Walkable West Palm Beach

This past week, I attended a Small Scale Developer bootcamp in Seaside, Florida and had the chance to visit this new urbanist town in the Florida panhandle for the first time. More on the bootcamp later. For now, I’m writing about Seaside, the town, and its impression on me.

We stayed in the Seaside Academic Village, part of the Seaside Institute. We were awoken to the sounds of kids playing in this lawn next to the Academic Village, and it was buzzing with activity almost all day. These kids are lucky enough to be enrolled in a very selective charter school that is setup in the center of Seaside. Hard to imagine a more idyllic childhood. Here they are taking a class photo our first morning in the town.

 

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I was impressed with the way this school used the neighborhood itself as a learning environment. Since the weather was great, teachers were leading children around the town throughout the day, including visits to the town square, which has another lawn and amphitheater. It’s refreshing to see a place where kids can be kids, and a school that is unmistakably a school, unlike a lot of the ‘big box’ drive-through schools we’re building these days.

 

 

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In case there were any lingering questions about what this building is for, the signage removes any doubt. “Seaside Neighborhood School”.

 

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Seaside Neighborhood School community garden

 

 

This is a Seaside avenue. Look at that skinny width! We measured it imprecisely at about 8′ in width. Notice the gravel to the side of the paved driving lane. This is how parking is done in much of Seaside. Instead of trying to fight nature and grow the perfect chem-lawn, nature is largely left to its own devices and the plants that makes sense in this environment are what thrive – those that don’t require lots of irrigation and upkeep. From my observations, Seaside is basically all native landscaping.

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The road below is a county road. Eat your heart out, Palm Beach County traffic engineering. I still don’t fully understand how Seaside managed to tame a county road to this degree; maybe that’s just because I live in a county that never saw a road widening project it didn’t like. Our guides mentioned something about Walton County being really tiny and not paying attention, not having been poisoned by the sprawl building lobby, blissfully ignorant… I’m not sure which factor played the biggest role, but in any case, the outcome is a county road passes through Seaside that manages not to cut the town completely in two. Skinny lanes, more on-street parking (gravel again!), and people coming and going across the street keep speeds low and very humane.

 

 

There is a definite center and edge to this town. Just beyond the church is wilderness. Nature is never far and everything is within a five minute walk. Suburban living tried to bring town and country together, but failed to deliver on its promise. Building a real town allows for a real communal life, while still providing access to nature within walking distance.

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Nature beyond the couch

Nature beyond the church

 

Ruskin Place:  Beautiful square and commercial district in town

 

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The gang

 

Civic pride abounds in Seaside. You know which buildings are important by where they are sited. Here is the iconic image of the Seaside post office with American flag. This is the heart of the town and it’s obvious.

 

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Across the street on the beachside of 30A. This might be my favorite part of the town, with the open air market, straight vistas to the ocean, and pavilions that mark beach boardwalk access points.

 

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Seaside possesses quite a few architectural styles, and not all of them are traditional. There is some modern architecture as well. As for the public realm, “variation within a narrow range” is how it was described to me. These properties both have white picket fences. But notice how they aren’t exactly the same. The patterns of the fences vary to keep things more interesting.

 

 

Here are more photos of Seaside streets. Seaside contains passageways known as “Krier walks”. The original design for the town had easements across property lines for utility services, etc. Leon Krier, noted urban designer, suggested these become functional passageways between properties.

The streets do not have curbs. They function more like shared spaces and people have no trouble walking on them. This minimalist approach keeps street widths even narrower because a swale and sidewalk aren’t needed, keeping dimensions on the streets cozier than otherwise might have been. It also cuts down on infrastructure costs and reduces stormwater runoff. The stormwater that is generated runs into the amphitheater, which serves double duty as amphitheater and retention pond in times of heavy rainfall.

 

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Also another playground for the school kids

 

 

Property for sale: “Paradise ain’t cheap”

 

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If there’s a knock on Seaside, it’s that it is so expensive that it has ceased to function as a ‘normal’ town. Only 18 permanent residents live in the town, rendering it a resort destination rather than a place where people live permanently. That’s really not the fault of the founders, though. It illustrates the incredible demand for town living that Seaside embodies in form, if not entirely in function. The town did seem to roll up at about 10 pm each night, but I was told January is a very slow time of year here, to my surprise.

Even with the high priced real estate in Seaside, it still retains locally owned businesses and a row of Airstream food trucks. I didn’t count a single chain store in the town, which was refreshing. The roots of Seaside go back to the town founder, Robert Davis, selling boiled shrimp on the side of 30A, trying to gin up interest in the sleepy no man’s land.

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Inside Modica market. The Truman show is a source of town pride and humor

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“Seaside Transit Authority” – bike rental shop

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Our developer group bumped into none other than town founder Robert Davis on our walk. Totally spontaneous.

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You can’t visit Seaside without thinking about how badly we’ve screwed up the design of our towns and neighborhoods in the United States with our sprawl experiment. Instead of building communities where different activities, people, and building types are all part of a greater whole, our sprawl development pattern enforces separation and a sense of “placelessness” in which it doesn’t matter where you are, because everywhere is just the same as what came before and what is to come. This Leon Krier drawing illustrates town vs. sprawl well – a neighborhood or town is the pizza on the right.

 

Something that struck me was the reverence shown to the American flag. Flags are placed in prominent places and on important civic buildings. They are meaningful and their placement reflects this respect. Contrast this with “flag as advertisement” that is so common for used car lots and fast food restaurants in suburban sprawl. I suspect the over the top display of the flag is more about attracting eyes to the business while people are whizzing by at 50 mph in their car, than it is about pride and respect for a treasured American symbol. Meaning is lost when the flag is demoted to the same level as car dealer signage.

Seaside’s success has generated a pattern of similar neighborhoods and towns built along this stretch of 30A. The market demand has driven up prices in Seaside. Because so little town building has taken place over the past 50 or so years, there’s a lack of traditional towns along the Florida coast and prices are high. So much of our coastline takes the form of an endless parade of tacky strip malls and parking lots, fortresses of condominiums walling off the water, and the overly wide roads that make it all possible. What is needed are more towns and cities built on similar traditional principles like Seaside.

There is a better way.


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Overzoning in downtown West Palm Beach

Last night’s Downtown Action Committee (DAC) meeting approved One West Palm, a massive mixed use project sited at 550 Quadrille Boulevard.

The size of the site is over 3 acres and has been through multiple plans through the years, including a transfer of development rights (TDR) at some point which are still able to be utilized on the property. A prior site plan approval has expired and the new plan by developer Jeff Greene was made possible by a rewriting of the Downtown Master Plan that allows for large increases in height and development capacity for class A hotel or class A office space at select sites along the eastern side of Quadrille Boulevard. Renowned architecture firm Arquitectonica is handling the design.

On the market for downtown land

This project fills a long vacant tract of land and will serve as an anchor to the north end of downtown. New class A office space, long talked about by economic development types in the county, may finally come to downtown West Palm Beach. This project will rightfully be touted as a locus of economic activity and jobs, as well as a substantial contributor to the property tax rolls. If it gets built.

My concern is that in the quest for landing these big projects, we are undermining the many smaller development opportunities that could take place in downtown West Palm Beach. Land prices in downtown simply will not support anything other than a project of this size along this corridor.  Because land prices have been driven so high by upzoning, in order for the numbers to pencil, massive projects that utilize high rise construction are the only types of projects that work in most of downtown. Form follows entitlements, and so much of downtown is overzoned that building anything without major institutional capital (or a Jeff Greene) is going to be impossible.

Additionally, the market can only absorb so much office/hotel/apartment supply. A few lucky landowners strike it rich by getting their land upzoned from 10 to 30 stories, absorbing most of the demand for these uses in a couple large projects. Meanwhile, a large amount of vacant parcels languish for years or even decades. See map below depicting the large amount of developable land in downtown.

 

Dark and light grey represent redevelopable land -- parking lots and vacant land

Dark and light grey represent redevelopable land — parking lots and vacant land

What is the effect of upzoning actions on real estate development downtown?

Arbitrary upzoning actions introduce uncertainty and speculation. The original intent of the Downtown Master Plan and the DAC was to make the development process more apolitical so there is a predictable environment in which to develop (see excellent video at end of post, presented at CNU20).

If an investor owns a parcel of land that is currently entitled to build to 10 stories at a 2.5 FAR, now the precedent has been set that you need only hold your land for a number of years and lobby for an upzoning to make a large capital gain. As more landowners engage in speculation, the opportunity costs to the city of land that could have been developed rises. This means foregone value: Foregone property taxes, foregone urbanism. Rather than new building supply taking the form of a range of building types and ages over time, only the most capital intensive and massive projects are built in a boom and bust cycle.

I hope this project gets built. It does a lot of things well, and large office towers are an important part of any urban center. The site makes sense for a use such as this. But it’s important that development of this intensity be planned in a predictable fashion, for all the reasons previously mentioned.

In our quest for chasing after the dollar bills, so to speak, of real estate development, let’s not forget about the many nickels and dimes we may be foregoing in the process.

Palm Beach Post story: City OKs One West Palm, perhaps biggest project in its history

 

 

 

 

Future downtown park gets curves and striations

A pocket park is coming to the corner of Fern and Dixie that should provide a nice amenity to residents of the Alexander Lofts and The Alexander apartment buildings.

I would expect many of these residents to own dogs, so this park should be a nice gathering space for residents with pets. What other features would you like to see at this park?

Story by Tony Doris of the Palm Beach Post.
Source: Future downtown park gets curves and striations


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Office, hotel, bank proposed on Quadrille and Gardenia site

Development news: Office, hotel, bank are envisioned at mixed-use site at corner of Quadrille and Gardenia

The project, currently called “The Cosmopolitan”, is in early approval stages and still must go before the Downtown Action Committee for approval. The site, zoned Quadrille Garden District 10(30), is part of a recently created subdistrict which allows for additional development capacity and height if certain conditions are met, as well as the possibility of being granted reduced or free city-owned transfers of development rights (TDRs). The proposal calls for 206 hotel rooms and over 110,000 square feet of office use, as well as just under 5,000 square feet for a bank.

 

2015-11-04 21_39_39-15-818US_CosmopolitanWPB_SitePlanApproval_2015-09-16.pdf - Adobe AcrobatCurrent buildings on the development site include Eaton Fine Art and Russo’s Subs, which must be demolished to make way for the project. Occupying the southeast corner of the block, Vital Printing is not on the current set of plans, but we’ve heard this may be changing and the developer will likely assemble the entire half block.

 

Street view of corner of Quadrille and Gardenia:

 


At this stage, I would encourage interested citizens and advocates to pay particular attention to the ground floor details of the current plans. Be aware, these plans are preliminary and could change substantially. As we learn more, we’ll consider the design of this project from a walkability and public realm standpoint and provide opinion. To see details of ground level site plan, click image below.

 

Renderings of the project are below.

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Repeating the mistakes of the past

The Silver Palm Place apartment project consists of 120 apartment units on the site of Dunbar Village, a housing project with a very troubled history. Jane Jacobs provides the best insights into why these types of ‘barracks style’ housing projects failed in the first place [Death and Life of Great American Cities, p. 20]:

One of the unsuitable ideas behind projects is the very notion that they are projects, abstracted out of the ordinary city and set apart. To think of salvaging or improving projects, as projects, is to repeat this root mistake. The aim should be to get that project, that patch upon the city, rewoven back into the fabric – and in the process of doing so, strengthen the surrounding fabric too.

So the goal here needs to be incorporating the new site plan into the street grid, weaving it into the fabric of the neighborhood rather than make it a place ‘other than.’ That was the first failing of the original Dunbar Village and so many public housing projects nationwide. Reconnecting the Dunbar Village site back into the neighborhood was the recommendation in the Coleman Park Neighborhood Improvements Plan (below) as well, based on input from neighborhood residents, stakeholders, professional planners and architects.

 

 

Unfortunately the current site plan is sorely lacking in street connectivity as currently proposed:

Site plan, with my comments in red

Site plan, with my comments in red

The buildings are inward-facing in a ‘garden apartment’ style. Garden apartments are designed with a 10-15 year life as desirable product, after which time these stick built properties inevitably decline. The garden apartment builder builds for the 5 to 7 year holding period. Oftentimes gated and with roving security, these properties can maintain themselves as safe and desirable communities in the short term. In the long term, as the properties age and they are outdone by newer deliveries, cutbacks in roving security and maintenance can exacerbate their decline. It appears from the report this property will be neither gated nor have roving security. It is good it is not gated for all the reasons Jane Jacobs states above; however, this means the property needs to embrace the neighborhood, not turn its back to it. Natural surveillance or ‘eyes on the street’ will be in integral part of the proper functioning and security of this site.

What this projects represents is a dangerous hybrid: Neither fully city nor gated garden apartment. The clear path forward is to embrace the city and reweave the site back into the neighborhood, but this cannot be accomplished through half measures. In fact, a compromised approach would confer little of the benefits of ordinary neighborhood functioning (aka ‘city’) without the paid security measures found in garden apartments.

The parking deserves its own special scorn. Our nonsensical parking approach punishes the person choosing to walk, ride a bicycle, or take public transportation, while rewarding those who drive. The bicyclist will be greeted by a non-street; a sea of parking, and provided with 8 total bicycle racks for the entire 120 unit project! Costs for gas, insurance, and car payments eat up household budgets, and the cost of vehicle ownership is estimated at well over $9,000 per year. In a neighborhood with a median household income of $13,761 in 2012, to build in a style that basically requires a car shows a callous disregard for the realities and needs on the ground. What purpose do minimum parking requirements serve here, other than to further impoverish the residents?

Data from ArcGIS

Data from ArcGIS

The arrangement of head-in parking will create light pollution from headlights at nighttime to those unlucky enough to live on the parking lot side of the project, and will provide a breeding ground for crime as the natural street surveillance will be ineffective, instead replaced by the social dynamics of a parking lot. In this environment, the residents of the community can be overwhelmed by strangers parking in front of their homes and essentially exerting control over the space between buildings.

The Staff report contains many good observations by Mr. John Roach, lead planner on the site, as well as crucial recommendations for improving the site plan. Mr. Roach must have read Jane Jacobs. Below are the recommended conditions to the approval and several images depicting the recommended changes. See Staff Report starting at page 45 for the analysis ACM_20296:

1. A street grid shall be provided throughout the Dunbar Village site that ties into the existing neighborhood streets. This network should include complete east/west connections through the entire site at 17th Street and Adams Street, as well as a north/south connection from 15th Street to the approved senior housing complex. The street grid should represent urban neighborhood streets with narrow travel lanes, parallel on-street parking, sidewalks, crosswalk, street trees, traffic calming, etc.

2. The overall development style shall be that of smaller building footprints with walk-up units that front directly onto the desired neighborhood street network, with surface parking occurring behind the buildings.

Some may counter: But this site plan contains attractive pedestrian paths and landscaping? Surely, it will be well used? Here’s Jane again:

Super-block projects are apt to have all the disabilities of long blocks, frequently in exaggerated form, and this is true even when they are laced with promenades and malls, and thus, in theory, possess streets at reasonable intervals through which people can make their way. These streets are meaningless because there is seldom any active reason for a good cross-section of people to use them. Even in passive terms, simply as various alternative changes of scene in getting from here to yonder, these paths are meaningless because all their scenes are essentially the same. [D&L, p. 186]

It is crucial to the health of the neighborhood that the two recommendations made by Staff are part of the project requirements of approval. This project is salvagable, but only if we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. The commission should not recommend but require the site plan to incorporate the two staff recommendations above.


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Bad planning decisions haunt West Palm Beach waterfront

The bad planning decisions of the past shouldn’t dictate the future of our city’s most precious asset, its waterfront. Unfortunately, the Palm Harbor Marina project, with its very regrettable waterfront parking garage, may be approved by the commission Tuesday without substantial changes to the original plan approved at first reading.
Past articles and background about the project.

 

Guarantee this will not look as good as the rendering

Guarantee this will not look as good as the rendering

 

Years ago, the city entered into a long term land lease and granted rights to develop the current surface parking lot. This parcel of land is exempt from the Downtown Master Plan as it was encumbered by this land lease. From the Palm Beach Post:

The city’s 100-year lease with Leisure Resorts dates to 1968…The marina is exempt from a five-story restriction that voters approved in 1996 and can build as high as 75 feet, though it must allow a view of the water between Banyan Boulevard and Second Street.

To my knowledge, meetings held have only included the residents at Waterview Towers, the developer, and Commissioner Mitchell; trying to arrive at a consensus to make a project happen.  Ana Maria Aponte, City Urban Designer, to her credit has made the project better from what could have been built as of right under CC-2 zoning. But ‘better’ is far from ideal, and at a prominent site on the waterfront such as this, we should accept nothing short of excellent.

Several options are available to remove the parking garage from the waterfront or at least to wrap the garage with active uses. I previously wrote in April (“A better way to develop the Palm Harbor Marina Site”):

Rather than providing on-site parking, the developer could provide spaces in an off-site parking facility, such as the Old City Hall redevelopment site. The off-site parking option would remove an ugly, dead use from the public waterfront,  while activating it with a hotel and restaurant, making the waterfront more valuable in the process. It would also be consistent with CRA plans to extend and activate the public waterfront northward. The developer could build in the entire footprint where there is now a parking garage, allowing for more rooms and higher yield on cost, and eliminating the need for a costly structured garage with expensive car lifts. Good for the developer. And more rooms for our downtown merchants. Lastly, and importantly, there is no reason this project should go above 75 feet in this scenario. It’s a win-win scenario.

As a second alternative approach, a parking podium could internalize the parking in the hotel, and wrap the parking with active uses (such as waterfront restaurants) to effectively hide the parking. It appears this approach has been rejected, as there are objections about going from 75 feet to 92 feet in height.

Had this project been entitled and approved under the current Downtown Master Plan regulations, any parking would be required to be screened, and design requirements would ensure a quality public realm where the building meets the street.

Unfortunately, these past planning mistakes hang around our neck like an albatross. Rather than a reasonable compromise to line the parking structure with active uses, effectively hiding the parking and making for lively ground floor uses, the public will get a dead use – a parking garage – along our public waterfront. Attempts to mitigate this by screening with a green wall help marginally, but cannot change the fact that this is a horrible use of the downtown waterfront. From Project for Public Spaces, a well-respected urban planning organization: Mistake #1 in waterfront design is ceding the waterfront to automobiles instead of people:

The waterfront should be one of the main destinations in any city, not a place to pass through in a car. Yet many cities…have greatly hindered access to their waterfronts by capitulating to the auto. Raised freeways, wide roads, and parking lots dominate waterfront views, cutting people off from what should be a wonderful public asset.

We only get one chance to get it right. We can do better.

[Share your opinion with the commissioners. Write them here, and show up to the commission meeting on Tuesday].

First Bank of the Palm Beaches near completion on Quadrille and Dixie

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First Bank of the Palm Beaches near completion on Quadrille and Dixie

First Bank of the Palm Beaches is building a new bank building at the corner of Quadrille and Dixie. The building is on track to be the first new construction delivery downtown since the housing bust.

Walkable West Palm Beach will feature an interview with President and CEO Jay Shearouse later this month.

PS – Notice the traffic lane closed on the south side of Quadrille Boulevard. Just a construction closing, but imagine if this were a row of parallel parking and the benefits for walkability and viability of the adjacent businesses.