Walkable West Palm Beach

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Andres Duany: Street trees a “technical and social necessity”

You won’t look at street trees the same way after listening to this old clip by Andres Duany, from a lecture given way back in 1989. Andres is entertaining, sometimes controversial, and always worth your time to watch. This whole lecture is great, really, but start the video from minute 42 if you want to skip to the part on street trees. Thanks to Joe Minicozzi for making me aware of this great lecture.


Parking minimums require developers to get it wrong

Strong Towns’ Black Friday Parking event showcases the absurdity of parking minimums for second year running.

On Black Friday, an army of strong towns advocates hit the pavement, documenting parking lot utilization across the country.  It’s dangerous work. Woe to ye who would deny a crazed shopper that $199 HDTV special for a few seconds! But for the sake of a greater purpose, #blackfridayparking participants persevered at risk of being trampled.

Black Friday Parking isn’t focused on protesting all that is wrong about our national consumerist obsession, although there is plenty to say about that. Instead, Black Friday Parking focuses on an area of policy that is often overlooked and maybe seen as esoteric, but impacts our cities and towns perhaps more than any other land development regulation. In its application, it favors the big box retail model, the car-dependent development pattern, and the associated public highway funding that make it all possible. In that way, parking policy is more the cause of the Black Friday consumerist madness than the effect. It is part of a system perfectly adapted to our national car addiction and oil dependency.

Parking minimums are the worst policy for good urban form. They spread out development, make places unwalkable, and create vast expanses of low-yielding land use. Parking is expensive to provide and it favors the big box store over the hometown business. Big boxes are capital-intensive, high-volume and low margin, publicly subsidized, and yield a very low return to the municipal coffers. They do provide nice sound bites at a ribbon cutting, though. Hundreds of jobs! Lots of new property tax revenue! What isn’t said is that this growth is unproductive and also creates huge infrastructure liabilities that aren’t included on a city’s balance sheet.

Think this is just a bunch of theoretical blathering? Just listen to Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Anath Prasad, making remarks to the West Palm Beach City Council, about how transportation spending “attracts the Wal-Mart, Target, Bass Pro Shop”. Go to minute 12 of this video: FDOT remarks on Flagler Bridge This is happening everywhere, in the same way.

Black Friday Parking locally

I traveled to visit family, so I couldn’t take photos of local retail parking for the #blackfridayparking event. I suspected that if any retail strip would be filled to capacity, it would be the Palm Beach Outlets. But the Palm Beach Post tells a different story:

At Palm Beach Outlets on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, a stream of cars flowed into the parking before the sun came up Friday. But die-hard deal seekers said they were surprised there wasn’t more traffic at the outdoor mall, which opened at midnight on Friday.

“We do this every year,” said Toni Anderson of Lantana, who was shopping at the outlets with four family members. “It is pretty quiet. It took a lot of the fun out of it.

The group started shopping just after midnight at The Mall at Wellington Green, where they said crowds were also small. They decided to head for the outlets about 5 a.m., Anderson said.

“I figured it was new, and there would be more people,” Anderson said.

Shindler said the group arrived at the outlets about 6 a.m., and was expecting to have trouble finding a parking spot.

“That is why we got up so early, we were expecting it to be a little more crowded,” Shindler said.

Incidentally, the Post did a story this past Wednesday about parking needs in a new waterfront development. In this instance, a developer wished to provide fewer parking spaces than required by code. Instead, the City of Lantana will get less greenspace, more pervious pavement, more stormwater runoff by the intracoastal, and of course its precious parking.

Variances included decreasing the amount of required parking spaces from 2.5 per unit to 1.87, decreasing the size of parking stalls and aisles, building taller buildings than what code allows and putting fences in some areas where code requires a masonry wall.

Developer Trinsic Acquisition Co. and Goray came back Monday night with a new site plan that complied with town code. To make room for more parking, some green space was scrapped, said Dwayne Dickerson on behalf of the developers…

Vice Mayor pro tem Malcolm Balfour said he liked the original site plan better because there wasn’t a parking lot at the front of the property. Dickerson said it was necessary to do that to provide enough parking spots to be in line with the code.

The purpose of Black Friday Parking is to show that planners don’t have a crystal ball. The rise of internet retailing, the decreased importance of Black Friday sales, and the trends towards more urban retail formats are all trends that cannot be foreseen with any degree of accuracy. Abolishing parking minimums doesn’t mean developers will get it right either. It just means they won’t be required to get it wrong.






How to make downtown retail work? Lessons from Robert Gibbs

Delray Beach held the sixth and final “Town Hall Lecture Series” last night. Fantastic lineup of speakers and I’m very impressed with Mayor Glickstein’s leadership. Robert Gibbs, renowned urban retailing expert, was the presenter. We previously covered Robert Gibbs after his presentation at the Chamber of Commerce breakfast at the Breakers.

More than anything, the talk gave me an appreciation for the science of retailing. Retailing is all about getting shoppers to open up their wallet and psychology and human behavior are meticulously studied to maximize money spent. Retailers know that when you enter a store, the first couple steps you are adjusting to the light and merchandise is not placed immediately at the entrance. A dark wall at the back of a store makes it more likely you will walk to the back of the store. Any merchandise placed lower than two feet off the ground is not likely to be bought. People decide in less than a second and a half whether to go into a store, and first impression is critical. Open doors make people twice as likely to enter. The color red is a signal that makes it more likely a shopper will buy an item. And on and on.

Retail trends favors convenience, experience, international chains, luxury malls and outlets, and urban retail. Today, 75% of retail sales happen after 5 pm. Today’s shopper spends money far more quickly than in decades past, getting in and out of stores quickly and spending a lot of money at their favorite brands. Downtowns used to have upwards of 90% market share prior to suburbia. Now, the figure is closer to 2%. Gibbs says a realistic goal for a downtown is to achieve 30% market capture.

There was a lot of focus on parking. On-street parking is critical to making it work, and parking meters are the only way to discourage employees from parking in prime spaces and getting meters to turn over sufficiently, according to Gibbs. Women especially prefer to park where they can see the storefront. A typical metered parking space will turn over 15-20 times in a day and can support one small retailer. Parking tickets are bad because people don’t forget getting one. Make it convenient to pay and extend the meter. Small retail thrives on the impulse buy, and having spaces available to park on the block is crucial. I posed the question to Gibbs: Parallel parking or angled parking downtown? He prefers parallel on main street for aesthetic reasons, but angled parking can work well on side streets.

Downtowns have something that malls do not have: authenticity. But a couple national retailers don’t hurt and in fact help things substantially. A national anchor can boost sales of independent retailers by 15-20% due to increased foot traffic. And retailers know that downtown is ‘in’ and they are adapting their storefronts to downtown in response in order to maintain this sense of authenticity. Banana Republic in urban settings:

People come downtown for the experience and giving them a superb experience is critical. For every increase in walkability level, there is a nearly $7 per square foot increase in rent. Important elements of placemaking: Proper awnings of high quality material, A frame signs are okay if they are handcrafted and well done, and street trees that shade the sidewalk while still allowing store signs to be seen. Kings Street in Charleston is probably the most successful downtown retail district in the country, largely because it gets these details right. Shoppers will drive past 12 Pottery Barn locations just to experience Kings Street. Gibbs loves parklets as a placemaking tool and they’ve been doing them 20+ years. Here is one in Birmingham, MI, a very successful shopping district:

What NOT to do in downtown retail

  • Dead zones where the street isn’t activated (blank walls, the 400 block of Clematis on the north side). People stop walking if there is 50′ or more of dead zone. I bumped into Lois Brezenski last night who relocated from the 500 block to Atlantic Avenue in Delray. It just wasn’t working on the 500 block and I suspect a reason why is the dead zone on the 400 block north side. Walk the north side of this block and you will notice it.
  • If retail rents become too high that the only thing supportable is clubs and restaurants, you risk becoming solely an entertainment district. This can lead to a downward spiral in residential quality of life and negative effects for the district.
  • Do not lose your anchors. This can be anything that brings people downtown who otherwise would not be there. A library, City Hall, courthouse.
  • Do not force the retail.

Little known is the fact that Kings Street in Charleston is basically owned by one master developer who controls the experience, much as a mall owner would. Downtowns by and large don’t have this advantage. Aside from this, downtowns can compete by forming a cohesive retail strategy and excellent placemaking standards. Gibbs says Downtown Development Authorities have three essential jobs: 1. Get people to come downtown 2. Get them to come into store 3. Get them to buy something. Retail is the riskiest asset class in real estate and trends can be fickle, but successful downtown shopping districts can happen with the right strategy.

Oh. Don’t do this with your storefront. This merchant tripled his sales for $150 when Gibbs made a few simple suggestions.


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Event tonight: Robert Gibbs, expert on urban retailing, gives free talk in Delray Beach

Want to learn more about how to make retail work in downtown West Palm Beach?
Tonight, Robert Gibbs, expert on urban & main street retailing, will be talking in Delray Beach as the final speaker in its Town Hall Lecture Series.. FREE. 6 pm at the Delray Beach Center for the Arts. 51 North Swinton Avenue

More details: 


Tis’ the Season for downtown retail strategizing

It’s the time of year retailers do much of their sales; the holidays account for almost 20% of annual sales in the retail industry.  This month, I  attended a Chamber of Commerce breakfast (courtesy of the WPB Library Foundation) featuring urban retail expert Robert Gibbs, who shared the latest trends in retailing, both urban format and non-urban format. It’s been a great month to scratch my urbanism itch, as we also had Jeff Speck, author of “Walkable City”,  come to town November 18-19th (blog post to come) for a walkability summit. I’d like to relate some of Robert Gibbs’ lessons and how they might be applied to West Palm Beach, particularly in our  nascent urban retail districts such as Clematis Street and Northwood. As the talk was given at The Breakers, much of the focus was on Worth Avenue and Palm Beach retail. Mr. Gibbs praised Worth Avenue as one of the best retail streets in the country, with parallels to Rodeo Drive in LA. But much of the market data shared has applicability to West Palm Beach.

Urban retailing is on the rise, with national tenants choosing to locate in urban settings and town centers, and willing to locate in smaller spaces or unusual configurations compared to their strip mall formats. One of the most revealing statistics: 75% of retail sales happen after 5 pm. This is in contrast to the ’70s, when only 30% of retail sales happened after 5 pm. According to Mr. Gibbs, changing demographic  trends (the rise of Gen Y, more one-person households, increase of women in the workforce) have led to much less shopping during workday hours, and more shopping after work hours.  And when people come to shop, they make up their minds very quickly whether or not they want to enter your store. It takes about 8 seconds to walk past a  main street storefront, and the average person decides in 1.5 seconds whether or not to walk in.

The five trends in retail (not just urban retail), according to Gibbs Planning Group: 1. Experience 2. Convenience 3. Luxury malls/higher-end outlets 4. Urban is in 5. International tenants. We’re seeing some of these trends happen in downtown, with international tenants like H&M setting up in CityPlace. The new Palm Beach Outlets tenant mix is an example of the type of outlet center that is successful today. Convenience has to do with being able to park, and Mr. Gibbs says it’s more important to have on-street parking available than to make it free, as today’s shopper values the convenience more and is willing to pay $1 if it means being able to park on the same block as their favorite store. In other words, price parking correctly. He’s obviously a fan of Donald Shoup (mark your calendar: Shoup is coming to give a talk in Delray in May).

Experience is really about placemaking in a downtown setting. What does easy parking matter if your downtown is not a place worth arriving at? Placemaking is a somewhat ambiguous term, but it could be defined as using the street as an amenity, almost like an outdoor living room. It’s been around as long as  cities themselves, if not formalized. The best retail streets are exemplary places, whether Kings Street in Charleston, Worth Avenue on Palm Beach, Miracle Mile in Chicago,  Park Avenue in Winter Park, 5th Avenue in Naples, or Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach. These streets pay attention to details and create an experience that lures people in. That’s an experience people are willing to pay for, and it’s crucial because shoppers have a choice of many places they can drive to and shop.

How can we apply some of these ideas and trends to West Palm Beach? First of all, the nighttime experience in downtown is paramount. That means clean, safe, inviting streets that attract shoppers with an atmosphere to encourage strolling and shopping. If we want people to come downtown to shop, the storefronts need to be attractive and pull people inside. And this idea applies not just to retail but to the entire mix of uses on Clematis Street, as a few eyesores detract from the experience of the whole. We’re looking at you, Pizza Luna and 301 South Olive. Code enforcement needs to be applied to these derelict property owners. And the CRA-owned former Pizza Luna space isn’t exempt. Yes, it going to become a new cafe and that’s a positive development. But it has been empty and looked shoddy since the CRA lease with Pizza Luna ended last March, and it’s taken too long to retenant.  Field of Greens, on the other hand, is an example of a superb storefront. Attractive awning, large windows that draw you inside, quirky street furniture, and cafe seating. This is how it should be done. Another superb example of utilizing the street to draw in customers is Christi at Runway Consignment. She constantly has lots of bikes parked outside her store, and hosts fun events like wine tastings for shoppers to enjoy.

Runway Consignment Boutique, 421 south Olive Avenue

Runway Consignment Boutique, 421 south Olive Avenue

Field of Greens storefront and sidewalk

Field of Greens storefront and sidewalk

We need city staff to put time into maintenance of our streetscape in these retail districts, in particular the lighting and landscaping on Rosemary and Clematis, which are targeted primary retail streets. Too many simple maintenance issues are being neglected, like streetlights that need bulbs to be replaced. And where entrepreneurs are taking a chance and locating downtown, let’s make sure we support them by keeping the streetscape attractive. Scott Lewis landscaping has made a very positive impact to the flower beds on Clematis, but City maintained landscaping is lacking, especially around the tree pits of the newly planted palms. The rubberized mulch experiment has thankfully been abandoned as of last week. Let’s get it right and not cut corners this time. And locator markings (used to locate underground utilities) are in violation of state low-impact marking law. City staff should spend the time to research and enforce these markings, first on Clematis and Rosemary. The community has documented instances where the low impact marking law has been abused.

Lastly, parking garages. Two exciting projects are in the works: DDA projects to paint lively murals in the stairwells of the Evernia garage as well the pilot wayfinding signage by the Banyan garage on Narcissus. We need more of these projects. Our garages are in bad shape.  The City/CRA/DDA should pursue commercial liners on these garages to activate these blocks and create a more interesting and safe walk for shoppers heading downtown. This should be a component of any proposal to redevelop the old City Hall site, as it was with the Navarro-Concord proposal. We should also look to install green walls on the exterior of our unsightly garages.

This is the first impression for anyone parking downtown, and it needs to be excellent. A targeted parking strategy needs to be pursued, but that’s a topic for another day.

Parking garage in downtown Naples, FL

Parking garage in downtown Naples, FL