- Emily J. Minor Special to The Palm Beach Post
A lot’s happened in the last 20 years at Abacoa, the pretty “new urbanist” community that anchors Jupiter on the town’s south side.
The oak trees are grown. The sidewalks are busy. In the spring, there’s Major League Baseball at one of the nicest training fields around. In the summer, the minor leaguers take the field.
There’s a new hotel, a bio-science center, an honors college.
“We believed - and I think we’ve been proven right - that people are OK with living in the same neighborhood with people who aren’t exactly like them,” says Nader Salour, the developer who took over the massive project after it had been approved by local and regional planners in 1995.
In this development, retirees live next to families with kids, who live next to singles, who live next to snowbirds.
“When your house is near the sidewalk and you have a front porch, it’s easy to meet your neighbor,” he says. “There’s energy in that.”
But in the mid-1990s, not everyone was quite so certain. More than a few politicians and some unconvinced fellow developers thought Abacoa was somewhat of a chancy social-science experiment.
“I remember getting a call from a reporter who said, ‘You know, the American dream is 1-acre lots in the suburbs,’” Salour said.
But dreams, it turns out, come in all shapes and sizes.
Today, Abacoa is a major component of the town of Jupiter, breathing life into former farm land along Donald Ross Road and north. Spread over three square miles, the community now known for its front porches, shady streets and good schools today numbers 5,686 homes, 1,825 of them single family. Sidewalks pave the way to the (finally) thriving business district, comprised of 1.2 million square feet of stores, restaurants, even a new pharmacy.
Beth Kigel, president and CEO of the Palm Beach North Chamber of Commerce, says neighborhoods like Abacoa make her job rather joyful.
“People love that hometown feel, and they love that they can walk places,” says Kigel, who came on board with the chamber five years ago and missed the early goings of Abacoa.
“It’s created that safe kind of walkable environment that gives you that hometown feel.”
Abacoa today is nearly built-out. Approved for 6,000 homes, there are just a few units to go. The homes - everything from big houses with front porches, to town homes, condos and villas - are spread over 20 different neighborhoods, each with their own homeowners’ association.
Rhys Anderson was an Abacoa pioneer, moving into her town home in 1999. “I was in my 30s and I thought, ‘Why not?’” she says. Nearly 20 years later, she’s in love with the place.
“It’s friendly. It’s homey,” she said. “You feel like a part of a community.
“And look how the oak trees have grown. They’re beautiful.”
For a project of its size, former County Commissioner Karen Marcus, an integral part of the early planning, said there was little public outcry during the approval hearings. “There really wasn’t that much opposition,” she says. “It had been a farm, so the land was already eroded.”
But the one curveball Marcus did throw into the project?
“I told them it had to be incorporated into Jupiter,” she remembers. “I’m sure there were times when (developer) George (de Guardiola) was kicking me, because that made things a little tougher.”
Clearly, she says now, it was the right move. “I knew that it was going to be Jupiter’s future.”
Of course, even paradise has problems.
One year, some kids were hauled in for starting a fire in a field. The ballyhooed movie theater was a bust, and eventually torn down. And once a coyote came out of nowhere and attacked a woman and her dog when they were out for a walk.
But perhaps the biggest challenge has been keeping businesses in the Town Center, the downtown across from Roger Dean Stadium, where the Miami Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals play Spring Training baseball.
“It’s taken a long time, but I think they’re getting there,” Salour said.
The problem? The small business district is short on parking, and it’s hidden away from major roads.
Dennis Witkowski, an owner of JJ Muggs Stadium Grill - a popular spring training hangout before and after games - has been there since 2001. And he says all the Abacoa special events - Fourth of July, ArtiGras Fine Arts Festival, Feast of Little Italy - have helped bolster his customer base. Of all the Abacoa establishments, his restaurant has been there the longest.
“We just signed a new lease and put a ton of money into renovating the restaurant,” Witkowski said. “We wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.
“It’s our little piece of paradise.”