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 Planning Gene

Delray has a long history of innovative planning

Delray has a long history of innovative planning

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

He will begin his tenure June 16.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome aboard.