Walkable West Palm Beach


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Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns

Victor Dover and John Massengale’s excellent new book, “Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns”, was the topic of a talk given Monday night at Palm Beach Dramaworks. It was truly a community effort to make this happen, with the Downtown Development Authority, Downtown Neighborhood Association, Dramaworks, Beth Dowdle and many others asking for this message to be disseminated to our community.

It was a packed house and great to see so many public officials attending. Commissioner Materio was in attendance, Raphael Clemente of the DDA made the introductions, Jon Ward, CRA Director, attended, and Mayor Muoio made an appearance. Many board members of the Downtown Development Authority, the Downtown Action Committee, and the Downtown Neighborhood Association came.

Victor Dover started with a brief history of streets. He contrasted the streets we have made historically, through the accumulated trial and error of centuries, to those we’ve experimented with only in the last 50 or so years.

Our task now is to remake streets into places where people want to be. This requires us to think holistically and be generalists to create a bigger vision of placemaking. Streets are places for people that accomodate the car, not the other way around. Best quote of the night: “If it’s not beautiful, it’s not a complete street”. Amen.

Victor honed in on Okeechobee Boulevard and how it bisects our neighborhoods, cutting off Cityplace and downtown from the neighborhoods to the south. It needs to be fixed. We should also consider our approach to roundabout design and consider the context of the area, instead of applying engineering standards without regard to the context of an area (eg Pioneer Plaza).

If you want to make it safer, you have to make it slower. In a 20 mph crash, a pedestrian is over 90% likely to survive. Increase the speed to 30 mph, and that drops to only 50%. A driver’s ‘vision cone’ (what they can focus on) drops dramatically as speed increases.

Who leads in street design? Government. Once a street is designed as a place and investors have certainty, private investment will follow. So much of our public realm is utterly depressing that it does not provide a platform for long-term value, but rather short term gains. Good streets are a public good with benefits that accrue to the citizenry at large and cannot be privatized. Only local government can do this job; in fact, it is at the core of what good local governance is all about. I asked Dover what are some of the best investments a local government can make to provide a quality street, public investments that will attract people and private investment? Street shade trees and bicycling, he said.

This was a fantastic event leading up to Jeff Speck’s walkability study release. See you on the 27th at 3 pm for the release of the study.  Oh, and Clematis Street is today’s “Street of the Day”! Go Clematis Street!

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Follow the excellent “streetoftheday” hashtag on social media for daily postings of the best streets. Also, one of our local advocates posts the evil nemesis of the Street of the Day, the “stroadoftheday”. Follow that as well as #dangerousbydesign for lots of pictures of the dangerous, expensive, and poor return on investment “stroads” we have been building in recent decades.

No Walkable West Palm Beach meetup this month. Join us for Jeff Speck’s report presentation. We’ll be working to carry its recommendations out, organizing a group of advocates locally. If you want more livable streets and walkable communities, now is the time to get involved. Watch for a meetup announcement in early June.

[update:  The Mandel Public Library of West Palm Beach, on Clematis Street, has a copy of “Street Design” for those interested in these ideas. Thanks to Joe Chase for helping to add this excellent book to the collection]


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Strong Towns in Stuart for a Curbside Chat

Chuck Marohn from Strong Towns came to Stuart Wednesday evening for his Curbside Chat presentation. Not only was I finally able to meet Chuck, but also Edward Erfurt, who is a planner & designer with the Martin County CRA and blogs at The Restless Urbanist.

It would be hard to overstate the influence Strong Towns has had on my thinking about neighborhoods, cities, and development. If the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) is the academic research lab where theory is tested, Strong Towns is the neighborhood bar where everybody knows your name and all are welcome. Coming from outside the planning world, it’s very encouraging to have a place to connect with likeminded people who may or may not be formally educated in planning, but have that same desire to make our cities strong once again.

A Strong Town is a place with a sense of what it is and what it wishes to be in the future. It connects the present to the past – using the art of civic design as a tool to this end. Strong Towns are resilient, adaptable, and not dependent for their success on the good graces of a county or state government. They stand on their own two feet and provide a variety of housing types, varied age demographics, and a diversity of jobs for the community. They are beautiful places with their own unique character. In short, they are the types of places you would want to take your loved ones who are visiting from out of town.

One of the highlights of the Strong Towns Curbside Chat for me were these two pictures, showing the hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota where Chuck grew up in its glory days, and the very same street in present day, after decades of auto-oriented development subsidies and neglect had taken their toll. The street is now full of surface parking lots, too-wide streets, and blighted properties. If you want to know why our municipalities are broke and struggling, just look at these two pictures. Shameful.

Happily, Stuart provides a positive counterexample with its charming downtown, and can provide some examples for a better way. Here are some photos I collected on my trip as well as from the excellent Active Towns blog:

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Stuart has a fantastic, beautiful roundabout (may be called a shared space?) in its downtown similar to Pioneer Plaza in West Palm Beach. It functions extremely well and handles a lot of traffic with no problem. Which would you rather have for Olive Avenue adjacent to the Norton, picture 1 or picture 2? Unfortunately, our City Commission wants to replace the current shared space and make it more like picture 2 below. Here are some arguments  why we should not do that (in case the pictures don’t already convince you). And the blog piece I wrote about the situation in October.

1. A beautiful roundabout/shared space in Stuart designed for the people using the space, not just motorists getting from A to B as fast as possible.

1. A beautiful roundabout/shared space in Stuart designed for the people using the space, with a statue in the center. Not just motorists getting from A to B as fast as possible.

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2. So-called “modern” roundabouts aren’t as good in a space people occupy. These are designed primarily with motorists in mind, with oversized lanes, striping, and signage. They work okay on high speed roads, not so well in neighborhoods.

Stuart also has some amazing permanent parklets in former angled parking spaces that blew me away. I’d never seen this before, and we should absolutely try this in downtown West Palm Beach, for example on the 300 block of Datura (upcoming blog post on this).

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Incidentally, I heard through the grapevine that Ian Lockwood, former Liveable Streets Transportation Engineer for the City of West Palm Beach, may be on the market. Hear the remarkable transformation he was responsible for during his tenure in West Palm Beach:

If we are serious about creating a walkable, lovable city, a big part of that is street design. If we need help in that department, perhaps it’s time our elected officials call up Ian for a consultation on livable street design?

Visiting Stuart and meeting some of my Strong Towns buddies was a real treat. I’m looking forward to much more, including the upcoming Strong Towns national conference in September!


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A solution looking for a problem – the Pioneer Plaza roundabout

West Palm Beach city commissioners have instructed the traffic department to come up with a plan for improvement to the Pioneer Plaza roundabout, and held a public meeting with city staff on the 23rd to present the newest iteration, which I attended along with representatives from the Norton Museum of Art.

When the so-called improvement looks strikingly similar in the before and after photos, some questions need to be asked.  Is this roundabout at the end of its useful life, necessitating a capital replacement? If not, what’s the problem with the existing design and what is the objective of a redesign?

According to the city traffic engineers, the redesign is necessary due to safety issues. Since safety is such a concern, you’d expect the data to make the case for a redesign. We should be seeing stories about serious accidents at this roundabout as well as crash statistics that show its dangerous nature.  In fact, looking at City of WPB Police Department crash statistics, I found one accident year to date, involving a driver who sneezed and sideswiped a concrete bollard. The accident only involved the driver and she was not seriously injured. I searched the Palm Beach Post archives going back to 2006, searching for keywords with “Pioneer Plaza” or “traffic circle/roundabout” in West Palm Beach. I found not a single report of a crash at this roundabout. No question bollards are knocked over, and some incidents go unreported. But the data does not show this is a dangerous intersection; in reality, it is likely one of the safer intersections in the city.

When pressed about the safety issues, city officials pointed to the concrete bollards that are getting knocked over, and insisted that the roundabout must be redesigned to meet the standard. So it seems we have not a safety problem for the people who use this roundabout, but a concrete bollard public safety crisis. What’s the proposed solution to keep the bollards safe?  Spend $550,000 to tear out the beautiful brick pavers, substitute stamped concrete fake brick, and widen the travel lanes to 16′ from the current 13′.

It’s important to emphasize that this roundabout is not at the end of its useful life. Not once in the public meeting did officials make the argument that it needs capital replacement. This intersection sees a much lower volume of traffic than the shared space in front of the Centennial Fountain on Clematis, and that area is holding up just fine.

Is this really a wise use of public funds? Could there possibly be a simpler and much cheaper fix? From speaking to the most affected neighbor, the representatives of the Norton Museum of Art, they would rather keep the current configuration and just clean up and maintain what is already there, and much prefer it to the new proposal.

I can think of many ways the city could use this money more wisely than fixing what isn’t broken.

As an aside, this is also an opportunity to think about the configuration of Olive throughout the city. Why are these bollards getting hit in the first place? Here’s a hypothesis: Are large trucks and semis hitting the bollards, thinking this local street is still a through street? I ask this because I had so much trouble (and conflicting answers) about which entity controls Olive through downtown that I tweeted to FDOT Secretary Prasad, who to his credit replied promptly and confirmed local ownership of Olive.

Olive Avenue through downtown was to be changed to two way operation in the 1994 DMP, but it never happened; however, the City of WPB did manage to gain control of Olive and Dixie, giving up Quadrille to FDOT. Could maps that truck companies use still designate Olive as a through road, rather than a local street? I’ve seen maps online that still show Dixie/Olive as a state road.  And the fact Olive is two lane, one way through downtown incentivizes large trucks to use it through downtown, and perhaps at this intersection because it offers easy access to Olive through downtown.