State of the city: Mayor touts West Palm as ‘world class in the making’

Updated Jan 24, 2018
West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio at 2018 State of the City Address breakfast at Palm Beach County Convention Center. (Tony Doris / The Palm Beach Post)

With the Houston Astros’ World Series win as her metaphor, a term-limited Mayor Jeri Muoio on Wednesday described West Palm Beach as on the base path to transformative change in the face of skepticism, a world class city in the making, with economic growth powering innovations that promise a more equitable and livable community.

Muoio’s 2018 State of the City Address at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, warmly received by a ballroom packed with 900 business and community leaders, ticked off a list of changes to come, from addressing traffic and pedestrian safety concerns to redesigning Clematis Street, South Dixie Highway and Currie Park and requiring living wages for city contractors’ employees.

She announced creation of an Office of Public Life, to “ensure all of our decisions are evaluated on their effects on public health, sustainability, pedestrian-friendliness and the creation of safe and comfortable connections for all our neighborhoods.” The office, headed by recently retired police captain Wendy Morse, will sustain initiatives launched over the past two years by urban consultants Gehl Studios.

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“Public life will be a priority in government planning and investment,” said the mayor, whose administration over the past few years hired several consultants who studied everything from walkability to bicycling, road design and making the waterfront a more integral part of downtown life. The work of those consultants will start bearing fruit this year, she said.

“You will begin to see the results of our detailed mobility study come to life, results that will provide you, residents and visitors with better options for moving throughout our city, especially along the Okeechobee corridor. Your safety on our streets and sidewalks, whether you are walking, biking or driving a vehicle, is paramount,” she said.

A promise to address city’s homeless situation

Whereas last year’s State of the City touted the police department’s introduction of body cams and an improved police radio system, this year’s speech did not touch on crime, making no mention of 2017’s 27 murders, up from 10 in 2016.

The mayor did point to a number of programs targeting poverty through job training, housing and outreach to the homeless, the latter a sore point for downtown merchants who have complained of vagrants scaring off business.

A purchase assistance program run through the city’s Housing and Community Development team helped residents with 19 home purchases and the team worked with nonprofit The Lord’s Place to divert 39 people from homelessness, she said. “Just a few weeks ago, we were able to place four people who were living in the City Hall courtyard into homes of their own.” About 30 homeless people were given bus tickets to return to their families.

The mayor made no direct mention of this year’s failed effort to rezone Okeechobee Boulevard to allow Related Cos. to build a 25-story, Class A office tower in a 5-story zone near the Flagler Drive waterfront. But she did say that, despite $2 billion in the city’s development pipeline, West Palm continues to have a dire shortage of quality office space to attract employers. Palm Beach County, in a team with Miami-Dade and Broward, this month was named one of 20 finalists for a new Amazon headquarters that the company says could employ as many as 50,000.

“Let’s work together to bring Class-A office space to our city, because to truly reach our potential of a city, where people can where where they live, we must bring more businesses to our urban core,” Muoio said.

Trolley Tracker app unveiled

She unveiled two tech-related initiatives: The “West Palm Working” dashboard on website WPB.org now allows the public to see where the city stands in meeting its various performance goals; An app that will become available in two weeks, Trolley Tracker, will let people waiting for a trolley know where the next one is and when it will arrive.

The mayor noted that 53 percent of the city workforce is minority and half of the leadership team is made up of women, including this year’s addition of a Sarah Mooney as police chief and Diana Matty as fire chief.

“Making equality a priority extends not only to gender but also to gender identification, minority hiring, embracing diversity and helping those who need our help most,” Muoio said. “As a city, we have a special role in setting the right example for the treatment of all who live in our community.”

Visitors to a City Hall workshop this week learned that construction of a redesigned Clematis Streetscape, to make it more tree-shaded and pedestrian-friendly, is scheduled to start June 1. Muoio highlighted a number of city projects in the works that focus on improving quality of life in the city.

In addition to the $2 million Clematis project, these include plans to turn the Banyan garage near the old (now-demolished) city hall into a public-private “social hub” that includes such features as public meeting spaces, “hip micro apartments” and redesigned parking. Downtown alleys will become “activated pedestrian malls.” And the 300 and 400 blocks of Datura Street will be reconfigured into a tree-shaded plaza for outdoor dining and recreation. To the north, the western end of Northwood Road will be redeveloped, while the waterfront Currie Park is redesigned.

The mayor tipped a figurative hat to the Astros, who won their first-ever World Series the year they moved their spring training to the new Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach. She also applauded the Washington Nationals, who share the facility off Military Trail, for finishing at the top of their division.

In closing, she urged the public to “become part of the process,” attend public meetings and share ideas. “Success lies in our ability to embrace new ideas and new ways of thinking,” Muoio said.