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.

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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