- By Tony Doris Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
1. Hurricane Irma rocks the city. In September, expecting a dead-on hit from a hurricane of Category 5 or worse, West Palm got off with Cat 1 gusts, escaping disaster for the second year in a row. Nonetheless the hours of roaring horizontal rain and blistering wind left a debris trail throughout the city, as tree trunks snapped onto cars and houses, fences flattened and downed wires left much of West Palm without power for days.
It took weeks for the city to haul away all the debris and Fire-Rescue officials continue to slog through FEMA paperwork required for federal reimbursement.
One narrowly averted disaster took place at the Savannah Court assisted living facility, which lost power. For a day, its director refused a city offer of generators to restart the air conditioning. Responding to reports of unbearable conditions, police and fire officials found residents sweating on the home’s steamy second floor . Executive Director Michael DeSalvo downplayed the matter, calling the senior citizens “all a bunch of whiny crybabies.” Aware that 14 people had just died in a similar situation in Hollywood, city officials confronted DeSalvo and got him to move residents to the first floor and accept the generators.
2. City commission nixes waterfront office tower. Developer Related Cos., owners of CityPlace, pressed plans to rezone Okeechobee Boulevard to allow a 25-story, Class A office tower in a 5-story waterfront zone. The project, off Flagler Drive at the site of the Church of Christ, Scientist, would have provided much-needed, top quality office space to attract high-paying businesses to the city, while preserving the historic church and creating an endowment to maintain it.
But the One Flagler plan stirred strong opposition from those who sought to keep high-rises from blocking the waterfront, as dictated by a voter referendum 20 years ago. In the end, Related’s salesmanship and politicking lost by a 3-2 vote of the city commission. Still, with commission elections coming up in March, toppling just one incumbent could put the project back on track.
3. An uptick in murders roils West Palm’s Northwest. The number of homicides in West Palm Beach surged during 2017, with 26 confirmed ones as of Dec. 15. It was the largest total since The Post in 2009 began tracking confirmed homicides in Palm Beach County an online database. Most of the homicides took place north of downtown, and all but three of the victims were fatally shot. All but two of the victims were male.
The youngest victim was Lyonel Jean-Pierre, 18, who was found shot to death May 6 on Haverhill Road. The oldest was Melvin Koon, who was 66 when he was fatally shot Feb. 28 on 36th Street.
4. Transportation alternatives take center stage. With a development spurt underway, West Palm’s public and body politic are only too aware that traffic jams can’t be far behind. So while Mayor Jeri Muoio and the city commission employed a series of consultants to come up with ways to make downtown more vibrant, she employed other consulting teams to rethink how people get from here to there, so they’re not too frustrated to enjoy the revitalization measures.
The overall “mobility study” has included a bicycling study, a pedestrian study, an Okeechobee Corridor study and a parking study, to name a few. Meanwhile, with an eye toward giving commuters alternatives to the one-person car, they’re looking at boosting trolley service, improving bus service, increasing the bike rental concessions and adding miles of bike lanes throughout the city.
A pilot project, Flagler Shore, has turned the eastern two lanes of Flagler Drive into lanes for pedestrians and bike riders only. Projects are under consideration to reduce Dixie Highway car lanes, north and south of downtown, to slow traffic and make life more pleasant for cyclists and walkers. In the short run, look for better crosswalks, traffic signal timing and protected bike lanes. Think-big ideas, like an Okeechobee tunnel with pedestrian esplanade above it, are much more expensive and less likely, and if they happen at all would be years away.
The commission approved developer Mike Masanoff’s Transit Village project, an office/residential/retail complex slated for the west side of downtown, beside the PalmTran bus station and Tri-Rail tracks. On the east side of downtown, in putting the Okeechobee Boulevard Tent Site up for development, the city is soliciting proposals that might incorporate another transit hub into the ground level. And then there’s Brightline service (see below.)
5. Women in command. With the ascent of Sarah Mooney to police chief in February and Diana Matty to fire chief in May, more than a half-dozen West Palm department heads are women. Aside from police and fire, women lead Parks and Recreation, Public Utilities, Information Technology and the Office of City Clerk. Then, there’s the mayor, three of five commissioners, the city attorney and deputy city administrator, among others.
In promoting Mooney to lead the city’s biggest department, and with Matty to the second-biggest, Mayor Jeri Muoio opted against a national personnel search.
“I’ve been watching her over the last few years. I know she will do a great job,” the mayor said at Mooney’s swearing-in. “Welcome Sarah. Welcome to the girl’s club.”
Stories to watch:
1. Brightline high-speed rail service. The train station beside Quadrille Boulevard is built and the apartment tower behind it is well under way, as All Aboard Florida prepares to launch its Brightline service to Fort Lauderdale in a matter of weeks, to be followed by service to Miami. Prices and schedules have yet to be announced. Still years off: the high-speed connection to Orlando that made the whole project make sense won’t open until at least 2020.
2. First office towers in years: Developer Jeff Greene in December got FAA assurance his proposed One West Palm project won’t interfere in Palm Beach International Airport flight patterns. He says he’ll start the foundation for the $250 million project’s two 30-story towers in the first quarter of 2018. The project, at 550 Quadrille Blvd., will include 200,000 square feet of top-tier offices, as well as hotel suits and luxury apartments.
3. The prominent Tent Site , so-named because for years the vacant lot served only for art and antique shows under tents, has defied city efforts to attract landmark architecture to distinguish the entrance to downtown. Now the city is trying again, with a request for proposals, asking for top-flight architecture and a ground level that might serve as a transit hub.
4. Trump in the hood. Look for more sightings of the President and high-level guests, and protests, as he flies to Palm Beach International Airport and helicopters or caravans down Southern Boulevard to his winter White House at Mar-a-Lago. The city received money to cover security costs but is looking for more, for a mass casualty truck, a mobile command unit and a patrol boat.