West Palm Wants To Use Copenhagen Model To Enliven Its Public Areas

West Palm Wants To Use Copenhagen Model To Enliven Its Public Areas

It started with a trip to Copenhagen, widely hailed as one of the world’s most livable cities.

A year-and-a-half later, West Palm Beach is moving ahead with efforts to conjure the magic that turned the northern European city from grim to great. The city commission on Feb. 13 approved an agreement with Denmark-based Gehl Studio, to complete Phase II of a program to study West Palm and design pilot programs to make its public areas — streets, parks, waterfront, commercial areas — more alluring and socially invigorating.

And while the city works with Gehl, CityPlace’s owners also hired them, to rethink the shopping and dining property’s public areas and how they connect with downtown.

“We’re thinking about what the public realm of CityPlace 2.0 wants to be,”  Said Gopal Rajegowda, senior vice president of The Related Cos.

Mayor Jeri Muoio, along with Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Raphael Clemente, traveled to Denmark in September 2015 as as guests of a program called 8 80 Cities, which encourages municipal leaders from around the U.S. to promote walkability, bike-ability and civic engagement. West Palm Beach was chosen as one of 13 cities that had representatives at the Knight Foundation-funded program.

In Copenhagen they attended a presentation by Gehl representatives, whose high-profile architectural and urban design firm had a part in that city’s revival. Members of Gehl’s New York offices later visited West Palm Beach, which hired the firm to undertake studies of city life here.

The work has been funded by grants from Knight, Community and Quantum foundations, with contributions from the city, its Community Redevelopment Agency and its business-supported Downtown Development Authority. Together, they’re investing $295,000 in the second phase.

Phase I involved background research and getting to understand the city, its neighborhood groups, business leaders and other shareholders, said Director of Economic Development Christopher Roog, who serves as the city’s liaison with Gehl.

Participants undertook what they called a “Favorite Places Survey,” setting up at various locations, from Subculture Coffee on Clematis Street to Howard Park, Northwood Village, the Historic Northwest, Pleasant City and Coleman Park, to quiz residents on what they’d like to see in the city, what’s their favorite place to go, how do they get there, what’s their preferred mode of transportation.

Phase II involves conducting more surveys and gathering data, to assess key public spaces downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods, and to study how people get around and how the different areas connect. Roog said he participated, spending most of a day on the 200 block of Clematis Street, counting people, noting if they were on bikes, walking dogs, using crosswalks and seeing how they were using the public spaces.

Gehl now will be crunching numbers and using the data to come up with a “draft public realm action plan” as soon as March, a comprehensive vision for the city’s public spaces, and pilot programs to start putting changes in place. At this point it’s all data and all conceptual, so it’s hard to picture what form those changes will take, but Roog said the action plan will have specifics.

The study comes at a time when several efforts are underway to improve city life in and around downtown, and when the city has more money than in many years from property tax revenues and bonds to implement the kinds of walkability and livability projects the mayor has been advocating.

With interest rates favorable, the city issued $40 million in bonds for capital improvements last summer. The one-cent sales tax increase just approved should give the city another $60 million. A utility bond issue will bring the total up to $170 million, Roog said. Much of that money is already designated for long delayed projects, from roads to waterworks.

The Gehl plan will help the city figure out how to make the most out of what money it does pour into projects aimed at creating a livable, world class metropolis of the future, Roog said. And those projects should tie in to others already underway, such as the revitalization of the historic Sunset Lounge, and an upcoming traffic study to address congestion issues already snarling Okeechobee Boulevard and other areas as multiple real estate projects bring ever more residents and office tenants downtown.

Related’s Rajegowda said CityPlace’s study, also still conceptual, looks at road networks, public space, cultural programming, landscaping and master planning. Though still in the early stages, he said, “it’s very exciting stuff.”

“This sort of community engagement and granular analysis of public spaces is something that very few cities do,” the Downtown Development Authority’s Clemente said.

“The process that Gehl has developed over 40 years of not just quantifying but doing a qualitative analysis of space is really effective. There’s so much proof of how these programs yield things that are implementable and yield what community wants.”

Victor DeFrisco Headshot
Phone: 561-951-3759
Dated: February 21st 2017
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