Walkable West Palm Beach candidate Questionnaire – Twelve questions with Kimberly Mitchell
Many thanks to Kimberly for taking the time to answer the questionnaire.
- What is your approach to economic development? Do you favor ‘economic hunting’ or ‘economic gardening’, and which approach or combination of approaches would you pursue if elected to office? Would you consider certifying West Palm Beach as a Level II economic gardening program to support existing businesses and entrepreneurs?
We need to pursue all avenues of economic development. As you may be aware, the City of West Palm Beach relies upon the County’s Business Development Board to recruit companies to our City. I have never been satisfied with waiting for something to come to me or as often is the case, being part of a BDB “beauty contest” with competing cities like Boca Raton or Jupiter.
How much assistance they receive (or what kind of assistance) is another story. Certainly the city needs data on where it is today (demographics, metrics of differing sectors – development/small businesses/hospitality etc) so that decisions can be made about what is missing, what should be targeted, and what incentives if any should be considered. Ideas like “the business district” etc. are fine so long as there are some analytics to back it up, not just banners and maps.
It was almost three years ago that I introduced our Mayor to Ray Johnson from Jupiter. Ray is a serial entrepreneur in the biotech community. He was one of the founders of the successful Jupiter Fund model, which is a guarantee fund for start-up or early stage companies. Ray was willing to do the same for West Palm Beach. I again tried convincing the City when Chris Roog was made Economic Development director. Just the existence of the fund would have attracted the best and brightest to our City. Nothing came of it. Very disappointing.
I didn’t stop there. When the opportunity came to entertain the prospect of recruiting UMHealth to West Palm, I was shocked to hear the Mayor canceled her drive down to Miami to meet with the Dean of the Medical School at University of Miami and, instead, sent our CRA director and city attorney. I quickly dropped what I was doing that morning and drove to Miami. I later found out the Mayor had other reasons for not wanting to attract one of the leading teaching hospitals into our City.
And when Olympusat was about to leave West Palm Beach, I went to work to keep them here – connecting them to our CRA and economic development people. Eventually, we brought them into the downtown. Olympusat is described as the Viacom to Latin America. With 160 employees, most of whom work in their headquarters in WPB, they are now in temporary offices in City Place with plans to develop their own building in our downtown.
And let me say this, a successful economic gardening program starts like any other successful garden. You have to have good soil. We have not yet created the infrastructure or soil to attract the truly game changing entrepreneurs to West Palm. One of the important missing components is great schools.
- How would you remove impediments and make it easier to build small projects, rather than the half or full city block development that is prevalent?
There are techniques within the Land Development Regulations that can help the smaller property owner or developer (i.e. relief from parking requirements, allowing adaptive reuse or change of use without penalty or stiffer requirements, administrative approvals for certain types of projects, etc.). Some of these things already exist. Everyone, except developers, wants smaller projects and that is always a struggle. I have not seen any evidence that the city or commission is interested in promoting smaller projects. In fact, it appears to be the opposite (Related, chapel by the lake, etc.).
One thing I personally believe is that the most sophisticated cities, and ultimately the most desirable, are the ones that can show restraint when it comes to the acceptable scale of development. An honest public discussion needs to be had about what is the appropriate scale of development in town.
There are ways to promote smaller projects (which I for one would support) but the bigger question is, does the city want to? I do and I will lead that effort.
- A City committee recently listed 17 action items that are ‘ready to go’ in the Jeff Speck study. Would you commit to implementing at least one of these ideas in your first 60 days in office, or do you believe more traffic studies are warranted before anything is implemented?
Yes – I commit to getting some going without further delay! I am sensing a “paralysis-by-analysis” syndrome within the city. Of course some recommendations will require further analysis (like converting Dixie and Olive to two-way traffic – which has been a recommendation for decades), but certainly some recommendations can be implemented without plowing into more studies. We have planners and engineers in the city that can make those things happen.
At the end of the day, how much “analysis” was conducted to convert Parker to 3-lanes? We argued about it for decades but in the end, with a persistent push from me and Commissioner Bill Moss, the city (in working with the county) just made it happen. There are little things that can have a big impact like two-waying Narcissus. We will identify the low-hanging fruit, identify the parties necessary to implement, and we can make it happen. I know that some people may not have fully embraced Jeff Speck as a personality, but his message is sound.
- Is transportation planning best in the engineering department, or under Planning? Which department leads in the vision for street design?
Planning comes first. Transportation is part of a strategy. It should be policy driven. Right now, it is serving as an impediment. Transportation is designed to serve the people. In the hands of engineering, it becomes bogged down in rules and regulations. Quadrille, Broadway, S. Dixie, are all examples of engineering staff telling us what can’t be done. I have personally gone to the FDOT Secretary on more than one occasion to explain why these sections need to be exceptions and he agreed. When relayed back to the Mayor and staff, it comes back “we can’t do it.” With that attitude nothing will happen.
There has to be a culture of cooperation between these departments for things to really happen. The culture has to be based in a belief that everyone is rowing in the same direction – if not, you are rowing in circles.
- In his downtown Walkability study, walkability expert Jeff Speck states that while palms can be beautiful, in an urban environment they do not provide the many benefits of street shade trees and therefore we should focus on street trees that provide shade in downtown. Do you agree with this assessment? How would you respond to the diseased palms on Clematis that were planted two years ago?
Shade, shade, shade! That being said, Clematis gets enough attention – there are plenty of areas in the city that could use shade trees. Dixie Highway between Okeechobee and Belvedere along the cemetery is a perfect example (or north Quadrille – or better yet – Okeechobee west of I-95).
- Street trees often suffer from maintenance neglect, despite the fact they are one of the highest returning investments a city can make in its urban infrastructure. It is common for city departments to ‘pass the buck’ in order to avoid responsibility. How would you correct the issues with maintenance neglect and ensure this valuable civic infrastructure is protected and nurtured? Who would be responsible?
I am not comfortable with this comment/statement and I do not agree with it. Lord knows I have had my issues periodically with city staff, but I do not at all feel that it is common for city departments to “pass the buck.” Being a public servant is often a thankless task and most city employees are really trying to do the best for the city. That said, clear lines of accountability and responsibility are important. When it is unclear who is supposed to do what, everyone gets frustrated (especially staff).
Working closely with the DDA, I worked to ensure a higher level of attention gets paid to our downtown aesthetics. If elected, we will put in place a permanent, understandable and accountable structure.
- West Palm Beach has a strong track record of innovation in livable streets and walkability enhancements. A Transportation Concurrency Exception Area east of I-95 makes it easier to do livable street design without Level of Service obstacles. Would you consider assigning a Livable Streets Transportation Engineer, such as West Palm Beach had in the past, to manage these areas in order to insure we continue to make our city more livable and walkable?
See number 4 above. I would definitely incorporate additional staff for this purpose. I would also add the missing Historic Preservation planner position. I find it baffling that there is one historic preservation planner who is responsible for all of the districts (including zoning responsibilities) in the city. We can’t have it both ways – tout our historic presence and accolades and then not adequately nurture the assets.
- Would you favor implementing a parking wayfinding signage program for downtown immediately? Or would you wait to create a master plan for the entire city before acting? How would such a program be funded?
The Mayor has talked about this for four years. Before that, Lois talked about it. For whatever reason, it still has not been accomplished. For me, this is a low priority. Somehow people find parking. I am reminded of the old Yogi Berra quote, “Nobody goes downtown anymore. It’s too crowded.”
- Where do you stand on the Broadway corridor and South Dixie Corridor efforts? Do you believe the priority for this right of way should be the convenience of drivers passing through it, or enhancing the potential of properties and neighborhoods located adjacent to it?
Of course the priority should be the neighborhoods and rate-payers adjacent to the corridor versus those just passing through. As you know, it is not that simple. When I was elected 13 years ago Glatting-Jackson was just completing the South Dixie Corridor Study. The situation hasn’t really changed that much except that it has gotten better with investment from the private sector (Antique Row, new developments along the corridor, etc.).
The city is undergoing a study right now with Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council to do a detailed analysis of South Dixie between Okeechobee and Ablemarle. I had some issues with the evolution of that project but that is different than not supporting improvements on the corridor.
Broadway is a very different situation than South Dixie. In fact, I believe we should consider the corridors in segments as the conditions change and should be analyzed as such. As you know, in 1993 many of the Northwood roads connecting to Broadway were closed. At the time, we theorized that the initial benefits to the neighborhoods would ultimately be outweighed by the long-term drawbacks of dis-connecting the positive and affluent areas of town from the impoverished and disenfranchised. Crime issues did improve initially but we have been talking about what to do on Broadway for 20 + years. You cannot improve Broadway without diving deeply into what is happening in the neighborhoods. Ownership patterns and code violation patterns should be revealing.
That, in fact, was the impetus behind the Chronic Nuisance Abatement ordinance, along with the Landlord Training Program I found in Milwaukee, designed and got implemented.
- In a 2012 “Face of the City” proposal, 10 new tree planters were planned on Clematis Street in order to accommodate new shade trees on the street. Doing so would have meant the loss of 7 on-street parking spots. How would you balance the important placemaking and economic benefits of street trees against the parking needs of downtown?
This is a good question but again, I personally believe there are higher priorities than what trees to plant on Clematis Street. As I stated several years ago, not all parking spaces are created equal. You could remove 10 spaces from the Datura garage and no one would ever notice. Remove 10 spaces from Clematis Street and you could put someone out of business. I would guess that each parking space on Clematis Street represents $100,000 + annually in sales on the street. I am personally reticent to support the removal of on-street spaces (for trees or parklets – as cool as they are) because that is one step closer to trying to “pedestrianize” Clematis Street. I still hear mumblings on occasion about making Clematis pedestrian only which would be an utter disaster. To me that is the bigger question, do you think Clematis is broken and if so, how would you fix it (ergo pedestrian mall)? Personally, I don’t think it is broken.
- Okeechobee Boulevard is a real liability for the city. To encourage non-motorized mobility across the boulevard, and then not strive to provide safe passage, is a serious problem. How would you work to make Okeechobee Boulevard east of I-95 a more inviting place for people on foot and on bike, and how would you propose to fund such plan? Would you consider a local match using City funds such as CRA TIF dollars if it would move the project ahead?
Okeechobee Boulevard is the elephant in the room. To me, this is our biggest issue downtown. We had 1,000 urbanists here for CNU 20 and they all LOVED West Palm Beach. They all HATED crossing Okeechobee Boulevard. Frankly, I am surprised that the Hilton has not requested/demanded some plan of action for the road as it could be one of their patrons that gets hit walking to CityPlace.
Okeechobee is eight lanes with enormous, sweeping turning radii and is designed as a highway. There are things we could do today to balance the environment for non-motorized users that would not reduce capacity. Ultimately, I think we need to test a six lane section with on-street parking on the outside lanes to protect to pedestrians but that goes in the “greater study needed” category.
The issue with Okeechobee is motorist conduct – cars are traveling way too fast for where we are trying to go with our downtown and neighborhoods.
BTW – I am NOT a fan of a pedestrian bridge to mitigate the situation. Pedestrian bridges work best when there is limited access across the roadway and there are few locations to cross. That is not the case here. Unless we propose a pedestrian bridge at Tamarind, Sapodilla, Rosemary, Quadrille, and Dixie, we are fooling ourselves to think we have addressed the problem. Elevated (or God help us, below-grade) pedestrian crossings only tell motorists that they having nothing to worry about – “happy motoring in your auto-only zone.”
The skyways don’t do much for bicyclists either – and the bike numbers are growing. Also, the questions keep asking how you would pay for things (normally an important point). We need to know where we are going before we figure out how to pay for it. I am not worried about the cost of some of the items discussed – I am mostly worried about making the wrong decisions.
- The Northwest neighborhood is harmed as a result of being disconnected from the rest of the urban fabric. Banyan Boulevard, the FEC railway, and the Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard bridge serve as ‘border vacuums’ that blight adjacent properties and inhibit redevelopment. Would you make this removing these impediments a priority? Would you consider the creation of connector streets between Douglass and Division Avenue to tie into the greater downtown urban grid network? How would such improvements be funded?
Re-connecting all parts of the city is vitally important, especially in areas of need. There are a number of projects mentioned here and each one needs to be weighed and valued for importance and priority
One needs to understand how we got into the mess we’re in and couple that with an economic development strategy that causes connectivity to happen naturally. None of the items listed are impediments. I was vehemently opposed to placing City Hall on Clematis.
The plan that we had as Commission voted upon was for City Hall to be built on the “hill top” site. Why? We wanted to connect the very neighborhoods and the Tamarind corridor to the downtown. Not only did we miss an opportunity but we in turn created another problem by having the 400 block of clematis as a large dead zone instead of having more dining and retail open at night.
Recently, the City Commission had another opportunity to remove our water plant from the downtown, which the Mayor opposed. That would have been 27 acres along Tamarind that could be used to begin revitalizing Tamarind. It also could have been the opportunity to create an area along Australian by utilizing Clear Lake as an amenity for cafes and retail while watching non-motorized water craft such as sailboats, canoes and kayaks. Think Madison, Wisconsin.
Also, just months ago, the city had the opportunity to put an end to Tri-rail keeping its trains not being used behind the Marriott. Another missed opportunity. The “impediments” you identified are solved by recognizing the real impediments. 1. Connect the downtown north to Banyan; 2. Remove the water plant from our downtown; 3. Energize Clear Lake.
Create reasons for people to go places and you will have your real long term solutions.