West Palm Beach is experiencing a huge boom in development, and if you drive south from Downtown on S. Dixie Highway, you can’t miss the fast-changing landscape. Over the past few years this area has emerged from a struggling retail area to a local hotspot.
The anchor on the east side of this stretch of road is the Norton Museum of Art. Founded in 1941, the museum has grown into one of Florida’s major cultural institutions. Earlier this year, the museum began its $100-million expansion which will add 12,000 square feet of gallery space and move the entrance to face onto S. Dixie Highway, creating a canopy and new public space in the entrance plaza.
Construction of the new ultra-modern design, created by Foster + Partners, is expected to continue through 2018. During construction, admission to the museum is free and the entrance to the museum has been moved to its original location on S. Olive Avenue.
In the blocks south of the museum you’ll find a cluster of high-end restaurants including Table 26, Grato (the new Italian eatery by Buccan chef Clay Conley) and EmKo. With these restaurants firmly in place, retail business is quickly following. Already, the much-loved Shoppe 561 artisan store is moving next door to Grato from its Belvedere Plaza location.
Additionally, chef Clay Carnes just opened his new taco restaurant Cholo Soy Cocina in the heart of Antique Row on S. Dixie Highway.
The area got a further vote of confidence when local developer Jeff Greene purchased the entire block that used to be home to the Mazda dealership and launched The Greene School. Construction was swift and the school opened this past September, just in time to accept its first students at the start of the school year.
Across the road from The Greene School – on the corner of Flamingo Drive and South Dixie – sat the historic Carefree Theatre, which has been vacant for many years. Developer and film-lover Charles Cohen recently purchased the space and bulldozed the old space to make way for the new Carefree Theatre project.
The new Carefree Theatre complex will feature two buildings – “El Flamingo” and “El Cordova” – designed by the famed classical architect firm Allan Greenberg Architect.
I spoke to Rick Gonzalez of West Palm Beach’s REG Architects, who is working with Greenberg on the project. Gonzalez says, “It’s a classical design which draws from old West Palm Beach and Old Florida. It’s the yin to the Norton’s ultra-modern yang.”
The current design includes six screens, two restaurants, 97 high-end apartments and retail space. The development team met with neighbors and the City, who felt that the original design of 191,000 square feet was too large, so they’re tweaking the design and will present again in 2017.
The final project hasn’t been approved, but it’s exciting to see it come together. When completed in 2019, the new Carefree Theatre will be transformational to the area.
Along with these visionary developers making huge investments in the area, it’s also important to recognize the work and commitment that the City and local neighborhoods have had to this area over the years. The momentum that we’re currently seeing is due to the hard work that’s been put in over the years.
In early 2014, area neighborhoods wanted to change how fast cars could travel on S. Dixie Highway and address the lack of trees, landscaping and parking along the corridor. The goal was to improve the quality of life and raise property values as well as create a visually appealing entrance from downtown.
In January 2014, Commissioner Paula Ryan, who at that time was the president of the El Cid Neighborhood Association, gathered local business owners and raised more than $100,000 to create a study on how this stretch of Dixie Highway could be better utilized. The money was used to contract with Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council to create a study which was presented later that year.
The very ambitious study included a “road diet” which would change the four lanes of S. Dixie Highway to three lanes. New bike lanes, medians, sidewalks, trees and landscaping would also be added.
Unfortunately, the City of West Palm Beach didn’t have the money to implement the findings. However, the recent approval of Palm Beach County’s penny tax surcharge by voters will make $60 million available to special projects around town.
The City is also planning to issue $40 million in bonds, giving the City $100 million to work with over the next 10 years. In the list of projects for which this money has been earmarked, the South Dixie Renovation project has been allocated $4 million.
I’m looking forward to seeing the realization of the hard work of all the neighborhoods and business partners, and seeing a nice new pedestrian- and neighborhood-friendly S. Dixie Highway starting soon.
Pictured above: The southern view of the Heyman Plaza at the Norton Museum of Art, designed by Foster + Partners. Image courtesy of Foster + Partners