City Displaced

CityPlace: nouveau old
Joshua Prezant

You'll have to excuse Belinda Griffin for not catching the fever that gripped West Palm Beach last week at the opening of CityPlace, a 77-acre, $550 million, taxpayer-supported downtown complex billed as the biggest thing to happen to the city since Henry Flagler built the Breakers.

The slight, twentysomething black woman, who can stand on the front porch of her apartment and almost see the spire of the 74-year-old church that is the centerpiece of the sprawling new development, simply had other things on her mind.

There is the still pungent memory of human waste flowing into her back yard, the result of a pipe bursting two weeks ago. Although her landlord finally made repairs after she called the city to complain, she is still worried termites might eat through the apartment she rents for $130 per week. A sagging section of ceiling also threatens to give way. Then there's the faulty wiring that makes her lights flicker. How long, she wonders, before the whole building goes up in smoke?

"It's a shame they're doing all this for other folks, and we're living in the slums," she says, referring to homes in a roughly four-block area sandwiched between CityPlace and the revitalized nightclub district along Clematis Street.

While the value of property in the old neighborhood north of CityPlace has skyrocketed since construction began nearly two years ago, its condition hasn't improved. Ragged curtains flutter from unscreened windows, foundations of once stately 75-year-old homes sag, and windows are boarded up. Drug deals are common, and petty crime is rampant. Rooms rent by the week. "This ain't a good neighborhood," says Eugene Williams, who pays $115 per week to live in a dingy one-room apartment in a large house that backs up to CityPlace.

Standing alongside a weed-strewn lot where a half-dozen black men sit on milk crates and chairs pulled out of trash piles, Mike Williams (no relation to Eugene) says he has spent 30 of his 42 years in downtown West Palm. There has been little effort to improve things since most of the whites fled to the suburbs, he claims. Now that the area is finally being revitalized, poor black and elderly white residents aren't sharing in the newfound prosperity.

"This is no longer part of a democracy as far as I'm concerned," Williams says, motioning up the hill toward CityPlace. "It's all about money."

In ceremonies last week to herald the opening of the complex that makes Fort Lauderdale's Las Olas Riverfront look about as impressive as a strip shopping center and Boca Raton's Mizner Park appear similarly paltry, elected officials and power brokers breathlessly described the effect CityPlace will have on the economic vitality of the long-suffering city. Featuring Macy's, Starbucks, Pottery Barn, Barnes & Noble, and the Cheesecake Factory, it will create 1500 retail jobs in the next two months. It will also add $550 million to the city's tax base. The ten years and tens of millions of dollars the city spent assembling the property along Okeechobee Boulevard and then luring a developer have paid off bigtime, they believe.

City leaders are less interested in talking about the dilapidated but historic area where Belinda Griffin, Eugene Williams, Mike Williams, and several hundred others reside. Nor have they spoken much publicly about why more effort hasn't been made to improve the neighborhood while city taxpayers were shelling out millions to make CityPlace a reality.

Indeed Mayor Joel Daves lives in the neighborhood. He and his wife Dani moved in 20 years ago and created a tropical paradise for themselves amid the squalor. But Daves hasn't pushed for any sort of cleanup. Instead he bought big canines and posted signs along his picket fence warning, "Bad dogs. Will bite." Daves, who originally opposed CityPlace but is now a booster, prefers to let the market, rather than government, determine the area's future. "It isn't a real neighborhood, it's just a place people live," Daves said. Eventually he expects the old homes will be razed to make way for townhouses and apartments.

Bill Fountain, who helped engineer the inner-city renaissance as executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, candidly describes the post-CityPlace future. "To tell you or anybody else there's going to be low-income housing in the downtown, well, that's just not going to happen," he says. "They'll just have to relocate somewhere else."

Such a plan is not just unfair to low-income residents, it's bad public policy, says Jerry Kolo, director of the Center For Urban Redevelopment and Empowerment at Florida Atlantic University. South Florida -- from Miami north -- is rife with examples of why ignoring the poor for the sake of progress is myopic. He ticks off examples that he hopes government officials will consider.

Take the Miami Arena and the surrounding Overtown neighborhood. In 1988 Miami spent $53 million building the arena and tens of millions more leveling buildings to make way for apartments, shops, offices, and subsidized apartments. The investment was to serve as a catalyst to turn around the blighted area. Instead many sports fans and concertgoers were afraid to go downtown, and developers failed to invest. The new $203 million American Airlines Arena has similarly failed to help nearby low-income neighborhoods.

Fort Lauderdale has been plagued by a similar problem. The city spent millions building the Las Olas Riverfront while largely ignoring poor areas three blocks away. There's been a high turnover among the stores and restaurants in the year-old entertainment complex, and petty crime in the area is undoubtedly a factor, Kolo says.

In both cases things may have turned out differently if planners had allowed residents to participate in decisions that affected their neighborhoods, Kolo believes. Likewise West Palm Beach's plan to displace residents without providing reasonable relocation options is likely to backfire. "When you see low-income houses sitting next to a huge new development, you know there was some kind of lapse in policy," Kolo remarks. "Some may call it policy hypocrisy."

During negotiations with CityPlace developers, city leaders might have asked for help in job training and building low-income housing elsewhere in the city. That's been done in other cities. But in West Palm 80 percent of property tax revenues generated by the development will go toward paying off a $55 million bond issue the city floated to help make the development possible. And while leaders also put taxpayers at risk by subsidizing the $550 million development with loan guarantees, now they seem unwilling to subsidize new low-income housing.

Thanks to ballooning property values, residents' options are dwindling. Homes in the neighborhood on the south side of Okeechobee Boulevard that five years ago sold for $43,000 now command $120,000 or more. Rents have risen at the same rate. While there are certainly benefits to such a transformation, they aren't shared by everyone.

A more likely option for residents displaced by CityPlace is a neighborhood about a half-mile north, off Tamarind Avenue. The long-blighted area is best known for drugs, decay, and drive-by shootings. To show they weren't oblivious to the needs of the poor, city commissioners recently obtained federal and state grants to raze several blocks and build a new housing development. City planners are also trying to convince developers to build on vacant lots.

To Mike Williams and other long-time residents of the area near CityPlace, the message is clear. City officials care more about consumers and pretty buildings than working stiffs. He has listened to city officials rail about drug use downtown and then watched them stock Clematis Street with bars. He's heard leaders complain about juvenile crime then take away the few teen entertainment options available downtown. And he's observed demolition of old homes only to see government-backed landlords charge $700 per month rent to people who barely make minimum wage. "They've taken away my neighborhood, and they've taken away my downtown," Mike Williams says. "I'm not against the city, but I am against what they seem to stand for. The world is going to hell."

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