By: Timothy Hullihan
It didn’t occur to me until the September 8, 2016 workshop on a Memory Care Facility proposed on U.S. One, that the week-long charrette to kick-off our village-wide master plan in January is a rare form of democracy. In North Palm Beach, however, it is in danger of becoming a symbolic form of democracy.
It is hard to imagine anything more democratic than a call to citizens to gather, voice their opinions, and collectively develop, and present ideas for a better place to live. For those of you that missed it, this happened on a Saturday in January in the cafeteria of North Palm Beach Elementary, and continued throughout the following week in the Village Council Chambers. Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council (TCRPC) is/was the lead consultant to our village for this enormous and much needed undertaking. It is an on-going process.
At the end of the week, TCRPC’s team of world-class urban planners, architects, economists, market analysts, and retail development consultants presented an in-progress summary of the week’s work. They had crunched an enormous amount of data, synthesized the ideas expressed by residents with their own professional experiences, and formed some ideas of their own by observing and recording the positive and negative conditions within our village. The presentation was, again, characteristically democratic. Hundreds of North Palm Beach residents gathered, learned, and were encouraged to critique the week’s work. Enthusiastic applause signaled that TCRPC was headed in the right direction. The week-long charrette then came to a close, and TCRPC took the next 14-weeks to further refine, develop and expand the document that will eventually be adopted as our guide for growth and development for the next 50-years.
In late-May TCRPC completed a draft version of the Master Plan Document (MPD), and delivered it to our Village Manager, Jim Kelly. Shortly thereafter, the wheels of democracy began to come off. For 3-weeks the MPD was withheld from broad distribution. Miraculously, the day after our Planning Commission met in June, it was emailed to the Charrette Host Committee, and the Planning Commission Members; and made available on-line to village residents, many of whom had participated in its development.
While it was reasonable to review the draft before it was distributed, the timing of its distribution raises questions regarding Mr. Kelly’s intentions. It may just be a coincidence, but a Memory Care facility being proposed on U.S. One was on the agenda for the June Planning Commission meeting. While Memory Care is a needed use in the village, and would otherwise be a non-issue, the architectural form of the proposal was in direct contrast with a key element of the draft MPD that was broadly supported by applauding residents is January – a “Village Center” that would bring “walkable neighborhood retail” to U.S. One, and breathe much needed life into the dated corridor. Keeping the Planning Commission in the dark on this stark contrast is not how a small town democracy is supposed to work.
Prior to the June Planning Commission meeting, I and TCRPC (on separate occasions) encouraged the Memory Care development team to bring their facility to this site, but to change its architectural form so it could help us accomplish one of the more significant goals of our master plan – a village center. The developer chose not to follow this advice, and continue on with the plans unchanged.
During the Planning Commission’s consideration of the Memory Care plan, questions about the master plan naturally arose. I witnessed Denise Malone, our new Community Development Director, and a planner by training, twice mislead the commission with her answers. I do not know if she misled them intentionally, or out of ignorance. But, in either case, this is not the kind of representation a democratically prepared vision should be receiving from the most senior planner in our village.
She was first asked about the status of the master plan. Her reply was approximately, “We have not received the draft document yet, and we are not sure when we will receive it.” At the time of her answer, it had been 3-weeks since the village received the draft MPD from TCRPC.
The second inquiry asked for more information on what the master plan said about this particular site. To this she implied that the master plan is general in nature and “does not make specific recommendations for this site.” The Memory Care site is prominently featured in the MPD as one of its essential recommendations. A rendering of the site as drawn by TCRPC in the draft MPD is below:
This sketch looks at the presently vacant land from the southeast, and shows Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in the bottom right corner and U.S. One running diagonally from lower right to upper left.
The proposal for a Village Center at this location is not just a whim. It is grounded in economic analysis prepared by veteran urban real estate analyst, Tom Lavash, and the state-of-the-art advice of Robert Gibbs, the author of 5 books on retail planning and one of the most highly sought after retail consultants in the country – both members of the TCRPC team. Mr. Lavash and Mr. Gibbs participated in our charrette all 7-days. Mr. Gibbs lectured to a small audience while he was here on Tuesday evening at the Country Club. In an oversimplified summary, the Village Center proposal is derived from these facts:
- Our U.S. One Corridor is out-of-date, and presently less than desirable for new investment.
- A far greater level of decline in the quality of U.S. One in other communities has led to a broader systemic decline of these communities at-large – something we must avoid.
- We have approximately 3-times the amount of office space on U.S. One than our town’s population can support.
- However, TCRPC’s “Leakage Analysis” shows that we, the residents of NPB, spend 118M dollars annually in the retail establishments of neighboring cities, and comparatively little in NPB. Thus, we have an enormous opportunity to capture retail spending and guide it to U.S. One.
- Per Mr. Gibbs, 85% of all new retail being developed in the U.S. is of the walkable, place-making, town center variety. This is a huge opportunity for our urban location.
- We have 2.7 acres of vacant land on U.S. One that abuts a thriving residential area.
- Per Mr. Gibbs, homes that have walkable “place-making” retail within walking distance have a higher property value by 50K to 100K dollars in comparison to those that don’t, but are otherwise within similar real estate markets.
- Although a village center could happen at other sites, none of those suggested in the draft MPD are vacant sites, and, therefore, have greater obstacles to development. Time is not on our side.
For whatever reason, these facts were withheld from the Planning Commission prior to their consideration of the Memory Care proposal for the same site. When one recalls that we, the residents of NPB, paid $250,000 for detailed, and expert analysis of our town, concealing its recommendations is unthinkable. Fortunately, the Planning Commission voted the proposal down 3-2, in spite of a being misinformed. The applicant, however, chose to bring the proposal to the Village Council anyway, and that process began on Thursday, September 8th, and the wheels of democracy fell off completely.
Since the MPD is to a large extent the result of a democratic process, and, therefore, representative of the desires of NPB residents, the above events are sufficient cause for concern. However, the following events paint an even bleaker picture of the status of democracy in North Palm Beach.
TCRPC has been unwavering in their advice to the applicant: The “form” of the memory care building(s) should be consistent with the form of a Village Center to help advance the village’s emerging vision for the future. The developer continues to resist any changes to the form of his building because it is a prototype that they build all over the country. TCRPC recently agreed, however, to offer suggestions that might help the prototype building be more compatible with the draft MPD, but did so with many caveats. The most important of these caveats was to not construe, or represent their assistance as creating alternatives to the master plan’s proposal. It is a plan that is wholly independent of that set of recommendations, and their plans should be viewed only as a way to make an unfortunate situation as good as it can be.
Just like keeping the Planning Commission in the dark, TCRPC’s efforts to help the Memory Care building move a little closer to the state-of-the-art MPD, and a little further away from the dated planning methods that are presently plaguing U.S. One, were handled behind closed doors and away from the public eye. The Village Manager even misdirected anyone who tried to look up the back-up material for the workshop. The documents that the Village Council receives in advance of workshops are typically posted on the village website, but by directing the Village Clerk’s office to post the original plans that were rejected by the Planning Commission, Mr. Kelly effectively misinformed anyone seeking information about the upcoming meeting. I was aware of the TCRPC effort, and the creation of an alternate plan, and, upon seeing the fake set of back-up documents provided by Manager Kelly, I requested to see the actual material that would be presented to the Council. I was not successful. Ms. Malone even left me a voicemail which stated that she had not seen anything new; the old back-up material was still current; and it was not likely that the applicant would be presenting anything new.
In truth, the Council saw none of the fake back-up material that was posted on-line on September 2nd by the Clerk’s office at Manager Kelly’s direction. What they saw was a presentation from Ms. Malone that contained, incredibly, the new TCRPC plan, and the revelation that she and Mr. Kelly had been meeting regularly with TCRPC to get this plan created. They also saw a presentation from the applicant containing the new TCRPC plan, and an alternative to it of their own creation. The tone of the applicant’s presentation encouraged the Council to simply decide between TCRPC Plan #1, and TCRPC Plan #2. Neither presentation contained any mention, or reference to TCRPC’s list of caveats, or the master plan’s starkly different recommendations for the site. It is especially discouraging that the draft MPD, prepared in a democratic fashion and supported by village residents, would not be considered important enough to at least be part of our own staff’s presentation to the Village Council.
The Village Council is the victim here, much like the residents of NPB are. This needs to be very clear. They are good, honest, and conscientious people that have the village’s best interest at heart. In fact, Vice Mayor Bush adamantly voiced opposition to the Memory Care building because it had not been tweaked in any way to conform to the draft MPD.
Unfortunately, the strategy of withholding information worked on the rest of the Council and the Memory Care developer was given the direction he was seeking. He may now proceed with his plans as submitted, and no acknowledgement of the recommendations in the draft MPD is necessary. They will soon be bringing the full proposal to the Village Council for final approval, and rezoning of the property.
In a democracy, the desires of the people matter. In a democracy, the Village Center Plan for this site would have been presented to our Planning Commission and Village Council, but neither happened. On September 8th, the Council was asked to choose between two horrible plans that essentially cancel NPB’s best opportunity to bring vitality back to the U.S. One Corridor. TCRPC does not support either scheme over its master plan recommendations, and only the 5 village residents who attended the workshop are even aware that this is happening.
Democracy in North Palm Beach has a form with which I am not familiar.
Timothy Hullihan is an architect and freelance writer living in North Palm Beach, Florida