Almost Prefect

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

The rain has dissipated now, giving way to the plaintive sound of a recorder played by a busker on Clematis Street. No longer a necessary defense against the weather, Minicozzi's umbrella becomes a weapon against bad planning. He smacks the tip of a utility meter placed, like an obstacle, on the sidewalk. "These are always fun," he says sarcastically. In the same manner he points out excessive signage on a frozen-yogurt stand, a boarded-up storefront, and a chainlink gate locking up another shop. Toward the 500 block are more vacancies, then an empty lot where he and a few others plan to show movies on a wall.

To the north, elegant townhomes flank the street. Minicozzi notes that the units, regarded at first with skepticism by some, went on the market for $180,000 each. "The last one I know of sold for $450,000."

Yet when he taps a railing at the front steps of the pricey residence, it wobbles precariously. "It's a bent pipe!" Minicozzi exclaims, disgusted. "We could probably shake it out right now."

Instead he continues on to CityPlace. Ah, yes, CityPlace. The bastion of consumerism was relentlessly portrayed in the media as "upscale," a label so ubiquitous it has become meaningless. Since its opening a year ago, CityPlace has been lauded, reviled, and analyzed, often with Minicozzi caught in the middle. "There was a CityPlace article every other day in the (Palm Beach) Post," he says wearily. "I was sick of it."

He prefers to point out the project's redeeming values, like the fact that art students hang out and sketch here some days, and that there are no bum breaks (railings dividing the seating space) near the fountains, so one could actually lie down and nap. But other details, like the fact that live oaks planned to shade the plazas were scrapped in favor of signage-friendly palms, irk him. "I hate palm trees," he grumbles.

Inside the Muvico Parisian movie theater, he proudly points to hand-painted frescoes in vibrant hues, including shades of Britney Spears baby blue and pink. It's a little over-the-top, but Minicozzi refuses to play art snob. "I'm just glad they hand-painted it," he says diplomatically.

Outside the theater a Thursday-night crowd has assembled, young and old, black and white, mingling noisily on the red-brick steps like students at a university. "Apparently, there's trouble in the public space right now," Minicozzi says, in ironic reference to the recent calls for a curfew.

He continues on, past an outsized teddy bear that lounges in front of FAO Schwarz. Minicozzi admits he isn't fond of the bear, which is bolted to the ground. As he passes he sticks out his umbrella and pokes it in the rear. It makes a hollow sound.

Near the famed Place, a 4200-space parking lot looms, gray and imposing. Here on the road out of the new downtown, streetlights appear dimmer and less frequent. The back side of the massive buildings are unadorned and bleak, overpowering the small cluster of modest, low-slung apartment buildings across the street. "Signs of humanity disappear as you walk out," Minicozzi observes.

His tour loops back to city hall, which, Minicozzi adds, is slated for replacement. He worries that city leaders may choose not to spend the money on a building designed with posterity in mind. "It's hilarious that we can have the mindset that city hall can be a cheap building. What, are we gonna go out of business?"

Upstairs on the fifth floor, he flicks on the light in the conference room and hauls out a projector and a binder full of slides. It's after 9 p.m., but Minicozzi isn't finished yet. He clicks through countless frames shot in cities across the United States, people sleeping in San Francisco parks, a regal brick 7-Eleven in Boston's Beacon Hill, an innovative take on a chain drug store. Finally, Minicozzi comes to a picture that proves the point he has been making, in various ways, for hours now.

Click. A photo of the notorious butterfly ballot appears.

"Design matters," he declares. "This city should know that."

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