The Brightline, set to begin service this July, has prompted a unique opportunity within southeast Florida for transit-oriented development projects, as the privately funded rail service will connect Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach. And with over $2.2 billion in development projects now underway in West Palm Beach—including residential development and two mixed-use cultural marketplaces—the city is poised for increased economic growth.
The mood among local insiders and industry experts was cautiously optimistic at a ULI Southeast Florida event this month in downtown West Palm Beach. In particular, transit-oriented development projects are gaining momentum as city and county leaders work to increase mobility.
“Our mission is to plan, prioritize, and fund Palm Beach County transit, and we’re doing so by allocating federal and state gas taxes and mobility fees,” said Nick Uhren, executive director of the Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization.
More than 400 million trips occur between Miami and West Palm Beach annually, according to a Brightline study conducted in 2013. “About 110 million of those commuters are within a two- to five-mile [3.2 to 8 km] radius of the Brightline West Palm Beach station,” said Julie Edwards, chief marketing officer at Brightline. “If we can get just 3 percent of those cars off the road, we could have an enormous impact on traffic congestion and quality of life.”
People increasingly choose to live in urban centers to take advantage of the transit connectivity and proximity to cultural destinations that they provide, and transit-oriented development (TOD) provides direct economic benefits, said John Renne, director of the Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions at Florida Atlantic University.
“Transit-oriented-development homes have appreciated very dramatically in the post-recession boom,” he said. “Rental rates are pushing $2.80 per square foot [$30.14 per sq m] around transit-oriented development projects, while the national average hovers around $1.80 per square foot [$19.38 per sq m].”
The key to providing true TOD is creating infrastructure that addresses the first and last mile of travel—the trip to the transit station and from the transit station to the destination, Renne said. “We don’t want to put parking lots or surface parking around these stations. Instead, we need to add housing units and make those stations easily accessible through walking, biking, or ride sharing,” he said.
Therefore, local officials are welcoming the use of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft and partnering with innovative infrastructure companies to make West Palm Beach a transit-oriented community. The SkyBike bike sharing program, launched by smart city infrastructure firm p3gm, has 150 bicycles in rotation in the county and plans to expand. “We currently have 14 stations, but the plan is to expand to 40 stations countywide this year,” said Chris Hall, p3gm marketing and project manager.
Though public transit is certain to attract many riders, some will be reluctant to change their daily commutes, Edwards cautioned. “We have to change public perception of train travel and public transit, and the onus is really on the business community,” he said. “Companies and employers can have a major impact when they offer incentives to their employees for using public transit.”
Experts view the relationship between local business and transit systems as cyclical. As more companies focus on attracting and retaining top millennial talent, they focus on catering to that population’s needs. In addition to offering robust public transit options, West Palm Beach needs to consider the possibilities for entertainment once millennials arrive. “If we want to create the sort of community that will set us apart as a destination for millennials, we have to bring in new cultural concepts that are easily reached by alternative transit options,” Renne said.
The developers behind the Warehouse District are offering at least one solution. A sprawling, 85,000-square-foot (7,900 sq m) industrial district is set to be transformed into a creative community akin to Miami’s Wynwood Arts District. William Earl, vice president of development of the Warehouse District, said the area is only a five-minute bike ride from downtown condominiums. “There’s a rising creative class in West Palm Beach and no creative neighborhood to serve that population,” he said.
Charles S. Cohen, a seasoned cultural real estate developer with properties across the United States, has the same idea. Cohen, president and chief executive officer of New York City–based Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation, has purchased the site of the historic Carefree Theatre—an entertainment venue for six decades, serving at different times as a bowling alley, movie theater, live music venue, and comedy club—with plans to build a six-theater independent cinema with restaurants and apartments on site.
Cohen is relying on West Palm Beach’s commitment to public transit to assuage the project’s critics, who worry that the Carefree development will create overwhelming traffic congestion. “We’ll have less than 800 seats and staggered showtimes at the theaters, plus underground parking, and we’re counting on many visitors using public transit to get there,” Cohen said.
The revitalization of West Palm Beach’s historic and cultural roots and the advent of new transit options are drawing new young residents, but turning the city into a world-class urban center is not without its challenges. “These projects are being driven by the private sector, but it’s up to the public sector to push this forward,” Renne said.