Mayor Jeri Muoio’s state of the city address last year focused on the city regaining its footing after years of recession, deferred maintenance and deferred raises.
On Friday she looked ahead, envisioning a future West Palm Beach underpinned by progressive approaches to livability, environmental sustainability and economic opportunity. Buttressed by rising property values that have replenished city coffers, she turned to plans for building on West Palm’s “glorious diversified history” while applying modern urban strategies to make the city easier to walk and bike around, more pleasant to live in and more desirable for corporations to bring jobs.
“We share a joint vision of a world-class city that honors its history, diversity and environment,” she told the Chamber of Commerce gathering of several hundred in the Palm Beach County Convention Center on Friday morning. “A city that lifts up its citizens and encourages economic growth. A place where baby boomers and millennials alike share in the excitement and opportunity.”
The mayor, an educator by training, cited experts, urban planning organizations and foundations upon whose philosophies the city is drawing.
Reviving neighborhoods a priority
She noted that a Knight Foundation grant is helping engage residents of the Historic Northwest Neighborhood in reviving the Sunset Lounge as an economic spark for the low-income, African American neighborhood. The What Works Cities movement, which involves Bloomberg Philanthropies, Harvard’s Kennedy School and John Hopkins’ A Center for Government Excellence, will be teaching West Palm Beach how to use data to better serve residents, she said.
The city has been working with Gehl Institute to study how to make West Palm Beach’s public spaces “inviting, vibrant pedestrian centers,” she said. The city also is working with the Van Alen Institute to re-think the downtown waterfront and design a new downtown garage “that’s more than just a place to park.”
A “mobility study” — prompted by public concerns about traffic near the convention center and elsewhere downtown — aims to position the county’s capital city for inevitable growth, she said.
The annual address comes at a time when downtown development is booming, when the value of property in the city has soared 25 percent in two years, to $11 billion, providing money to undertake long-delayed projects, from parks to road repairs. At the same time, the number of new projects and developers’ efforts to push limits on building heights, have many concerned about the future of the already congested arteries leading downtown, and how long-struggling neighborhoods can benefit from that growth in the city of 104,000.
Mayor cites city’s improvements
Muoio ticked off a list of improvements the city has made and plans to make and put them in the framework of the larger vision.
She pointed to an event last summer when the city closed off a lane on Flagler Drive for bike-riding. And about 20 people, mainly city employees, rode up and down the waterfront in what amounted to a symbolic effort to draw attention to the city’s push for alternate forms of getting around downtown.
“Before we did it, if I had come to you and said: ‘We are going to put up barricades and reduce the number of car lanes to make room for bikers,’ what would your reaction have been?” she asked. “What if instead of telling you what we wanted to do, I told you why we wanted to do it. What if I said: ‘I believe in a city that helps break our dependence on cars, that encourages cleaner, more environmentally friendly transportation, and that transforms our downtown into a pedestrian-friendly urban center?’ ”
She said a new sales tax increase will give the city $60 million over 10 years. That, along with a $110 million bond issue, gives the city $170 million for such projects as community center renovations, playground repairs and improvements to Broadway and South Dixie Highway.
The regional sewage treatment plant off Roebuck Road is undergoing $100 million in improvements, while the city’s water plant is adding an ultraviolet filtration system to improve drinking water quality, she said.
All the city’s uniformed police officers have been fitted with body cameras, she said, and an improved police radio system is finally in place after years of setbacks.
She lauded a court decision that relieved the city from contributing to the county’s Office of Inspector General, an anti-corruption agency fundedby contributions from the county’s cities. “The case was never just about West Palm Beach, Palm Beach County or the Inspector General,” she said. “It was always about the greater importance of preserving the sovereignty of Florida cities and ensuring all cities maintain the absolute rights to control their budgets, and how they chose to spend their taxpayers’ money,” she said.
City goal: Eliminate greenhouse emissions by 20150
The city is moving toward environmental sustainability, she said. “While some cities are trying to cut 20 percent of the energy used by government buildings over a decade, West Palm Beach has already done it.” The city has pledged to “all but eliminate” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, she added.
The city’s trolleys now run on propane and the city’s entire fleet of cars will run on non-fossil fuels by 2025, she said.
She pointed to gains by the city’s Youth Empowerment Center in efforts to attain a high school graduation rate of 100 percent. A city grant to the Urban League is helping with job training in the impoverished North End, and the city’s Housing and Community Development Department is helping residents qualify for home repair loans or emerge from homelessness, she said.
Meanwhile, major projects are progressing, including the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, the spring training complex about to open for the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals, she said. And she pointed to real estate projects taking shape, from the Norton Museum of Art’s $100 million renovation to the new Brightline downtown train station, and the Restoration Hardware “mansion” on Okeechobee Boulevard.
She urged the audience to spread the word about West Palm Beach accomplishments and its vision for “setting the standard for forward-thinking cities.”
Have a West Palm Beach news tip? Contact Staff Writer Tony Doris at email@example.com or 561-820-4703.