The Next Ex-Mayor

After two years in office, West Palm Beach Mayor Frankel has little to show except blocked streets

Frankel arrives late to her meeting with Richard Amann, a New York City magazine publisher. Last year, Amann opened Canteen restaurant at the corner of Clematis and Flagler in a spot where many restaurants have failed before. It's a prime spot, actually, just across the road from the Intracoastal. But with construction slowly killing Clematis, business has been decent at best.

Frankel sits with Amann along the curve of the wooden bar. To her right is Joan Goldberg, her top adviser. Frankel is wearing her usual outfit of black: a black, pinstriped pantsuit with a black T-shirt and comfortable black flats. The color matches her wild black hair, which adds a couple of inches to her diminutive size. Amann is a nervous man who often repeats his words for emphasis, barking out his words in a style similar to Frankel's.

In downtown West Palm, it's not uncommon to have to fight heavy machinery to find open stores.
In downtown West Palm, it's not uncommon to have to fight heavy machinery to find open stores.
Once-thriving Clematis Street now sports more barricades than pedestrians.
Once-thriving Clematis Street now sports more barricades than pedestrians.

Amann recalls the conversation like this:

Frankel: We're going to build a new City Hall, a new library, and a new waterfront.

Amann: OK, when? When? I've been hearing this for a year now, and nothing's happened.

Frankel plows ahead, enumerating her plans.

She never offered a time line, Amann says afterward. All she offered was a series of upcoming hearings, regular merchant meetings during which businesses could weigh in on the plans. "I like giving feedback," Amann says a day after the meeting. "But you know what? Just do it already. Just do it. She needs to just pick an idea and get it done."

Amann's frustration is common among business owners. During her election campaign, Frankel promised to turn around a lagging downtown. After her election, she began by attacking West Palm's once-uninhibited club scene, saying that the nighttime-only businesses were hurting the city. She reasoned that downtown would be better off without clubs, whose patrons, she contended, chased off patrons of neighboring restaurants. Last spring, Frankel championed a new city law banning under-21 patrons from bars. She also instituted fees of $15,600 a year per club to offset the cost of putting extra cops on Clematis. In addition, the city forced the closure of long-time bar Spanky's for code violations and "profane" concerts.

Her efforts worked. Or at least, they cooled the atmosphere of balls-out partying and public drunkenness, as nightspots such as Gossip, Vivid, and Rooney's Public House shut down. Unfortunately for Frankel, though, nothing has replaced the shuttered bars. The few surviving restaurants can't rely on walk-in traffic anymore, says Roy Assad, owner of downtown restaurants Le Opera and Leila. "It's a very depressing location right now," Assad says. "The people who work here now feel beat up coming here every day."

A few doors down, sitting over a calculator and reservation book in the back corner of Café Mediterraneo, owner Matteo Scanzano says frustration is common among downtown business owners. The lack of progress on the traffic projects has forced several restaurants to close and others to suffer through slow times. "To be honest, I do not know if it is the mayor's fault or somebody else's fault," Scanzano says through a thick Italian accent. "But I will tell you that, a year ago, we had the same issues. The same roads were torn up, and business was slow. So why has nothing changed?"

Back in November, with little progress shown on the traffic projects, Frankel let out her frustrations on roadside signs. "I Am Mad Too -- Lois," she penned on the electronic signs that usually tell drivers to switch lanes as they approach a traffic blockage. Then, in April, Frankel took it a step further. The mayor ordered the signs to flash the phone numbers for DOT offices in Fort Lauderdale. Within a week, angry drivers bombarded the office with 224 calls and e-mails.

Unfortunately, the barrage did little to speed the projects, which have snarled downtown traffic for three years. DOT spokeswoman Christie Klammer says the tactic won't get the projects done any quicker. "Putting our phone numbers on message boards," Klammer says, "is not something we would encourage for all of our projects."

Did the message get across to motorists? At least one fired back. Two weeks after her message, somebody surreptitiously reprogrammed a road sign with a response to Frankel, reading: "FUCK YOU BITCH."

By most accounts, Frankel has little to do with the pace of construction problems. The projects were planned well before her tenure, and as mayor, she has no control over contractors working for DOT. But critics have questioned why Frankel hasn't taken other measures, like removing downtown parking meters or putting up city money to work as incentives to the contractors to get work done early. Russell Engineering has often left the Dixie construction work unmanned as its staff tackled Broward County projects with bonuses available for finishing early. DOT offered no such bonus for the Dixie project. Russell officials, including company President George Russell Sr., did not return phone calls.

Community activist Kim Duffy, who worked for Frankel's predecessor as an executive assistant, says Frankel deserves the problems she's having with the construction. Frankel got elected by blaming the problems on former Mayor Joel Daves, and now Frankel is taking the blame, Duffy says: "The traffic situation is more unbearable than ever, and she deserves any grief she's getting for it."

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