Crammed with high-rise condos and office towers, a hotel, performing arts mecca, convention center and retail complex, Okeechobee Boulevard is more than West Palm Beach’s gleaming, gateway entrance. It’s a visual statement of a city’s ambition.
But 30 years ago, it was a road to nowhere.
In 1987, neighborhoods on either side of the Okeechobee corridor were weed-strewn ghost towns ruled by drug dealers. People described it in Wild West terms. A U.S. senator called it a “war zone.” Pockmarked by poverty and dented by despair, residents were afraid to venture out on streets riddled with crack, crime and dilapidated buildings.
Not even politicians thought the place could be turned around. When the Palm Beach County Commission was reviewing plans for a convention center near Okeechobee in November 1986, a consultant’s report called the area attractive and excellent.
“The appearance of downtown is not at all excellent,” said Commissioner Dorothy Wilken.
“It’s going to take a lot of work to make downtown,” added Commissioner Karen Marcus, who couldn’t even visualize people wanting to visit.
It did take a lot of work — West Palm not only had the highest crime rate in the nation for cities its size in the late ’80s, but the street cocaine epidemic was so prevalent that HBO came here to film its documentary, “Crack USA: County Under Siege.”
But the first, slow signs of a renaissance began emerging as rumors and whispers in November 1986. That’s when The Palm Beach Post published an article titled: “Who’s buying up West Palm Beach hot properties?”
As reported by real estate writer Ava Van de Water, somebody was mysteriously purchasing rundown land around Okeechobee and offering inflated prices, reportedly as high as six figures.
Van de Water developed a list of likely candidates. Her first choice? The future president of the United States, Donald Trump, whose expanding local portfolio included Mar-a-Lago and Trump Plaza.
But as Van de Water revealed in a January 1987 exclusive, the buyers turned out to be Palm Beachers Henry Rolfs and David Paladino, who were quietly gobbling up 72 acres along the north and south sides of Okeechobee to create a “city within a city” that would reimagine a moribund downtown.
The city was suddenly abuzz with speculation. Some thought Rolfs and Paladino had the right idea, but needed Trump’s particular art of the deal savvy to keep it sizzling. “Trump’s the only guy who can (create) the sex appeal,” one source told Van de Water in May 1987.
But Rolfs’ plans got The Donald seal of approval in an interview he gave The Palm Beach Post that month at Trump Tower in New York.
“I think, like (Rolfs) does, that the area has tremendous untapped potential,” Trump said. “I think he’s doing something very smart. I mean, he’s doing something that I think I’d be doing if I were in Palm Beach more, to be perfectly honest.”
Rolfs and Paladino formally unveiled what would become known as the Downtown/Uptown project in October 1987. While officials saw a grand revitalization of the city’s blighted entrance, some residents of the crime-plagued streets were happy that they might get relocated.
“You’ve got ghettos in every city, but this is ridiculous,” said Eleanor Greenslade, as she stood on her stoop at the corner of L Street and Georgia Avenue in early 1987. “Drugs are everywhere. You can’t go on the street because you don’t know what people are going to do.”
“The neighborhood stinks,” said Janis Palmer, a 34-year-old renter on Georgia Avenue, in July 1987. “The dope addicts are slipping into (boarded houses) and filthing up the places.”
Sonny Boy, a 50-year-old resident on L Street, said the area had become such an “outlaw place” that he put a board in his first-floor bedroom window after drug dealers dueled in the street. “It may not stop the bullet, but it’ll slow it down,” he said.
When then-Sen. Lawton Chiles toured the area in September 1987, he walked into the darkness of a boarded-up house, sidestepping filthy blankets, piles of feces and dozens of discarded beer cans used to smoke crack cocaine.
“It’s terrible, it’s a war zone,” he said. “Seeing something like this turns your stomach. I’ve seen a couple of these houses before, but you never get used to it.”
There were some neighborhood holdouts — most notably Triny Fahy, West Palm’s eccentric “cat lady,” who wanted $5 million for her feline-filled Hibiscus Street house - but others were happy to sell out and get out. Susie Spriggs, who lived with her contractor husband in a $24,000 house on Georgia Avenue, said “they paid me enough for a $100,000 house, a van and a new car and I still have some left over. I got compensated.”
Rolfs and Paladino soon began razing buildings and clearing land for a skyscraping vision that included a hotel, residences, parks and a shopping-arts district, all anchored by a tree-lined boulevard. Before Van de Water revealed their plan, they had secretly purchased 300 lots from 240 different sellers — owning some streets outright — a feat so amazing they tried to get the Guinness Book of Records interested in it.
The developer duo was a striking odd couple. Rolfs was born in Manhattan, a low-key psychology buff who made millions building neighborhoods in the northern Virginia countryside. He bankrolled books on human potential. He chatted with the Dalai Lama, walked on hot coals and, at age 76, climbed a 28-foot telephone pole to test his physical stamina.
Paladino was more flamboyant, an operator with thrift-shop pants and planter’s hat, a Jersey-born graduate of Forest Hill High who opened a music store, played guitar (sometimes sitting in with late jazz bassist Jaco Pastorious) and called himself “the white B.B. King.” He began dabbling in real estate, and scored big by selling some of the land where Phillips Point now sits for $400,000. It was Paladino who bought the first lots, and brought Rolfs into the deal.
Downtown/Uptown, always a bit of clunky verbiage, was bold. Visionary. Also costly. The land sat razed, empty and grassed over for years. As Downtown/Uptown languished, the Kravis Center went up (Paladino donated the land) and that solidified the area’s promise.
Rolfs exhausted $54 million of his own fortune — and 2,000 valuable acres of land he owned west of Florida’s Turnpike — trying to make it happen. A recession, defaulted loans, lawsuits and foreclosures consumed years and slowly ate away at the developers’ dreams.
Eventually, they lost it all. By the early 1990s, with a strong push by then-West Palm Mayor Nancy Graham, the city consolidated the properties, took others by eminent domain, fended off lawsuits and appeals that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and entertained proposals to redevelop the area.
A group led by developer Ken Himmel and current Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, won, and the $550 million CityPlace opened 17 years ago on October 27, 2000.
The only building remaining from the old, bruised neighborhood is the former First United Methodist Church, refurbished and now known as the Harriet Himmel Theater in CityPlace. In a recent interview with WPB Magazine, Paladino called CityPlace "pretty soulless" and wished they would have stuck with his original architectural vision. He told the Palm Beach Daily News in 2012 that his contributions to the city's rebirth have gone unnoticed.
As one of his last conditions before exiting the project that he started in secret decades earlier, Paladino got a statue of a man placed in the median of Okeechobee Boulevard.
Most people probably don’t know the identity of the suited gentleman with outstretched arms. Henry Rolfs, who died in 1994, never lived long enough to see CityPlace and West Palm’s revived downtown, but he welcomes them to it every day.
This account was based on previous stories written by Palm Beach Post staff writers Larry Aydlette and Joel Engelhardt and former staff writers Ava Van de Water, Margie Sloan, Carolyn Susman and Bartholomew Sullivan.