Almost Prefect

West Palm planner Joe Minicozzi sure doesn't sound like a bureaucrat

Joe Minicozzi perches on a curb, facing what should be oncoming traffic on Federal Highway in downtown West Palm Beach. He checks his Swatch. At rush hour the only sound is the patter of rain on the street. Finally a lone car sloshes past. "How do you feel right now?" he asks.

If the question sounds unexpected, an oddly touchy-feely query from a government employee, well, then, you just don't know Joe.

Minicozzi, who is 32 years old, became West Palm Beach's first urban designer in 1998. At the time West Palm had planners, but like most small cities, it employed no one trained in architecture and design who could marry code-laden technicalities to a comprehensive aesthetic vision. Today the city has three such employees.

"My mission statement," Minicozzi begins, "is to create an insanely great city. What does this place need?" he asks, rhetorically. "Certainly not another strip mall with another bail bondsman and karate school. Not another fucking Walgreens."

Minicozzi's candor is matched by his inventiveness. To prove his point about the necessity of regulating sidewalk signs, for example, he built a ten-foot sandwich board advertising city hall's features ("clean and friendly staff, air conditioning!") and set it up outside the building.

At the meeting that night -- about two years ago -- city commissioners voted in favor of the regulation, with the exception of District 3 Commissioner Mary S. Brandenburg. "I think it was..." -- Brandenburg trails off, searching for the right word -- "innovative," she decides. "He just did it to be funny, and it was funny."

Minicozzi likes to say he's fighting inside the belly of the beast, working within the system, infiltrating it. It hasn't always made him popular. He says he's been dubbed "the little asshole, and one developer called me a Nazi."

Still, Minicozzi (who actually likes to think of himself as an anarchist) is backed up by the city's 1994 master plan, a remarkably slim, straightforward volume drawn up in part by the pioneering Miami architecture firm Duany Plater-Zyberk. Reverently, Minicozzi calls the master plan the "DNA of the city."

His connection to it is appropriately organic. After all, Minicozzi's current job was suggested to him by Andres Duany, half of the husband-wife architecture firm responsible for coining and popularizing New Urbanism, a movement that designs communities based on a post-war model of development.

Given this lineage, Minicozzi could easily be labeled a disciple of New Urbanism, but he bristles at the words. So-called "new" urbanism is in fact a replication of the small-town setting of his childhood. A native of the rust-belt town of Rome, New York, Minicozzi attended the University of Miami architecture school, where Zyberk is now dean. When he drew the community of his youth he was held up by professors as an exemplar of the trend.

No, no, no.

Minicozzi is actually old school, rebuilds old motorcycles, favors saving classic structures. The trendy "new" label irritates him. For one thing, he says, it's redundant. New Urbanism, like the old towns it emulates, builds on the scale of people, not vehicles, with short blocks and mixed-use developments that promote diversity and social interaction.

This design concept holds important economic, cultural, and social implications, and Minicozzi, who earned a master's of architecture degree in urban design from Harvard University, could elaborate. Instead he turns the corner, literally and philosophically, eschewing highfalutin' theory in favor of "urbanism according to my mom." Mrs. Minicozzi isn't an architect or a planner, but she knows what she likes and will plainly, sometimes bluntly, say so. Most people, Minicozzi explains, have this intuitive aesthetic sense, whether they know from da Vinci.

Through his glasses Minicozzi glances at the downtown skyline. Two of the tallest structures flank the Intracoastal, blocking the view of the water. One is large, shiny, and dark, known around town as the Darth Vader building, though officially it's the North Bridge Center. The other, a condominium complex, looks like a giant air conditioner. They are notable, Minicozzi explains, partly because they are "hideous" and partly because, as "bonus buildings," they shouldn't be there at all. The structures are artifacts from a time Minicozzi says has passed, when developers could cut a deal with the city to get variances. Throw in flimsy amenities, like a bench or some palm trees, and get a few valuable, technically illegal, extra stories for "free."

No more. Under his watch Minicozzi vows such towering behemoths are a thing of the past. "No bonuses, no political favors. Sorry," he tells developers, "we just don't do that anymore.

"This isn't my whimsy," he adds. "There are laws I have to follow."

Minicozzi's whimsy is something else entirely. In 1999 he and his colleagues returned from a planning convention in Seattle inspired by the city's unique features, like artist-designed manhole covers, bronze dance steps embedded in sidewalks, and the famed troll sculpture under the Fremont Bridge. It was the troll that stayed with them. Later that year then-city transportation planner Ian Lockwood negotiated with Florida Department of Transportation officials over the construction of the Royal Palm Bridge. He didn't get anything he bargained for, so he put forth a $250,000 troll proposal.

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