Water Cooler Wednesday: Design & Use

Vibrant, fun and beautiful. Our Delray

Vibrant, fun and beautiful. Our Delray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




  1. Great article Jeff…..We should all be proud of our city and it’s growth over the years.
    Delray Beach is like that fine, established, restaurant with the hour plus wait to get your table. People wait because the reward is well worth it.
    Our city is the same with traffic…..going downtown (especially now that it’s the season) can cause one to be delayed in traffic…..but, the traffic “jam” is well worth the time once we’re settled into our restaurant, bar, shop, service store, or mini mall……Patience is a virtue…..we can all use some more patience. God Bless Delray Beach and its fine citizens/government.

  2. Mitch Katz says


    I agree with most of your editorial and agree the master plan was vital to the success of downtown Delray. I also agree that this time around the citizens were not really a part of the discussion. Two years ago shortly after he was elected, the Mayor brought back town hall meetings and after a couple of successful meetings, poof they were gone.
    I don’t feel a lecture series is not in any way a town hall discussion.

    Now back to LDRs, the only negative thing in the current LDRs is ten use of waivers and I keep hearing the word bonuses in the current discussion. While on the face bonus programs and waivers should lead to creative and exciting things but they seem to also lead to corruption. We pay commissioner 9000 a year to do what is almost a full time job and that makes it hard for many honest hard working citizens to run. Instead with these commission discretion guidelines we have builders funneling thousands of dollars into campaign accounts so these candidates can but cell phones, televisions, gasoline, and most recently thousands of dollars on Pilates instruction.

    • Jeff Perlman says

      I’m not sure it is wise to craft public policy through fear of corruption.
      Downtowns are more art than science and tying the hands of future policymakers because we have had some clunker commissioners is not wise, in my opinion.
      Saying that the public has not benefitted from conditional use and or bonus programs is a good talking point, but unfortunately it’s inaccurate.
      The public does benefit through an expanded tax base, safer streets, a more sustainable and walkable environment, better economic sustainability, jobs and vibrancy.
      We can’t design our LDR’s to guard against poor commissioners, we can and should however demand better performance, more accountability and better qualified candidates.

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