If I had a dollar for every time someone informed me that what Clematis Street really needs is to become a pedestrian-only street, I would have dozens of dollars. The discussion always points to a street in France, a piazza in Italy or to Lincoln Road in South Beach.
All the restaurants with cafeteria seating in the wide open road could be ours if we just removed the cars from Clematis Street, so they say.
Historically, pedestrian malls have not had a great track record. The first pedestrian mall opened in the U.S. in 1959, and in the subsequent years more than 200 cities across the country decided to close off streets to automobile traffic to create pedestrian areas. Many of them were not well thought through. Many of them did not have enough people living within walking distance needed to maintain a pedestrian mall, and most of the streets had to go through the expensive process of reverting back to accept cars.
With a 30 percent vacancy rate among the storefronts on Clematis Street, city officials know the street needs help. The city knows that a thriving and active Clematis Street will mean an active and thriving downtown.
So, several months ago they started a Clematis Streetscape project. This project focused on changing Clematis Street one block at a time. Instead of focusing on a pedestrian-only street, the city chose to focus on the next best thing: A curbless street which prioritizes the pedestrian.
We’re talking wider sidewalks, more shade trees that create comfortable space for people, narrower driving lanes that slow down traffic, additional dining and seating areas and a new high-quality palette of materials designed with heat-absorption, maintenance, longevity and aesthetics in mind.
To accomplish this big task, the city hired the Coral Gables-based urban planning company Dover, Kohl & Partners, who met with citizens at the green market and held planning meetings, then came up with several designs and picked the 300 block as the first block to transform. The city commission committed $2 million for the work improvements to the 300 block, which are scheduled to break ground in June.
The curbless sidewalk is the key to the design. Having space that is designated as parking, but could be easily converted to sidewalk space for cafeteria-style seating or a car-free area during events, gives the block the feel of an open plaza and encourages interaction and foot traffic.
With the goal of “prioritizing the pedestrian,” the city is removing eight parking spaces from the street and replacing them with mature shade trees. Construction is expected to be complete by October, and additional blocks will be scheduled for improvements in the future.
Now, if you’re thinking that this sounds great and you want to get in on the ground floor of the new 300 block of Clematis Street, I’ve got a surprise for you.
A new street design is just part of the picture – for retail stores to take root on Clematis Street a catalyst was needed. West Palm Beach Economic Development Director Chris Roog and Sherryl Muriente had an idea for a way to kick-start our retail businesses.
The idea is to fund 12 businesses for 12 months in order to fill the vacant retail storefronts on Clematis Street. The proposal was named “12 for 12: Pop-up to Rent program.” The Knight Foundation saw the value and the economic development impact that this would have on the area and gave the team a grant of $180,200.
“We were responding to vacant retail, and the concern about what is happening to downtown from a business aspect,” said Roog. “If we could cluster small businesses and popups to rent we can make a destination and be successful.”
Retail trends are moving toward cool, fun and funky areas. One of the best examples of this locally is the new work that is going into the brand new Elizabeth Avenue Station in the Warehouse District. The idea is to create a cool, fun and funky retail destination and then making sure that it is clean and safe for shoppers.
The space that was selected was at 314 Clematis St., formerly home to Off the Hookah. Construction is currently underway and it should be complete in time to coincide with the completion of the Clematis Streetscape project.
So while we are not getting a pedestrian-only street, the Streetscape, in conjunction with the 12 for 12: Pop-up to Rent program, will be a huge improvement, with the end goal of providing a better experience on Clematis Street for our existing business owners and residents, as well as create attractive opportunities to businesses who are looking to move to Clematis Street.
To find out more about the 12 for 12: Pop-up to Rent program, go online to 12x12wpb.com.
Pictured above: This Clematis Streetscape rendering by Coral Gables-based urban planning firm Dover Kohl & Partners depicts how the intersection at the 300 block of Clematis Street will look after improvements are made. The project, which gets underway in June, will increase “people” space by nearly 18 percent by reducing priority given to cars, reallocating shared public space for shade trees and expanding sidewalks. Image courtesy of Dover, Kohl & Partners