Walkable West Palm Beach

The Darth Vader building: A cautionary tale in downtown auto-centric design


The Palm Beach Post ran a story yesterday in anticipation of the opening of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, recounting the history of the aptly named Darth Vader building in downtown West Palm Beach.

Despite the best efforts of building ownership, they just couldn’t shake the public’s moniker of “Darth Vader building”. Eventually, the building ownership relented and made this video to embrace the public’s preferred name.

The story describes the building’s effect on downtown:

As the sleek and sexy Northbridge Center rose above West Palm Beach 30 years ago, it provided a jolt of urban energy for the city’s then-small and snoozy downtown, populated by blocky stucco offices and old low-rise retail shops…

If you’ve never walked around this building (and you likely haven’t, because it’s a complete dead zone), take a peek at Google Maps Streetview.

The Darth Vader building, far from injecting life into our ‘small and snoozy downtown’, did just the opposite. The effect of this building has been to kill the street life not just at level of this building’s frontage, but also devalue the properties adjacent to it by creating a hostile environment for people on foot.

Short list of details this building got wrong:

  • Building is setback far from the street, destroying the connection between the public realm and the building.
  • A pedestrian bridge funnels people from the parking across the street into the building, which vastly decreases the chance that office workers of the building will frequent the businesses or use the public amenities of the neighborhood. The claim that this building would provide ‘urban energy’ is undermined because it is a drive-in building designed to shuttle suburban office workers to and from downtown as quickly as possible.
  • Opaque black glazing is unfriendly and hostile. Any wonder it’s called The Darth Vader building?
  • It casts awful glare.
  • The terrace at ground floor. As Jan Gehl, Copenhagen based urban designer and author of Cities for People has noted, changes in elevation can make a big difference to public use of space. In this case, a patio elevated from ground level disconnects people at the sidewalk and makes the patio a completely unused deadzone.
  • Landscaping around the perimeter edge serves as a ‘nature band-aid’. The retaining wall provides no interest. People seek out other people, and this building frontage repels people.
  • I count two entrances along the entire building frontage – one on the west side, and one on the east side. Best practice is to have doors on the street frequently; ideally, every 25 feet. Entrances spaced more than 50 feet begin to bore people. Urban buildings need permeability – places on the edge of the building with people coming and going.
  • The large setback from Flagler Drive is suburban in nature. The moat of grass exists in a no-man’s land: It’s neither good public space for people to use, nor usable private space. Has anyone ever voluntarily sat in this space to eat lunch? I’d bet that the architects had all manner of fanciful renderings showing people crowding this green space. But it just sits there, demanding maintenance but never being used by people, a testament to failed design.
  • Porte cochere dominates the eastern frontage of the building. You couldn’t get to the building easily on foot if you wanted to, with its obstacle course of ramps, stairways, and walkways making it inconvenient to do so.

Urbanism is additive in nature. Good urban buildings brought together are greater than the sum of the parts. A vibrant urban fabric is built and life in public is nurtured. People want to spend time in a place because it possesses the qualities of great urban places – qualities like proximity, connectedness, activity, and usefulness. When desirable public places are created, property values rise. It’s a virtuous cycle that can be short-circuited when the urban fabric is disrupted, as this building has done.

The northend of downtown suffers as a result of these poor design decisions made decades ago. Presently, we are in a development cycle in which a number of large projects are being proposed, some of which are using the words “iconic” prominently in their descriptions.

“West Palm Beach was searching for its identity at the time,” said Twitty, “and this was certainly a departure from what was there. It was to be an iconic building, something you didn’t see in the downtown West Palm Beach skyline at the time.”

The Post story tells an amusing story of a property owner turning lemons into lemonade. Unfortunately, the long term effect of this surburban style of development on our downtown urban fabric is no laughing matter. The Darth Vader building will be with us for a very long time. We would be wise to heed these lessons in the development cycle currently underway.


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3 thoughts on “The Darth Vader building: A cautionary tale in downtown auto-centric design

  1. Excellent piece Jesse!!!!! Nancy Pullum


  2. What a fine and thoughtful and interesting essay. You have a very learned take on walkability, plus the ability to explain it, so people like me can learn.

    Thank you.


    Liked by 1 person

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