The unnoticed New Urbanism

Despite the worst real estate crash in Florida since the 1920s, West Palm Beach has boomed over the last decade. The city’s population rose 21.7 percent, by more than 17,000 people, from 2000 to 2010 — fueled in part by thousands of new residential units downtown and the revitalization of adjacent neighborhoods. Crime has dropped sharply — down more than 50 percent since 2000, a bigger decline than any other major city in Florida.

Twenty years ago, 80 percent of downtown storefronts were unoccupied. Much of the surrounding land was underutilized or vacant, including 14 blocks of that were cleared for urban renewal in the 1980s, after which the developers went bankrupt and left a swath of empty land.

In 1993, the city hired Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company to create a plan and a code for a 100-block area of downtown. The code, approved in 1994, was one of the first examples of a form-based code.

As these codes go, it was simple — with four building types, “A” and “B” streets, minimal parking requirements, and administrative approval (no hearings) for projects that meet the code. It ensured that every new building — regardless of architectural quality — would contribute to the urban environment through proper placement on the street and a pedestrian-friendly frontage. To see what I mean, look at the photo below of post-code buildings and compare them to the 1980s Trump Plaza on page 3, also in West Palm Beach. The latter is more imposing and less a good neighbor.

The city emerges

Although not perfect in every respect, the 1994 code was effective. “The DPZ plan made it easier to bring projects to life,” says Raphael Clemente, executive director of the West Palm Beach Downtown Development Authority (DDA). “There was a significant amount of residential development.”

The simplicity of the code was not popular with everyone, however, because it limited political wheeling and dealing. Lois Frankel, mayor from 2003 to 2011 and a former state legislator, led a revamp that took effect in 2009. “In the legislature, you are a card-carrying dealmaker,” Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, one of the original code authors, noted in a session at the 20th Congress for the New Urbanism, which took place in West Palm Beach in May. Due to the housing crash, the new, more complex code has yet to be tested.

The city’s investment in new streetscapes and parks has been equally important. Two stunning public spaces are particularly well-used by locals and tourists — a waterfront park at the end of the city’s main street, Clematis, and the central plaza at CityPlace, a mixed-use urban district built in 2000.
Clematis Street, today, is packed with people in the evenings. CityPlace, which fits into downtown and includes housing, is one of the top shopping attractions in southeast Florida.

As the Congress for the New Urbanism celebrated its 20th gathering, New Urbanism is still best known for its “greenfield” developments like Kentlands, Seaside, and Celebration. These projects are distinctive and easy for the media to grasp, but cities like West Palm Beach that have undergone transformations under new urban plans and codes get little recognition.

One might call West Palm Beach “Invisible New Urbanism” — because the new doesn’t obviously stand out from the old. Buildings from the last two decades are distinct from anti-urban ones like Donald Trump’s, but mostly they just fit into the city and make it stronger. That’s the way it ought to be.

“We have seen very clearly the impact of public investment and improving the streetscape and waterfront in driving private investment,” Clemente says. “So more people have come into the area, but the other side of the coin is that it creates a place where people want to spend money. So we have seen more consumer dollars flow into West Palm Beach”

There are cities all across the country where it’s hard to tell the New Urbanism from the old. I saw another example when I was in Florida — Winter Park, where a 1996 plan and subsequent efforts have profoundly improved an already excellent main street.

A big shift has taken place among decision-makers across the US, who now support the walkable, the compact, and the mixed-use. That shift requires plans and codes, and West Palm Beach and Winter Park were fortunate to be early adopters. Many others are following this path toward economic development, and, one hopes, after 10 or 20 years, the urbanism will not be obviously new or old — simply good.