New look for Clematis Street, swapping parking spots for people space


West Palm OKs redesign of Clematis Street with more room for people, less for cars

Look for a leafier Clematis Street, with wider, curb-less sidewalks, more room for outdoor dining and hand-in-hand strolling and a look more like a plaza than a thoroughfare.

The city commission on Monday unanimously approved a $2 million makeover for the 300 block of West Palm’s historic, signature retail strip. It’s the first phase of a streetscape improvement that eventually will stretch the people-friendly vibe across several blocks, from Narcissus Ave., near the waterfront, westward toward Sapodilla Avenue.

The downside: a sharp cut in on-street parking. While some merchants and property owners say a parking space shortage could starve their businesses of customers, Mayor Jeri Muoio and other supporters say the plan it will help businesses by increasing foot traffic.

“It’s going to do so much for our street and it’s going to make such a difference in terms of the way we look and the way we deal with pedestrians and the way we attract people to the businesses on Clematis Street,” Muoio said at Monday’s city commission meeting.

Work is scheduled to start in June. Meanwhile the city is working on a final version of its parking study, meant to find solutions to the scarcity of downtown spaces. A draft of the study, released in December, recommended a variety of ways to free-up spaces, from charging more at meters closer to busy Clematis, to charging past 7 p.m., and encouraging condos to share vacant garage spaces for public parking. The research is part of a series of transportation studies, on downtown driving, bicycling, walking and livability.

As currently designed, 63 percent of Clematis is devoted to cars and 37 percent to people, according to Erik Ferguson, city transportation engineer. Great streets need at least half their space for people, he said, and the redesign would do that, allowing 55 percent for people and leaving 45 percent for cars.

That change comes mostly at the expense of parking spaces. Sixteen will be eliminated, leaving 12. Vehicle travel lanes will narrow to 20 feet, from 26.

Those shifts create room for 18 more shade trees and sidewalks that are three feet wider.

Responses to the proposal ran the gamut from all-out enthusiasm to “I hope we can leave things like they are,” as Alan Murphy of Pioneer Linens put it. The Clematis retailer said removing spaces and narrowing the road would congest traffic and make it hard for people to jump out and buy a cup of coffee.

“There’s no retailer in the world that will come onto a street where they’ve basically abolished two-thirds of the parking,” said Jonathan Gladstone, a Clematis property owner and retail leasing agent. “It’s insane. For me, it’s like death.”

The removal of parking spaces will cost the city $360,000 a year in lost meter revenue, he added — $3.6 million over 10 years.

Can downtown garages pick up the slack? “There is a crisis with garage parking,” said Raphael Clemente, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. “We just hired one employee at the DDA, and we cannot get a single monthly parking pass.” Imagine a company wanting to come in and bring 15 to 20 employees, he said.

At the same time, he called the plan “a reasonable, safe approach,” because the curb-less streets give flexibility to add some spaces back if feared negative impacts become a reality, Clemente said.

Others lauded the plan. One woman said that with the wider sidewalks, she’d be able to walk next to her father, who’s in a wheelchair. The sidewalks and shade trees would comfort the elderly and those on wheelchairs, she said.

Jesse Bailey, an advocate for enhancing downtown walkability, said the plan represented a fair trade-off that would increase the value of the street although it would reduce ease of parking. “I’m looking forward to being able to stroll the street hand-in-hand with my wife for a change,” he said.

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