The lovely name “Flagler Shore” describes an unlovely collection of plastic barriers, “Road Closed” signs and blinking lights that keep motor traffic from entering the two east lanes of the four-lane Flagler Drive along downtown West Palm Beach’s waterfront.
The goal, a worthy one, is to create more space for walkers, joggers, bicyclists and food trucks. Since October, the city of West Palm Beach has closed off half the roadway to let people “enjoy all the beauty that is the waterfront area,” as Economic Development Director Christopher Roog put it.
The change was billed as an experiment scheduled to end March 1. It should be allowed to die then, as unmourned as it is now unloved.
On a recent pleasant morning at 9:45 a.m., there was only a man walking by himself and one more walking his dog on the eight-tenths of a mile of quieted asphalt between Lakeview Avenue and Banyan Boulevard.
There were plenty of people out along the waterfront. But they weren’t on the blocked-off street. They were using the already existing walkway. Of course they were: It’s a weaving pathway made of pavers, hugged by greenery, edging the Intracoastal Waterway. It practically begs you to take a stroll. It’s as nice a waterfront promenade as you’ll find anywhere in America.
Paul and Maria Corrado, spending a month in West Palm to escape the Massachusetts cold, were two of the dozen or more walkers ignoring the vacant half of street.
“We prefer walking close to the ocean,” Paul explained. Adding: “When we saw someone walking in the street the other day, we thought they were crazy.”
West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio has been taking heaps of criticism for this failure, but she has not been wrong to commission a slew of consultants’ studies to seek ways to steer her city toward a future far friendlier to pedestrians and bicyclists.
With the sizzling construction of residential high-rises, the downtown is rapidly being transformed into a place not just to drive in and out of, for work or entertainment, but to live in. This will heighten demand for bike lanes on the narrow streets, trolleys for medium-length trips, and shade on the sun-seared sidewalks.
As transit consultants Alta Planning + Design recommended, the need is for a “complete and connected” bikeway network. Yet Flagler Shore connects to nothing. There are no bike lanes on the east-west streets, such as Fern, Evernia or Datura, that meet Flagler Drive. That makes Flagler Shore a stranded project. It’s hard to create a successful area for bicycle usage without having safe ways of riding your bike there.
It looks like a basic mistake to have sprung this one project before the supporting elements, such as those feeder bike lanes, were in place. It was equally unwise to launch it with so little buy-in from the community.
Although some people have enjoyed lunching on the project’s gaily painted metal tables and chairs, many living in waterfront high-rises hate everything from the look of it to the disruption of familiar traffic patterns.
To be sure, many of these rigid residents would wrongly protest anything that proposes to change or obstruct their view of the waterfront. But many motorists who frequent the roadway detest it, too.
The animosity has turned ugly, to the point of a couple of in-your-face confrontations involving the mayor’s husband determined to defend Her Honor’s honor.
In time, the mayor may be vindicated and her laudable vision appreciated. But any future attempts to widen the car-less spaces along the waterfront will have to be executed with a lot more finesse.
The idea of experiments is to run them and learn from them. What we’ve learned from Flagler Shore is that good intentions aren’t enough.
This fumble ought to be ended as soon as possible. And we hope that it hasn’t soured residents on the whole idea of making a more livable city that expands the opportunities for cyclists and pedestrians.
Palm Beach Post Editorial Board
February 7, 2018