The Delray Way


BY DEREK CATRON, STAFF WRITER   DELRAY BEACH — Though it was mid-afternoon on a blustery Sunday in March, throngs of people blocked the sidewalk outside Caffé Luna Rosa. The view of mangroves and white-capped surf across the street didn’t stop a few from grumbling about the prospect of waiting 45 minutes for a table. Marjorie Ferrer was running late for an appointment, but she was unfazed when told the restaurant she’d chosen might be too busy to accommodate a business meeting. “I know,” the executive director of Delray Beach’s Downtown Development Authority said with a breezy chuckle. “Our downtown’s like that every day.” The line had a ring of salesmanship to it, but it would prove true over the course of a walking tour through the core of Delray Beach, about a 3 1/2-hour drive south of Daytona Beach. Had it been a Friday or Saturday night, even Ferrer might not have been able to call ahead to hold a good table. Delray Beach doesn’t have the tourist base that Daytona Beach has; it doesn’t have a convention center or anywhere near the number of hotel rooms. But the cities share a lot more than an ocean and a monogram. It’s one of the cities a consultant is studying as part of a project to revamp Daytona Beach’s land development code, and more than a few locals have looked to South Florida’s “Village by the Sea” for inspiration on transforming the “World’s Most Famous Beach.” To review: Both cities have more than 60,000 residents but can pull customers and workers from surrounding suburban areas. Both have a traditional grid-pattern design that makes it easy to walk around downtown areas — provided you feel safe enough to do so. That was a problem when both cities embarked on major redevelopment efforts in the 1980s. Delray Beach, Ferrer said, was what planners call a 3-D city: dark, dirty, dangerous (a description that’s been applied to parts of Daytona Beach as well). Downtown was considered a place for drugs, where you risked getting shot. She remembers boarded-up shops and waist-high weeds in abandoned lots. It was even worse when Chris Brown, the first director of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, started in 1985. “At 5 p.m., there was not a car on the street,” Brown recalled. “At 5:01, there wasn’t a store open.” Daytona Beach had formed a CRA just a few years before Brown started in Delray. Cities use the agencies to improve blighted areas by investing increasing tax revenues over time back into the area. Daytona Beach has used the bulk of its money to support big-ticket projects intended to boost tourism. With little tourism at the time, Delray Beach took the opposite approach. The incremental progress that resulted didn’t foster immediate confidence, said Diane Colonna, a former city planner who now heads up the CRA. “There was a time when we didn’t think it could happen,” Colonna recalled. “It seemed like every block had some major problem property. You’d look around and wonder, ‘How is this ever going to change?’ ” PUSH FOR PEDESTRIANS The walk west along Atlantic Avenue from Ocean Boulevard (State Road A1A), across the Intracoastal and through Delray Beach’s central district is just under a mile. More than once, Ferrer sighed heavily — not from the brisk pace she kept, but at the sight of black spots on the brick sidewalks. “This is gum,” she said, her head of short-cropped auburn hair shaking in disappointment. The gum marks can be removed only with a high-pressure cleaner, she explained, and there isn’t time nor resources to do the job she would like. “That’s the stuff that drives me crazy.” Her attitude makes clear another lesson from Delray Beach: Redevelopment doesn’t stop with a ribbon-cutting. Ferrer came to Delray Beach in 1993 to head up a marketing cooperative that involved the city, chamber of commerce, the CRA and a partnership of downtown merchants. The city was still in a phase of cleaning up its image. The CRA borrowed money to seed early projects, including a streetscape that took out the angled parking in front of stores in the five-block central district and replaced them with parallel parking and brick sidewalks, wide enough for restaurants to offer outdoor seating. They put in underground utilities and planted oaks and palms that obscured signs on the front of the store. Merchants, whose businesses had been in long decline, were afraid the CRA’s moves to attract restaurants would drive off their customers. “They thought it was the end of the world,” recalled Brown, the former CRA director. He felt lucky to have the support of City Hall and elected officials who backed his message that the merchants couldn’t compete with the suburban malls for shoppers in cars; their success depended on pedestrians. Delray’s other advantage was a good number of art galleries. Their patrons were a natural customer base for the high-end restaurants the downtown sought to attract. Police and code enforcement was tightened in the area. The CRA bought vacant property to assemble for private developers. They offered a lot of incentives, including a small business loan program and façade and interior grants to reshape historic downtown buildings for new uses. They built parking lots that later became parking garages. Ferrer used a calendar full of special events to spark renewed interest in the redeveloped areas. Events continue, like March’s “Savor the Avenue,” in which 18 of the city’s best restaurants filled a five-block-long table (billed as longest in the state). The selection reflected the variety of the avenue’s restaurants, including French, Latin, Asian and Italian. Caffé Luna Rosa, offering an entrée of roasted filet mignon Oscar, sold out its $75 seats in a day. Ferrer laughed as she recalled the lengths her group went to in trying to attract people in the early days of redevelopment. “We’d have to trick people to come downtown,” she said. “It took 10 years to get our own residents to feel safe down here.” ‘OPPOSITE OF A MALL’ Nearly every stop along Ferrer’s tour of downtown began with an introduction: “This used to be …” Fitting modern restaurants and shops into a historic downtown isn’t simple. That’s part of the reason you won’t see a lot of recognizable names on the storefronts in Delray. The chains want consistency among their properties, so customers will feel at home in an Ann Taylor or Olive Garden, whether they’re in South Florida or Southern California. That didn’t stop city leaders from trying to recruit big names, at least initially, said Colonna. “Probably in the ’80s or ’90s we would have loved to see a Banana Republic or Gap come in,” she said. “We were trying to get a big department store downtown in the ’80s. That’s what other communities were doing at the time. It turned out to be a good thing (Delray didn’t). I think a department store would have gone out of business, and it might have prevented us from doing what we did.” Instead of pursuing a generic look like in the shopping malls, some of the properties embraced the quirkiness of the downtown real estate. Johnnie Brown’s, a burger-and-wing place with live music that would fit in perfectly on Daytona Beach’s Main Street, stands in a converted gas station adjacent to the railroad tracks. The place was rockin’ on a Sunday night in March. “We’re the opposite of a mall,” Ferrer said. “You can walk into a lot of our stores and meet the owner.” It’s a lesson Daytona Beach residents might keep in mind when their city revamps its land development code later this year. If you wanted to open a new restaurant on the beachside today, you’d face the same requirements for parking, landscaping and other codes as the developer of an empty lot on the far side of town. Those requirements simply don’t work in a more urban setting, and they’ve squelched numerous opportunities for projects that would enhance the beachside, said Greg Antonich, a real estate agent who grew up in the area and is president of the Volusia Property Owners Association. “Daytona needs to be more of a can-do city than a can’t-do city,” Antonich said. “They’re very good at telling people what they can’t do.” City officials hope to create the kind of flexibility Delray Beach had — but they’ll need support from beachside residents, some of whom look askance at any business proposal after years of squabbling over the impacts of special events. The payoff can be worth it, the veterans of Delray’s redevelopment battles say. The focus on mom-and-pop shops and local, unique restaurants had an unintended benefit; instead of going to the corporate offices of some chain, most of the money that’s spent in Delray Beach stays there. Those local roots also have helped foster a cooperative atmosphere among the businesses, the city and residents, Ferrer said. Success has strengthened those connections, even if it didn’t come overnight. By ’91, downtown Delray had lost all of its men’s stores, and the women’s stores were starting to leave. But the restaurants that were starting to open helped change the nature of downtown shopping. Stores started to stay open until 9 p.m. to take advantage of after-dinner window shoppers. Weekend hours were extended. Housing needs began to change, too. There wasn’t much in the way of downtown housing when redevelopment started, Brown remembered. Now there are between 2,000 and 3,000 housing units, from apartments built above stores to town homes on the side streets and a new set of luxury apartments. They became popular with both young professionals and empty-nesters. Now it’s to the point that many locals don’t even try to go out to dinner on the avenue on Fridays and Saturdays during the snowbird season that lasts from November through May. “You’re eating at 5 o’clock or 10 o’clock if you do,” Ferrer said. This is a nice problem to have; the figures from the state Department of Revenue Ferrer uses to track the area’s success show that sales in the eight clusters that make up downtown more than tripled between 1998 and 2008, from about $60 million to $190 million. More than half of the latter total was from retail sales. As she continued the tour, Ferrer delighted in pointing out the age diversity of the crowds in the restaurants. At Deck 84 on the Intracoastal Waterway, tables of gray-haired snowbirds were backed by those filled with multi-generations of families, while young people crowded around the bar. “And this is a Sunday,” Ferrer said, in case her guests had forgotten. “And there aren’t any events today.” ‘EVERYBODY CAN DO WHAT WE DO’ Ferrer’s tour ended back at the ocean, at the Delray Beach Marriott. The full pool deck at the ocean-facing hotel is another gauge of the city’s redevelopment efforts. Delray Beach was no resort town when redevelopment started. One early marketing campaign — “Come spend the day in Delray” — focused on day-trippers, Ferrer said, because at the time “there was nowhere to sleep.” The Marriott was a Holiday Inn then. The avenue’s redevelopment helped prompt an expansion to 250 rooms, with renovations that led to the name change in 1998. Things went so well, the Marriott converted a nearby time-share property into a Residence Inn. The luxurious Seagate Hotel & Spa opened nearby in 2009 and a Hyatt is being built downtown. The Marriott isn’t nearly as big as the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort, but the hotels enjoy comparable advantages in their markets as the biggest, most-visible properties. If you’d tried booking the Hilton on a Thursday night in March when no special events were planned, you could get a basic room for anywhere from $139 to $189. Regular rooms at the Delray Beach Marriott for the same night cost about twice as much, between $299 and $369. And the Marriott isn’t even on the beach; it’s on the west-side of A1A, as is all construction in Delray Beach, its views partly obscured by the mangroves that thrive in the ocean dunes. Guests aren’t paying those rates for a convention, a race or a biker festival. “People are staying there because of Atlantic Avenue,” Ferrer said. That’s part of the reason she felt justified in long ago shelving the “spend the day” campaign. “We are a resort town,” she insisted as she led her tour back toward the ocean. “Nobody needs anything we have. You don’t need to come here. We have to make it easy for you to come here. We have to give you an experience that will make you want to come back.” There’s nothing magical about Delray Beach’s redevelopment, say those who have been most closely involved with it. Local visitors to Delray might be reminded in part of downtown DeLand or New Smyrna Beach’s Flagler Avenue. The formula works to even greater renown on Fort Lauderdale’s Las Olas Boulevard and in many other cities. In Daytona Beach, Beach Street and parts of A1A have seen beautification efforts similar to those in Delray Beach. A thriving downtown and a convention center are not mutually exclusive, said Brown, the former CRA director who is now co-owner of a consulting firm and manages a CRA in Boynton Beach. The thought of building a Delray-like stretch of restaurants and shops in a city with lots of hotels and a convention center strikes him as a perfect pairing. His thoughts turn big. “Look at New Orleans,” he said. “The French Quarter stands on its own, obviously, but it really fuels the convention business in that city.” Ferrer, who’s been invited to speak in other cities with ambitions for rebuilding their downtowns, is a similar optimist. “Everybody can do what we do,” she said. “You just have to get past the egos.” After wiping clean the 3-D effects of dark, dirty and dangerous, she tells cities to build on their assets. And be patient. Like cleaning gum from the sidewalks, the job is never really done.