Walkable West Palm Beach


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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].


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A better way to develop the Palm Harbor Marina site

According to the Palm Beach Post, Palm Harbor Marina has two options before the City: The original proposal that would conform to a 75 foot height limit, and a revised proposal that would create a parking podium to internalize parking, but in doing would rise to a height of 92 feet.

Earlier this month, I covered the original proposal (75 feet) and discussed some of the pros and cons. I wrote that, compared to what could have been built here under the CC-2 zoning, this is a big improvement and overall, a decent project. But my hangup has been the parking garage on the waterfront, and I suspect it’s a common sentiment. After all, who wants to look at an ugly parking garage when we could have a public use activate the space, such as people dining by the water, enjoying the views, generating economic activity and creating jobs? It appears the developer is taking some heat, as the second option is an attempt at concealing/minimizing the negative impact of the parking garage to the adjacent properties.

 

Folks at the Waterview Towers don’t want a tower over 75 feet tall when they bought under the assumption nothing over 75 feet tall would be built next door. That’s totally understandable. The developer wants to maximize profit and get the maximum yield from their land. Also understandable.  The general public, and I’d venture the City Commission, don’t want a parking structure along a public promenade, devaluing it. After all, the CRA plans to draw people northward along the waterfront and reactivate it. From the Old City Hall ITN:

In 2011, the CRA hired a consultant to propose design enhancements to the City’s beautiful Waterfront Park. One of the recommendations was to extend the “park” north along Flagler Drive and to connect the park with those parcels north of Banyan Blvd. In addition the goal is to create additional park land to draw pedestrians north to attractions planned for the newly expanded park areas which will extend to 3rd Street. A copy of the preliminary plan is available under separate cover.

Putting a garage in this location is anathema to this plan.

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. Already, the developer has proposed to provide some of its parking off-site:

The applicant is proposing to pay into the City’s parking trust fund for the 32 parking spaces not provided on site, as permitted by Section 94-485(i) of the zoning code.

The City and CRA have also anticipated a shared parking arrangement with the Old City Hall site and consultants noted the capacity available and the expansion opportunities in the Banyan garage. From the Old City Hall site ITN:

The City owns a 400 space parking garage directly across the street from the Site. On February 22, 2010, Lansing Melbourne Group issued the Banyan Street Garage Demand Study and a technical memorandum on the feasibility of the vertical expansion of the garage. (See Exhibits A & B). The study indicated that the existing demand in the garage comes primarily from the Clematis Street entertainment businesses and that there is substantial capacity during daylight hours during the week. The structural analysis showed that the existing structure could accommodate the addition of another level to the garage adding 120 spaces to today’s capacity for future growth or redevelopment. Today, the garage has 162 monthly parkers (40% of capacity). A total of 97 spaces have access throughout the day and week while the remaining 65 spaces have Monday through Friday access only.

There is an opportunity for a shared parking configuration with the development to utilize some of the parking in the Banyan garage. Proposers should review this option and analyze the best parking configuration for their proposed development.

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.

Site plan

Site plan

We are working on ways to make better use of our streets downtown, and the upcoming recommendations from the downtown walkability study will certainly include ways to slow down and make Flagler Drive a better, safer, more pleasant experience. A slower and safer Flagler Drive is easier to traverse for pedestrians, hotel patrons, and hotel valets. This should help with objections about locating parking facilities off-site, and will also be consistent with the CRA goals to draw pedestrians north.

A great waterfront is a public asset because it confers benefits to the entire community at large. We don’t create great waterfronts because we are rich. We become rich (as a community) because we create great waterfronts. This enhanced value is captured by the expanded tax base of the entire downtown, and the city as a whole.

Let’s create a great waterfront we can be proud of for years to come.

[If you agree, please forward your thoughts to the City Commission and the Mayor, and come to the Commission meeting at 5 pm if you can].

 


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Hotel at Palm Harbor Marina will add vitality to West Palm waterfront

The proposed hotel consists of an eight-story building, 75 feet in height to the finished floor of the roof top garden, and includes 108 hotel rooms, 2,650 square feet of meeting space, and a 4,961 square feet restaurant/bar facility facing the waterfront. Along the waterfront promenade, the project proposes a public plaza which includes a water fountain, landscape, and seating.

From the applicant’s justification statement:

“The proposed hotel with waterfront restaurant allows a much more urban design that will help activate the new waterfront promenade and Flagler sidewalk. The hotel will actually be set back nearly 25′ from the water, and will provide space for outdoor dining within the hotel footprint that will directly engage the public promenade. The eyes and ears of hotel guests and restaurant patrons on the waterfront promenade and on Flagler 24 hours a day, seven days a week will greatly enhance public safety. The economic and cultural activity will support the renaissance of downtown West Palm Beach waterfront…”

Waivers from setbacks from Flagler Drive. The current CC-2 setbacks date back more than 30 years, to a time when more suburban standards were applied to the urban core of the City. The Code calls for an extreme 54′ building setback from Flagler between the ground and 40 feet.. Strictly applying these suburban standards to the unique shape of this parcel would create a strange and unfeasible building”

Staff opinion:

It is staff’s professional opinion, an 18 feet setback in an urban environment such as Flagler Drive is appropriate and desirable for the downtown area. The location of the building closer to the street will provide additional surveillance to the street and it will enhance the interaction between the private property and the public ROW

The project is unusual in downtown in that the Zyscovich downtown master plan (DMP) does not apply to the site. Instead, due to its history, it is governed under another set of zoning standards and zoned as City Center-2 (CC-2). This zoning standard is not form-based as is our current DMP and would have likely required a tower-in-a park type development (think Trianon for an example).

Wisely, the developer has opted to utilize City Center- Planned Development zoning and the project is better for it. The proposal will engage the street, with an entrance on Flagler Drive and active use (restaurant). The public park will be a welcome addition to connect a very disused area of the waterfront that does not feel open to the public at present. This project will result in more public use of the waterfront and the infill of a good portion of the surface parking lot that currently exists.

One regrettable aspects of this project:  The parking garage on the waterfront. More of the frontage along Flagler Drive could be active space, rather than the parking garage proposed, but at least it will be screened with a green wall. Having a parking garage facing the water is a really poor use of our greatest community asset, our waterfront. Those parked cars will get a great view all day long!  but that doesn’t help the waterfront at all. This space could be used in a much better way. Project for Public Spaces has a great section of whitepapers on best practices for creating lively, engaging, and valuable waterfronts. Rule number one is to not make your waterfront auto-dominated, and to engage the space with mixed use buildings with active uses, not high-rise towers with single uses.

Most of our zoning code (except the DMP) says a whole lot about setbacks and open space, but very little if anything about the quality of the frontage and engagement with the public realm.
Setbacks won’t get you a superb waterfront. Great projects that shape and engage the waterfront will. A superb waterfront is an asset that makes an entire community more valuable as a result.

 As new projects are coming for our waterfront, myself along with aGuyonClematis and others are pushing for a look at our codes for development along the water, and a move to a form-based code that would ensure a quality public waterfront by-right, rather than a subpar project through an adversarial process. The win-lose negotiation strategy needs to stop (ie, propose something absurd, force a compromise, receive more development rights) and we need to move toward a plan that has more predictability and less conflict. Learn more about how this was achieved, to large degree, for our downtown.

 

All that said, compared to what could have been built here under the CC-2 zoning, this is a big improvement. I hope we can improve upon some of the items mentioned above, as staff has requested some improvements to the site plan.

Plans and renderings:

A12a A12 A11c A11b A11a A11 A1a A2 A3 A4 A8 A9 A1 A0 A0.1

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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.

figure-4-61-marsh-hamilton-2

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!