Downtowns define cities but making them thrive is tricky
And Hollywood? It’s somewhere in between.
A thriving downtown — an energetic nightlife scene, music and cultural events, a main street full of strollers and shoppers, diners, bar hoppers and tourists — is the idea, as well as the place, that defines a city.
In Delray Beach, Atlantic Avenue bustled mid-day on a recent Friday with hand-holding couples, young families, men in ties and groups of girlfriends.
“We’re just heartbroken that so many places have closed down,” said Jacci King, of Plantation, who visited on a recent Saturday night. “Two years ago when we were here, it was booming. Now there’s nothing here.”
Despite its restaurants and bars that come alive at night, Hollywood Mayor Peter Bober knows that his city, with vacant storefronts in between flagging retailers, seems unable to harness its full potential.
“The downtown has not successfully been able to brand itself and create its own scene,” Bober said. “I think it’s a bit unfocused and has not been really able to determine precisely what it wants to be.”
So what’s a city to do?
Bober envisions a live music scene along the lines of Austin, Texas. Commissioner Beam Furr thinks wall murals “would help establish the vibe.”
And on Dec. 1, Hollywood — like Lake Worth and Delray Beach — began offering free street parking downtown to lure visitors to the area’s struggling restaurants, bars and shops.
But Commissioner Dick Blattner is skeptical. People don’t go downtown, Blattner said, because “there’s nothing there that interests them.”
So, if not free downtown parking, what’s the secret to creating a successful downtown?
Observers and redevelopers say it’s about that intangible individual appeal.
Re-development master Chris Brown, co-owner of Redevelopment Management Associates who was instrumental in the rebirth of Delray Beach and is now guiding Pompano Beach‘s efforts to create an Atlantic Boulevard corridor, says the recipe for success is multifold.
It’s a combination of unified vision, focus, exploitation of the area’s strength, branding, marketing, incentives for business owners, plenty of easy parking, a compatible mix of businesses and a menu of events to draw people in, Brown said.
In Lake Worth, the attraction is affordability and the city’s laidback ways.
“It’s small, slower paced, not too many chain stores and restaurants,” said Darlene Torres, who works for a Lake Worth advertising agency. “It’s in close proximity to all the bigger, more exciting towns like Delray, but when you just want to relax, Lake Worth is the place.”
In Delray Beach, Bush says it’s the “vibrance, the people the stores, I walk everywhere.”
For those who frequent the Weston Town Center, manufactured about 10 years ago as a downtown in the middle of the suburbs complete with a Main Street and clocktower, it’s all about convenience, well-scrubbed charm and security.
“It’s a no-stress environment,” said Vicki Drillick who works in Weston Town Center but lives in Hollywood. “[Hollywood] is still very sketchy. I don’t feel safe walking around at night in some places and the businesses are all very transient, in and out, in and out. It’s cute, it does have some charm, but personally I think it’s been a disappointment.”
Margate and Boynton Beach are busy working on trying to create vibrant districts of their own.
In Margate, officials hope to harness that all-important sense of identity, to move the 50-year-old city beyond its strip malls and dilapidated shopping centers.
“Boat rides, restaurants with the tables right on the water, it’s just perfect, I think,” Margate Mayor Pam Donovan said of San Antonio. “If we had sort of a nice little restaurant hub, destination-type place, we think people would come.”
Boynton Beach is aiming for a cultural charm.
“I think we can create a cultural, small niche that supports local businesses and brings families downtown,” Mayor Jose Rodriguez said of plans to create a cultural center along a half mile stretch of Ocean Avenue.
Brown, the redeveloper, says it’s all about a proper, compatible mix of businesses.
“Once you decide who you are and who you’re trying to attract, you have to work on your downtown mix and clustering of businesses that complement each other,” Brown said. “Restaurants and women’s apparel are the two most important businesses for success.”
Hollywood Commissioner Blattner thinks they’re on the right track. The city recently approved a slew of property-maintenance standards ranging from appropriate window covering for vacant storefronts, to awning conditions and use of hurricane shutters for security purposes. It has also hired a company to step up downtown sanitation, to keep the homeless moving and to act as downtown ambassadors.
“The buildings have been allowed to deteriorate, empty stores are allowed to remain empty and look crummy,” Blattner said. “We just haven’t made it an attractive place for people to want to be.”