our city.

I’d like to know how you will pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure repairs and needed services if you don’t build the tax base, down zone already underdeveloped corridors and pledge to cut taxes. If you think you can, you are either lying, terribly naive or you are a magician. I haven’t met too many magicians running for local office.

I think you get the gist.

Wednesday is the day after the election. That’s when—win or lose—we ought to begin a new and better conversation.

The current model isn’t working.

It’s not village like, it doesn’t address our needs and it won’t position us to seize opportunities or solve problems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From City Hall To The White House

A good farm system…

Two mayors are running for president and if any of them makes it,  they will become a rarity: only Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge went from City Hall to the White House.
The two mayors are Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana and Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey.

If it’s possible, let’s put partisanship aside for a moment or two.
Can we do that?
Good.

Now let’s focus on whether being a mayor of a city qualifies someone for the most powerful position in the world.
The case against:
—it’s a big leap from City Hall to the Oval Office. One position deals with potholes and variances, the other deals with national security and the global economy.

—mayors move policy through their city council’s, presidents have to deal with 535 members of the House and Senate.

On the local level, if you have a good idea on Tuesday night and a few commissioners agree with you things start to move on Wednesday morning. In Washington, it takes an act of Congress to get action from Congress. Ideas may not even resemble what you proposed by the time it makes its way through committees and to the floor in both the House and the Senate. It’s a wonder anything gets done. Come to think of it, not much does.

Good mayors are used to getting things done.
The case for:
–Good mayors work on more than potholes, they are involved in economic development, education, civic engagement, urban planning, transportation and the health and safety of their communities.
They tend to come with a bias toward action and tend to look at issues practically and in a fact-based manner. They are not partisan. That’s a good thing.
–Most mayors develop a thick skin.
That will come in handy on the national stage. We are, after all, a nation of critics.
Mayors understand this because they can’t go anywhere without facing criticism—not the grocery, gas station, to their favorite social media hangout or to dinner without running into someone who seems to live for the chance to insult, berate or complain to you.
Truth is, most people are nice and very sweet. And that’s what makes being a mayor worth it. But if you are in the arena (and mayors are) you will suffer your fair share of slings and arrows–mostly from the cheap seats, i.e. people who don’t have ideas or contribute.

Of course, as President, the Secret Service won’t let you mingle too much with the people. Which is sad but understandable. Mayors can’t hide, but neither can presidents.

Now I’m of the belief that partisan politics is for the birds.

Nothing gets done which is anathema to good mayors who always have a bias for action and decision making.
So I’m thinking that the idea of a mayor as POTUS is not such a bad concept.

Good mayors know how to promote their cities, grow their economies, bring people together, solve problems and serve the needs of constituents. Those are skills that translate.

We’ve had a haberdasher (Truman), a slew of lawyers (I will resist the lawyer jokes), a couple of generals, a community organizer and a reality TV star.
I’ll take my chances on a mayor.

But only a good one.

A Leadership Opportunity Emerges

The winning bidder’s project is called Alta West.

When you go to the few neighborhood hangouts that are left, talk often turns to local happenings.

So when I ventured downtown after the CRA decision to award six acres of land to a local developer recently, I was asked what I thought about the project. The short answer is I don’t know, because I haven’t really been following the drama.

I didn’t spend five hours or so watching the video feed, didn’t go to the usual social media haunts where armchair “experts” opine (often without any facts) and didn’t talk to any of the players involved. As a hometown guy I just hope they picked the best project. That’s their job.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion on the big picture.

I do.

And as an armchair quarterback myself these days I don’t mind sharing.

The day after the vote my friend and neighbor Commissioner Bill Bathurst posted a cartoon on Facebook that kind of sums up America these days. The cartoon depicts a large group of people walking along a path toward hate, division and intolerance and only a few walking down a path labeled critical thinkers and the truth.

So even though I don’t visit the political pages on Facebook anymore,  I can’t help but bump into the noise that is out there. Some of it is really good analysis, but a great deal of it is angry diatribes and the settling of personal scores. Unfortunately, what’s best for the community gets lost in the commotion.

So here is my armchair analysis, based on nearly 32 years of following things in Delray. All provided with the proviso that I have never looked at any of the projects submitted to redevelop the CRA property on West Atlantic Avenue.

First and foremost—we are flying without navigation; therefore I don’t think we have a unified vision. If we do have one, I don’t see it.

We used to have one back in the late 80s, 90s and early 2000s. But we’ve gone a long while without a blueprint that the community can agree on. And if there is a vision—say the Set Transformation Plan for one important part of town (but not all of Delray)—it doesn’t help if the city is not on board. Visions drive goals, budgets and ultimately accountability. How can we evaluate our progress, if we don’t  know where we’re going? Sadly, personal scores fill the vacuum when leadership fails to provide a forum for the community to create a vision.

Look no further than Washington D.C. to see what happens when there is no unified vision.

The place simply doesn’t function.

So even when we agree that we need to have comprehensive immigration reform, fix our infrastructure and improve our health care system we don’t have a framework or a methodology for doing any of it. So all we see is partisan warfare, skirmishes, sound bites, gridlock and dysfunction. When something does get done, we’re actually surprised. Which is really sad when you stop and think about it.

This level of dysfunction is why people are angry—because all they see and hear is pettiness and empty sound bites—not the critical thinking, fact based decision making and yes compromise that is needed to solve problems and seize opportunities.

In the last few weeks, there have been a lot of articles about mayors running for president and some have declared their intention to do so or are considering a bid.

Why?
Because—in theory anyway—mayors are supposed to be problem solvers. The best use their “soft power” to convene people and focus attention on issues that need to be solved or opportunities that their cities should pursue. That’s what effective mayors do. Mayors that matter.

Ineffective mayors divide or simply hide by “keeping their own counsel” or just placating their base and ignoring the rest of the community’s stakeholders.

The awarding of an RFP after years of property aggregation, planning and a laborious RFP (request for proposals) process should be the cause of celebration and excitement.

After all, private investment is coming to an area that needs it.

Jobs will be created.

Property values will increase.

New businesses will take root.

It’s opportunity.

But I’m not sure that’s what I’m seeing. There doesn’t seem to be any excitement or pride in the process that led us here.

Of course, I could be wrong. But it seems that several of the decision makers were less than happy with the process and the politics—even those on the prevailing side.

There’s a large group of stakeholders who celebrated that one applicant wasn’t chosen but didn’t seem to be happy with the outcome either.

Maybe that’s the world today, but I refuse to accept that cynical view. The beauty of local government is we don’t have to act like the nitwits in Washington whom I believe history will judge very harshly, we can decide to do better. We can decide to be better. It’s a choice we can make.

That’s the leadership opportunity.

Fact is, this RFP should not have taken several  years to award. That fact alone is indicative of the dysfunction that has invaded our politics right here at home.

Again, I’m not involved in this issue and don’t plan to be. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t care or that I don’t have a voice that I plan to use.

I live here. I have an obligation and a right to care. But we seem to be stuck in a climate of division and paranoia. That’s the real issue here and the one we should all care about.

I’ll give you a personal example. At some point along this multi-year RFP odyssey, a wannabe political lackey was calling around trying to sniff out whether I had a dog in this hunt. I can assure you the information the lackey was seeking was not in an effort to help.  The effort was an intelligence gathering operation designed to settle an old score or make points with some power broker they wanted to impress. Nowhere in this effort was there a desire to make sure that the best project possible for Delray would be chosen.

The lackey could have called me but didn’t. I assure you the conversation would have been short and probably not that sweet. But I would have given some needed advice: stop looking behind every bush and start getting things done for Delray.

Simple advice. You don’t have to be a management guru to figure it out.

But getting things done—once Delray’s calling card and the reason for any success we’ve enjoyed—is a muscle that seems to have atrophied on some key projects and in some key areas.

This isn’t a shot at anyone. It really isn’t.

But it is a call to arms so to speak.

There is a lot to be done here.

Such as the continuing redevelopment of West Atlantic Avenue and The Set. The operative word is continuing because those politicos who spout that nothing has been done can write or call me and I will be happy to give them a personal tour of the progress that has been made by a CRA that has been ruthlessly and unfairly been maligned by people who ought to know better.

Saying that nothing has been done is not only untrue, it is disrespectful to a whole lot of people who have rolled up their sleeves for decades and made some good things happen. I can give you a list if you need it.

Nobody has ever said that more investment or more progress wasn’t needed. But if we are to get unstuck we have to start from a basis of truth and respect.  We have to rebuild trust that I think once existed however imperfect that trust has been through the years.

We need to decide as a community that we want to get things done, function better and more efficiently and yes treat each other better. That doesn’t mean that we have to hold hands and sing ‘kumbaya’ on the grounds of Old School Square. Vigorous debate, critical thinking and accountability are essential ingredients.

We need to elevate the conversation in Delray Beach and just as important we need to put the community first and start to get things done—like we used to do.