Property owners, town say Worth Avenue makeover a lesson in collaboration
Coconut palms and increased planting areas are among the improvements to the Avenue.
By Robert JanjigianDaily News Fashion Editor
Proposals to revamp the Worth Avenue streetscape from the ocean to Cocoanut Row had been floating around several years. Each renovation plan lost steam because of rising costs of construction and materials and a general lack of enthusiasm for any changes to the Avenue on the part of the town, merchants, residents and others. The last major changes to the Avenue’s look were made in 1983.
The recently completed $15.8 million, eight-month face-lift — designed by island architect Mark Marsh of Bridges, Marsh & Associates with landscaping elements created by island firm Sanchez & Maddux, and paid for principally by the major Avenue property owners — offers a lesson how a town can accomplish something major, collaboratively and creatively, in a relatively short time.
It was only a year or so ago that talk about a major overhaul of the streetscape was taken seriously. The idea was sparked at a meeting of Avenue property owners with Sherry Frankel, president of the Worth Avenue Association, who voiced concerns about the image of Palm Beach’s famous shopping street in light of increased competition from malls and shopping centers across the bridges, according to Murray Goodman, a major Avenue property owner.
The landlords, interested in protecting their investments and revitalizing Palm Beach’s most well-known street, formed a restoration association, hiring attorney-historian Harvey Oyer to work with the town.
Property owners leading the effort included Burt Handelsman, Goodman, Jane Holzer, the Everglades Club and Chanel Inc.
That the cost of construction and materials was at its lowest in decades, due to the recession, was a factor in the favorable response to the proposed undertaking.
Special tax district
“The majority of property owners agreed to set up a special tax district to pay for the improvements, which helped matters immensely,” Mayor Jack McDonald said. “This project is a great example of how business owners can collaborate with the town on a project that represents a significant improvement to one of the town’s major attractions.”
Town Manager Peter Elwell views the project as a successful coordination between public and private interests “to make something happen.”
He credits Tom Bradford, deputy town manager, for his work as the town’s point person, working with all the parties involved to plan and execute the project. Work was not just cosmetic, as there were power and water lines replaced during the construction, which required input from West Palm Beach and the major local utilities. The town, a property owner along Worth Avenue, Elwell said, is responsible for about $1.25 million of the project’s cost in conjunction with the City of West Palm Beach, according to a summary published in April.
Burkhardt Construction of West Palm Beach, which had a track record in revamping streetscapes and infrastructure, was selected as the project contractor. The firm orchestrated the phased, 165-day construction schedule, intended to affect day-to-day business as unobtrusively as possible during the quiet late-spring, summer and early fall. Work was performed weekdays, from early morning to about 6 p.m., although some late-night and weekend sessions were required.
“This was a complex project requiring a high degree of cooperation between contractors, merchants, residents and the town,” said Vince Burkhardt, president of Burkhardt Construction. Eight contractors and subcontractors were involved, he said. “Our mission was to complete the project in the time allotted, which we did, getting our notice of substantial completion well before the deadline of Nov. 24, with quality work — up to Palm Beach’s high standard — essential.”
“What helped us accomplish this without any major issues was the weather — no storms — and the relationship developed with the town officials, merchants, residents and property owners, who were involved in the project from the beginning and kept informed about the progress on a daily basis.”
“The moon and stars must have all been in alignment,” said Holzer, who is pleased with the results — and that the job was done so quickly. “This old lady was in need of a face-lift, and I believe the Avenue’s transformation is well worth the cost, as traffic seems to be3 up already. The street really looks fabulous.”
“This is an investment in the future,” Goodman said.
“In such a short time, we’ve gone from groundbreaking to breathtaking,” Frankel said.
Merchants have been given the tools to make the street vibrant and successful, Handelsman said at the Dec. 1 ribbon-cutting. “What is needed is a new attitude among businesses to go with the new look of the street.” He suggested merchants consider extending their hours into evening during high season.
“Renovating the shopping district ensures that Worth Avenue will remain one of the most beautiful streets in America and may initially increase consumer traffic,” said Christopher Ramey, chairman of The Luxury Marketing Council Florida. “It is still incumbent upon merchants to find the unique products and messaging that resonate with customers.”
New on the Avenue
Architect Mark Marsh and landscape designer Jorge Sanchez aimed to mesh old and new.
* A dramatic domed clock tower and coquina-faced pilasters topped with gaslight lanterns mark the entrance to the Avenue at South Ocean Boulevard.
* Coconut palms, which originally lined the Avenue, 204 maypans resistant to disease and temperature fluctuations in all, were brought back to create a shadier canopy along widened sidewalks on the three-block stretch from the ocean to Cocoanut Row.
* A living wall covers the formerly undistinguished western facade of 150 Worth near the high-visibility intersection of South County Road.
* A tree-shaded triangular park fronts the green wall. The Garden Club of Palm Beach spearheaded the effort to bring one of the largest vertical gardens in the country to Worth Avenue and provided financial support for its installation and maintenance.
* Tabby seashell concrete sidewalks and crosswalks provide a consistent surface.
* Increased green space and planting beds make the Avenue more parklike, with the addition of seating elements.
* The center of Hibiscus Avenue has been transformed into a fountained, tree-shaded plaza, still allowing for two lanes of vehicular traffic.