Branding a blighted downtown as an arts and entertainment district, making streets more pedestrian-friendly and luring new restaurants helped redevelop the urban cores of Delray Beach and West Palm Beach, according to two former community redevelopment leaders who have turned their experience into a book.
Christopher Brown, former Community Redevelopment Agency director in Delray Beach, and Kim Briesemeister, who held that position in West Palm Beach, have just put out a handbook on urban development, “Reinventing Your City.”
Amid the book’s launch, the duo, who now run an urban development firm, Redevelopment Management Associates, told the The Real Deal their thoughts on the key elements that led to successful development in West Palm and Delray and what challenges the cities face in the future.
In Delray Beach, when Brown started on the job in 1991, the city looked like “Death Valley” after 5 p.m., with no one on the streets, he said. Brown and his colleagues started by branding downtown as an “arts and entertainment” destination. Atlantic Avenue was narrowed, sidewalks were widened, utilities were placed underground, and streetlights were added. Then decrepit parking lots were renovated.
Brown recruited 20 to 25 restaurants. “Restaurants are the key to urban development, because people come downtown to eat and then walk around,” enabling other uses, he said. By 2000, Atlantic Avenue had 20 restaurants. The CRA subsidized loans for small businesses downtown and also subsidized the first two to three housing projects there.
These days, Brown is excited about the plan to bring an eight-theater iPic movie house along with shops, offices and a parking garage to the former location of the city’s library, south of Atlantic Avenue between Southeast Fifth Avenue and Southeast Fourth Avenue.
Yet, the city needs to come up with a vision for the next 25 years, and that vision should be created by young people, Brown said. “We need to be more receptive to adding housing downtown,” he said. “We need to stop worrying about density and traffic, because residential units don’t cause traffic. The traffic problem is visitors.” To ease traffic congestion, he advocates expanded public transportation in the form of trollies and light rail.
As for West Palm Beach, streetscaping was important in its downtown core too, Briesemeister, said. “The city made the urban grid very pedestrian friendly by narrowing roads.” CityPlace, the entertainment/retail/housing/office development that opened 16 years ago in what had been a rundown neighborhood next to downtown has played a key role in West Palm’s ascent, she said. The facility has drawn big crowds since it opened, although many businesses there have struggled.
“There wasn’t a comparable project in a U.S. city the size of West Palm,” Briesemeister said. “It changed the image of West Palm Beach from a small town to a major player in attracting businesses and retail.” In addition, the West Palm Beach government has been consistent through the last 15 years in creating an attractive environment for businesses and developers, she said. For example, the permitting process has been simplified.
Today, Briesemeister is impressed with the government’s continued focus on the waterfront, as evidenced by the encouragement of a hotel/retail/residential development on the site of the old City Hall at 200 2nd Street. She also lauds the city’s efforts to develop the Northwood and near Northwest neighborhoods.
As for West Palm’s challenges, “dealing with additional development, we have to make sure it’s smart growth,” Briesemeister said. That means taking care of traffic and utilities, she said. “You have to make sure that’s considered part of growth.” Attracting new businesses is important too, she said. “West Palm should think regionally,” cooperating with Miami, for example, in attracting financial service firms to South Florida, Briesemeister said.