Muoio’s heavy lift: polishing downtown vitality, chipping at poverty

3:56 p.m Friday, Jan. 5, 2018 Local

The pieces will start coming together in 2018, Mayor Jeri Muoio says.

At a slow, governmental pace, to be sure, but the public will begin to see results of two years of plans crafted by city leaders, consultants and community members to create “a world class city where people want to be,” as West Palm’s mission statement puts it.

Clematis Street, the city’s downtown centerpiece, will get a refreshed streetscape that cleans up and enlivens the area’s neglected alleyways. The gateway to the city, Okeechobee Boulevard, bustling with convention business but clogged by day and perilous for pedestrians at night, will get improved street lighting, a starter project for more dramatic traffic improvements to come.

More ramshackle homes in the Historic Northwest neighborhood will get rehabs or rebuilds. Job preparation programs run out of the Urban League and Mandel Public Library will focus on drawing 18- to 25-year-olds away from crime and into the workaday world, along with internship and apprenticeship programs.

Tamarind and Rosemary avenues will get refurbishing, to help strengthen the links between downtown and the isolated blocks to the north, where renovation is about to start to reopen the historic Sunset Lounge jazz hall. Protected bike lanes are in the works, to link various parts of the city and encourage commuters to leave cars home.

Those are among the highlights for 2018 the mayor cited in an interview Thursday, anticipating her annual State of the City Address, scheduled for Jan. 24.

Many of the more visually dramatic changes are being driven by the private sector.

Restoration Hardware’s new gallery store just opened in the median of the Okeechobee entry to downtown, the taupe tones and lush landscaping of the low-rise “mansion” offsetting taller buildings around it. Apartment buildings are rising around the new Brightline high-speed rail station, which is said to be starting service to Fort Lauderdale early this year.

During the first quarter, the city expects to turn over the site of the old city hall, finally razed, for developer Navarro Lowrey to build apartments, a hotel and restaurants, near the waterfront. Plans are moving ahead to turn the adjacent Banyan Garage into a social hub, possibly to include affordable micro-apartments, a YMCA rec center and rooftop public space.

The FAA just gave its assent to developer Jeff Greene’s plan for two 30-story luxury towers on Quadrille Boulevard, which will house hotel rooms, apartments, and the office-starved downtown’s first Class A corporate space built in years. Greene said he hopes to start construction during the first quarter.

Meanwhile the prominent Tent Site, on Okeechobee east of Restoration Hardward, is up for grabs again. The city has issued a request for qualifications for developers looking to build a landmark office tower on the site, which has frustrated city efforts to redevelop it for years.

On Clematis, a city proposal to turn empty storefronts into rentals for small businesses or start-ups won a $180,000 grant from the Knight Cities Challenge in 2017. The project, “12 for 12: Pop-up to Rent,” will invite local businesses to activate 12 empty stores as an economic catalyst downtown.

Many capital projects are lined up or underway, to be completed in coming years. The city website lists 157 of them, with details and time lines. These range from new fire stations to parks improvements and repairs to the stormwater system.

The city continues to deal with the seemingly intractable problems of violent crime and homelessness.

Look for the mayor’s speech to address increased community policing, manpower and camera coverage on the crime front.

The mayor also said she hopes to work with the county to expand the Lewis homelessness resource center on 45th Street to provide additional beds for West Palm’s homeless people. The city provides bus tickets to about 100 people a year to move back to their family or hometowns.

An ongoing frustration has been the state legislature’s efforts to reduce municipalities’ control over their destinies, Muoio said. That includes everything from making it hard for cities to regulate vacation home rentals or tree-trimming on private property, or using Community Redevelopment Agencies to revive troubled neighborhoods. “They’re doing everything they can to eliminate home rule,” she said.