Neighborhood Transformation

Neighborhood Transformation
CitiStates Report:
Bucking the Trend

By Neal Peirce
Web-posted: 3:33 p.m. Dec. 2, 2000


Without a unified vision of how it should grow, South Florida has continued to press westward, testing the boundaries of the Everglades and testing the public's will to put up with traffic jams and sprawl.

At the same time, redevelopment has been steadily transforming the core of the oldest settlements in the Eastward Ho! corridor.

It is this redevelopment that is proving that the Eastward Ho! concept, when guided by New Urbanist design and community involvement, can indeed can offer a rich potential for renewal along the backbone of a South Florida city-state.

Each example has its own problems and creative solutions.

West Palm Beach

This community went through a deep valley of decay. Its building occupancy rates in the early '90s dropped to 20 percent. The cure began with a 1993 design-charrette by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., which produced a center-city revival plan later described by Florida's Department of Community Affairs as "the most visionary, creative and aggressive downtown master plan in the state."

Today West Palm Beach's downtown features weekly block parties attracting 3,000 to 5,000 people. Commercial values along Clematis Street are up 90 percent. Through-traffic has been tamed, the streets made more hospitable by traffic calming measures.

Some $140 million has been invested in arts and cultural facilities. Key historic buildings have been restored and spaces creatively adapted for office, retail and residences. The new mixed-use City Place project, with more than one million square feet of retail right on the street is expected to be a major regional attraction.

West Palm Beach was fortunate in the '90s to have a visionary mayor, Nancy Graham, who backed the revitalization effort and stayed with it. But it also had the good fortune, says Dan Cary, the city's current chief planner, to have been built directly on the rail line and endowed with a flexible, expandable city block system.

Fort Lauderdale

After its youth of quiet growth and innocence, downtown Fort Lauderdale is finally "hip." The Las Olas area is throbbing with activity. Big-time investment has come to the Riverwalk and riverfront area. A strong residential market is materializing.

None of this is coming without real struggles. While some applaud the new activity, a segment of the community agonizes over changes to the comfortable, low-key city.

Progressive leaders think the city is in a tough transition from auto domination to growing reliance on public transit, foot traffic and bicycles; traditionalists condemn the disappearance of parking requirements, saying Lauderdale is still a city of motorists, and where, in new development, is space for vehicles?

The answer sounds harsh, but we've seen it globally: Vehicles gradually will be squeezed out, just as car use and parking have become almost unaffordable in cities worldwide. The danger for Fort Lauderdale is that residents concerned by the inevitable congestion will push to restore minimum parking requirements, even though empirical evidence suggests interfering with the free market to require parking slots is a bad idea.

Take the negative experience of Oakland, Calif. In 1961, Oakland passed a requirement of one parking space per apartment. Result: an almost immediate 18 percent increase in the cost per housing unit, followed in short order by a 33 percent drop in land values.

No great city has ever protected parking as an important right. In the sparkling revivals of Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue, Denver's Lower Downtown and others, not a single one has focused on space for autos.

What many cities do is provide quality public transportation, a step Fort Lauderdale has not taken. Not that it couldn't. Denver's 16th Street mall, with its free bus system, created a safe auto-free zone through the city and triggered economic expansion.

Chattanooga, Tenn., instituted quiet, electric-run circulator buses, which have gradually succeeded in relocating most parking to the city's perimeter.

Fort Lauderdale has a downtown circulator system, but its usage is so anemic one suspects the system needs to go back to the drawing board. The Sun-Sentinel reports that of 840 county bus stops in the city, only seven have shelters. Lots of work remains to be done.

Miami

"Miami has a chance to be the next Chicago of America," says Johnny Winton, Miami City Commissioner, referring to Chicago's revitalized center city and massive growth of downtown residences.

Both cities, he adds, share advantages: "Both are on beautiful waterfronts ... they have Lake Michigan, we have Biscayne Bay. Both have rivers flowing through them. Like Chicago, we now have tons of equity capital, a great economy and demand."

So is Miami's success assured? Only, says Winton, if Miami's dead serious about planning. Walk some parts of Miami to understand why Winton wants change.

Brickell Avenue, for example, has been commercially successful but devoid of sidewalk amenities and walkable connections most great world cities have. Within easy walks of downtown offices, the Metrorail and Peoplemover are blocks of ramshackle buildings, deserted service stations, weeds, all crying out for a dynamic mixture of offices, shops and restaurants amid more residential choices.

It's true that an immense crush of development is being reported in the city's bayfront communities, perhaps enough to create real urban value without master planning.

And downtown Miami finally is attracting major new apartment and condo building. There appears to be a major office demand by dot-coms, possibly linked to the Internet NAP -- the network access point project for Latin America. Park West on the north side is feeling spillover pressures from Miami Beach. A Brickell project will include retail anchored by four major restaurants.

Meanwhile, in 10 of the once-grand buildings along Flagler Street, efforts are underway to lease top floors for students, while retail remains in ground floors.

But Miami has one of America's most dismal public-park records. It has the least park acreage per person of any major U.S. city. It has a record of selling off chunks of parkland to private interests or letting major portions fall victim to neglect and crime.

Forlorn Bicentennial Park, for example, will be desperately needed for public use by the oncoming center-city residential growth.

Miami leaders can recite a history of serious planning efforts, going back to the early 1970s. Sadly, each step was plagued by halfhearted or mismanaged follow through.

The city's only successes were in projects like Brickell Avenue's bank and commercial growth, propelled by the private market rather than planning.

Many neighborhoods have thrived with Caribbean and Latin peoples' influx. But despite decades of brave planning talk, such neighborhoods as Overtown, Liberty City, West Coconut Grove and Flagami entered the 21st Century still trailing in the dust.

So what do we have today? What might be America's most spectacular redevelopment scene. An important chunk of the population absorption demanded of South Florida in the next years could occur in and close to the heart of Miami.

It does seem near-miraculous, considering Miami-Dade's off-putting political and ethnic wars, that downtown investment has added dollars and oomph since the mid-1990s.

But we would have to doubt whether there's hope for a great Miami, a city fulfilling its destiny, without years of determined master planning, encompassing not just glamour spots but fringe communities.

For the times, with their intensive competition among city regions, are demanding more. Most of the successful American metropolises we've studied are planning comprehensively, carefully planting incentives, shifting rules, setting the stage for the private market activity they believe their towns need.

Hollywood

Arts, music and special events are the focus of a major effort to revitalize the historic Hollywood business district designed by legendary developer Joseph Young in the 1920s. Millions of dollars are going into streetscape improvements, building renovations and beautification of Hollywood Boulevard.

Mizner Park

A formerly defunct mall in Boca Raton a block off U.S. 1, totally redesigned with a main-street design including shops, restaurants and a variety of housing options. We've seen few town centers anywhere to rival Mizner's welcoming tone.

Kendall

The business area surrounding the Dadeland Mall in South Miami-Dade County.

ChamberSouth brought together a remarkably inclusive business-civic coalition to restore this humdrum commercial area of parking lots and edge-city sprawl. More than 150 people participated in a week-long 1998 charrette coordinated by Dover, Kohl & Partners and Duany, Plater-Zyberk & Co.

Elements of the new plan, among them a creatively designed Dadeland Boulevard, a handsomely redone Snapper Creek Canal, new town square and transit station development, have received wide endorsement, including a unanimous OK by the Planning and Advisory Board.

Owners of Dadeland Mall, claiming they might have to demolish parts of their plan, have been trying to get their property exempted.

The neighbors will have none of that , a sample of the potentially bitter standoffs the region may face as it dares to let multiple stakeholders have a hand in development decisions.

Abacoa

The ambitious 2,050-acre New Urbanist development in Jupiter, 12 miles north of West Palm Beach, is close to Interstate 95 and beside the Eastward Ho! corridor. Abacoa could be the future model for areas just beyond the rail lines but far short of western ecologically imperiled lands.

Abacoa has some intensely urban features: townhouses and homes with porches on tree-lined streets, a town center with the Roger Dean Stadium and the John D. MacArthur Campus of Florida Atlantic University. It's deliberately designed to reduce auto use. There are parks and a 256-acre greenway nature preserve.

The FAU branch is a designated site of the Abacoa Project, an activity enabling FAU's Joint Center for Environmental and Urban Problems to implement a program aimed primarily at building effective and healthy communities. One focus: to broaden the discussion of New Urbanism from physical design to such topics as schools, diversity, health care and building civic institutions.