A city's tale of renewal - and the trade-offs

When West Palm Beach opened CityPlace, another urban project languished.

It's just past noon on a warm, bright Florida day, the sort of afternoon when you'd expect tourists, retirees, and locals on their lunch breaks to sit outside along Clematis Street sipping iced teas and watching the people go by. Except they're not: The cafes and restaurants are virtually empty, as are the sidewalks and nearby shops.

It's not that there aren't tourists or even workers in the area. They're just not here. They are, as one bored waitress glumly noted, "over there, as usual."

By "over there," she means CityPlace, the mammoth, sparkling West Palm Beach redevelopment effort about three blocks and a world away that opened to great fanfare in late 2000. A mixed-use complex considered by urban planning experts to be among the most ambitious in the nation, CityPlace rose from 72 acres of burned-out drug houses and crime-ridden slums to become a cross between an outdoor mall and an old-style Main Street.

There's no denying the region looks better and that a blighted area with almost no taxable value is now worth more than $185 million in assessed valuation. The effort did, as predicted, rebrand a sleepy county seat into something more than a mere accent to its sister, the posh island enclave of Palm Beach. With 650,000 square feet of retail space, a 20-screen movie theater, 600 residential units, and free parking, among other amenities, the effort immediately drew thousands of visitors a day and reams of media attention.

But urban revitalization efforts often are akin to putting a fitted sheet on a bed, tucking one corner down perfectly only to see another corner pop out. As CityPlace flourishes, the historic Clematis district that was once the linchpin of downtown West Palm Beach founders.

Tough times

Five restaurants have closed in the past month, and several stores have relocated to CityPlace. A free trolley that links the two areas together has failed to usher enough of CityPlace's new audience over. Whereas former Mayor Nancy Graham and others are quick to blame the recession and the disappearance of tourist traffic after Sept. 11, those explanations are expiring in the face of a newly thriving economy. Nowadays, many are coming to realize that the downfall of Clematis Street was due to a lack of planning, and that the disparities between CityPlace and Clematis are emblematic of the difficult trade-offs that urban redevelopment can cause.

"The city at the time [in 2000] talked about CityPlace and the Clematis district melding into one destination, and I bought into that," says Joe Rooney, who opened Rooney's Irish Pub on Clematis in 1998 and is struggling. "We thought that CityPlace would bring more people in, create a larger market, and that the city would do something to keep Clematis's success going rather than allowing one to basically put the other out of existence."

Ironically, it was Clematis's mid-1990s success that proved the viability of West Palm Beach and encouraged megadeveloper Ken Himmel to plunge $550 million into building CityPlace. Clematis, a historic shopping district just blocks from City Hall and other government institutions, had fallen on hard times in the 1980s until Ms. Graham came into office in 1991 and made its recovery her first mission. She directed the police to crack down on petty crime, offered incentives to merchants to open shop and, most important, created a wildly popular weekly festival of free, live music that made the area hip to the yuppie and Generation X crowds.

At the same time, Graham persuaded her City Commission to buy for $20 million what is now CityPlace - the 72-acre spread nearby - and then bid it out for development. The chance to recompose such an enormous expanse of a decayed urban core all at once is one few mayors ever see. It came about only because an ambitious speculator had pieced together the contiguous properties in the late 1980s with hopes of building.

When the real estate market then collapsed, the property owner's grand visions also fell into disrepair, until the city bought it for a song in 1995. Enter Mr. Himmel, whose past redevelopment efforts included building Water Tower Place in Chicago and Copley Place in Boston, and whose Related Companies has just debuted New York City's groundbreaking $1.75 billion Time Warner Center complex.

High hopes, good intentions

Himmel and Graham, by then the former mayor, insisted at the time of CityPlace's opening that it wouldn't cannibalize Clematis. But urban planning experts say this would have required city involvement that never materialized under Graham's successor, Joel Daves. The only significant effort was the free trolley, but little was done to spruce up Clematis or the blighted areas between Clematis and CityPlace.

"As in many situations like this, there's an inevitable tension between the hot new thing and the more traditional retail area," says Lew Bowers, part of a panel that studied the impact of CityPlace last year for the nonprofit think tank Urban Land Institute (ULI). Mr. Bowers, in charge of redeveloping the downtown core of Portland, Ore., notes that after CityPlace was built, "the challenge was to integrate it into the surrounding neighborhoods, but that hasn't happened yet."

Current Mayor Lois Frankel sees this as her most significant priority. Ms. Frankel, who lured Graham out of the private sector to focus on revitalizing Clematis for the second time in a decade, is acting on several of the ULI's recommendations. The most important of them is a plan, which is about to be executed, to demolish a public library currently blocking the view of the ocean from Clematis. The library and West Palm Beach City Hall will be relocated into huge new digs along the road that links CityPlace to Clematis.

"The city will go through another renaissance," says Frankel of the $115 million in plans. "There was a little bit of a lull on the Clematis area right after CityPlace. The city should have been a lot more aggressive about it."

Mr. Rooney, the pub owner, worries that it may be too little, too late for many of the current merchants. "All these ideas have been discussed going back to the time when Nancy Graham was mayor. So if they had been implemented seven or eight years ago, most of those projects would be done," Rooney gripes. "Three or five years from now, it should be great. The big question is, how are those of us who have been scraping bottom for the past few years going to make it to that point?"

He adds, "We thought five years ago if we made it five years, we'd be at the promised land. We still haven't gotten started yet."

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