Q&A with architect Rick Gonzalez

His take on downtown WPB? Avoid "Brickell Ave. Syndrome"

Oct.October 19, 2015 09:45 AM

Rick Gonzalez, a prominent West Palm Beach-based architect, has worked on projects in the area such as the iconic Harriet Himmel Theater in West Palm’s CityPlace and a renovation of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach.

But now, the 54-year-old Miami native is concerned that West Palm may emulate Miami’s Brickell Avenue and build skyscrapers without retail or office space on the first five floors that would humanize the buildings for pedestrians.

Gonzalez, of REG Architects, sat down with with The Real Deal to discuss West Palm Beach and voice his concerns about the area’s future.

What do you see as the most important issues in Palm Beach County’s real estate market?

I believe places always change over time. Our responsibility is to manage change. We can’t stop growth, but we have to guide it, or it will ruin this beautiful place. We need to embrace projects that are walkable. The idea is to live, work and play within walkable areas. The days of more lanes for I-95 and six-lane roads are gone.

How is West Palm Beach doing on this score?

The city has done a decent job. The question is can we learn from last decade’s boom, when we ended up with huge apartment buildings with “Plain Jane” ugly architecture. We have to fight the urge to make things larger. Smaller is beautiful.

What exactly are you hoping for?

We should design projects like a village. Battery Park in Manhattan and CityPlace in West Palm Beach have done a good job at that. The buildings don’t all look like one. They’re different shapes, sizes and colors. Now it looks like we’ll be getting that with the All Aboard Florida development.

What about on the bad side?

What’s not good is [billionaire investor] Jeff Greene’s project for 550 Quadrille Boulevard. [The plan is for twin 30-story mixed-use towers with 829,000 square feet of space.] It doesn’t make sense. Forget about walking, connecting to human scale. There’s no retail or office facing the street.

We don’t want a development pattern like Miami and Fort Lauderdale. The scale gets so big that you lose a sense of place. I get completely lost on Brickell, and I grew up in Miami. There are buildings on top of you like in Shanghai. For pedestrians it doesn’t work. Coral Gables and South Miami work.

What’s the problem in West Palm Beach?

Land is expensive. Jeff Greene is buying everything. People are nervous [about making money]. So the temptation is to build the biggest bulky building. Where are the design standards so our downtown prospers and doesn’t get like Brickell? There are beautiful parts of Miami, but there are also scary projects that represent a change in scale that’s not good for Miami and Florida. What we need to do is take advantage of our historical, cultural, and landscape assets.

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