Walkable West Palm Beach

Alley chat on public space in West Palm Beach, with Gehl Architects

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The community was invited to participate in a free flowing discussion with Gehl Architects, part of the recently awarded Knight Foundation grant in partnership with 8 80 Cities.

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Ghigo DiTommasso and Julia Day moderated the discussion in the alley next to Subculture Coffee. How appropriate that we should gather here, as it is the perfect example of a third place in our community  – a place for people of all walks to gather, chat, and spontaneously run into friends and neighbors. Gehl Architects’ mission is creating cities for people, and there’s no better example in our community of a place that has put people at the center of everything it does. From repurposing the very alley we were sitting in and making it a place for people, to employing local college students, to throwing spontaneous “Tacos and Hip-Hop” parties, there’s a lot bringing people together here.

There was a wide-ranging discussion on issues of public space in West Palm Beach. At times the group strayed from topics that are within the purview of the City, but overall, there were some great ideas and comments made. Here are some key takeaways as I recall them, in no particular order. Please comment below if I missed something.

Bigger Picture

  • West Palm Beach is at a pivotal moment in its history. We have nurtured what I consider our biggest competitive advantage in the region – our walkable street grid – and the infill development that has occurred has revitalized our public spaces, putting people on the street. The groundwork has been laid. It’s up to us to claim our rightful place as not just one of the best small to mid-sized cities in Florida, but in all of North America.
  • The Transportation Concurrency Exception Area (TCEA) has been immensely successful. People have moved into downtown to be closer to their jobs. Auto traffic counts are way down on streets in and around downtown, despite a huge increase in downtown population. “Carmaggedon” never happened as was predicted. Even if it had occurred, what’s worse – a little traffic congestion, or a boarded up and vacant downtown that served no one?
  • Impact fees are being paid by downtown development (and implicitly, passed on to those who own/rent real estate downtown) but the money is being spent on road widenings that do nothing to improve downtown’s mobility and in fact harm our economic vitality by subsidizing long car trips.
  • Start small! Creating more livable streets and a better public realm produces real value that pays for itself. Funding for more permanent improvements is easier when you can point to a project and demonstrate its measurable financial impact the community. Let’s get started with demonstration projects and tactical projects that do not cost millions of dollars, but rather allow concepts to be implemented quickly, cheaply, and at low risk.
  • Bicycling in West Palm Beach is already booming with little public investment. With even a pittance of the budget spent on road expansions, we could create one of the best bicycle networks in the state, provide safer and faster routes to destinations, and attract tourism.
  • Trees, please! Downtown has an extreme lack of shade tree canopy. In our climate, trees are as necessary to life in public as any element – one only needs to observe where people congregate during the Greenmarket to verify this. A serious commitment to plant and maintain trees that provide shade canopy is needed.
  • New buildings are important, but so is maintaining our sense of place and history. [Rick Gonzalez}
  • We don’t lack for plans in West Palm Beach. We need to do better at execution.
  • The Waterfront Commons Park is our city’s living room.

Specific Projects

  • Lake Avenue changes character dramatically on each side of Belvedere Road. It’s a cozy, slow neighborhood street north of Belvedere,

and turns into a hostile 4 lane road section south of Belvedere

See what a difference a narrower roadway and street trees make?

This street is within City of West Palm Beach control and provides a great opportunity to do a low cost, tactical intervention in rightsizing the street. [Joe Chase] It would be worthwhile to look at the example of Delray Beach 5th and 6th Avenue rightsizing project, which started with nothing but paint and plastic vertical posts.

  • A huge opportunity exists to connect the two intracoastal waterfronts: West Palm Beach side and Palm Beach island side, with a world class bicycle network with protected bike lanes from the Flagler Bridge to Royal Park Bridge. We’ve written about this idea in the past, if you’d like to read more on proposals
  • A continuous, segregated bicycle facility already exists in the City, although it’s not often thought of in those terms: The waterfront trail. But there’s a problem: Disconnections in the trail that make it necessary to re-route onto dangerous roads. If these few gaps can be connected, we will have something truly special – a waterfront segregated bike path that connects our neighborhoods from Old Northwood at Currie Park, all the way to the South End of the city at Summa Beach Park [my comment]
  • The Quadrille Boulevard FDOT resurfacing project presents an opportunity to rightsize an overly wide road that cuts off downtown from the north side of the city. Fives lanes exist where three can handle the traffic counts. [We’ve written extensively about this project on the blog and ideas to make it better]
  • We need a concerted effort to activate the edges of the Waterfront Commons park – in particular, the north side of the 100 block, which has struggled. Drawing people toward the water is fundamental to a vibrant and well used waterfront.
  • The Waterfront is cutoff from the Waterfront Commons (and from people) by the 4-5 lane Flagler Drive – a highway cutting off people from the water.

The discussion could have continued well into the night, no doubt. I want this discussion about public space to continue because it’s obvious people are hungry for it. Let’s make this happen.

I want to thank Raphael Clemente in particular, for his tireless efforts in crafting a more livable, more vibrant, and more lovable city. Raphael and his team at the DDA sought out this Knight Foundation grant, and were selected over some tough competition. I’m proud to have him at the helm of our Downtown Development Authority.

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