Special to the Insider Newsletter.
By Assistant City Administrator Scott Kelly
The Okeechobee corridor serves as the central business district of downtown West Palm Beach. After an extensive planning effort, the City recently adopted an amendment to its comprehensive plan and zoning and land development regulations to establish a new district known as the Okeechobee Business District (OBD). The purpose of this district is to promote economic growth, incentivize Class-A office space, and enhance a safe and active pedestrian environment.
The OBD is one element of the City’s overall vision to attract Class-A office space to the economic center of downtown. The OBD is the bridge between the northern and southern sections of our city with enhanced pedestrian crossings and ample, open public spaces. These elements help to create a sustainable, efficient, safe and equitable transportation system in our downtown.
To create this district, the City was required to amend its Comprehensive Plan. This process was extensive and required a public hearing process, a finding by the City Commission that the amendment is supported by facts and testimony consistent with the Comprehensive Plan, and, finally, a State review to ensure that the amendment complies with State Law.
On September 12, 2018, several petitioners challenged the adoption of the OBD Comprehensive Plan Text Amendment, and a four-day hearing was conducted by an administrative law judge. On December 26, 2018, after careful consideration of all the facts and testimony presented during the hearing, the judge entered an order in favor of the City and cited the extensive studies and plans done by the City in issuing her recommended order.
The judge specifically cited the City’s Mobility Plan, the Okeechobee Corridor Study, the Downtown Parking and Transportation Demand Study, the City’s Downtown Walkability Analysis, an Economic Impact Analysis of the OBD, a traffic analysis done by FDOT in June 2018, and the Palm Beach MPO 2040 long-range transportation plan. The judge found that the creation of this district did not increase development intensity or density but, instead, reduced the allowable development within the Okeechobee corridor. And therefore, required no additional traffic review.
One of the benefits of the OBD is that it supports the City’s transportation and mobility strategies and, also, the City’s vision of a safe, efficient and equitable transportation system.
Residents might remember that on May 21, 2018, by resolution, the City Commission unanimously adopted the Downtown Mobility Plan, along with the Okeechobee Corridor Study, Downtown Parking and Transportation Demand Management Study, and the Citywide Bicycle Master Plan.
The Downtown Mobility Plan is a 20-year road map for the future of our city’s transportation system-- a modern, world class and balanced network. It includes a series of proposed projects and strategies to improve mobility. The plan’s vision is to promote greater connectivity and safety for everyone-- pedestrians, motorists, cyclists and transit riders. The City used a technical approach to develop the plan with much input from the public, other agencies and stakeholders.
The Downtown Mobility Plan provides for an improved multimodal transportation system that creates real mobility choices and great places where people want to invest their time and money. It also enhances livability, promotes a healthier environment, and promotes economic competitiveness. By providing more options for all transportation users, the plan promotes equity among all our citizens by helping them get to and keep jobs, attain skills and education, and move on to even better jobs in our city.
The OBD supports transportation demand management strategies that are in line with our future mobility vision. For example, the OBD incentivizes an environment that is conducive to walking, biking and transit which, in turn, is expected to reduce the number of projected vehicular trips along the Okeechobee corridor. Wider sidewalks, more shade trees, and improved trolley access are anticipated to be incorporated as a part of any future development along the corridor.
Again, this was the result of a data driven approach. The Mobility Plan estimated needs in 2040 and was based on job and population growth. The plan provided specific proposed projects that could be implemented to manage future growth in the entire downtown. The Okeechobee Corridor Study looked at needs, capacity and characteristics along Okeechobee Boulevard. The Downtown Parking and Transportation Demand Management Study provided an audit of the parking in the downtown area. The Citywide Bicycle Master looked at the need for modifications to some of the street systems to achieve the Bicycle Master Plan’s long-term goals of producing a connected series of bicycle facilities.
The City also relied on traffic count data for Okeechobee Boulevard produced by Palm Beach County and a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) analysis dated June 7, 2018, which showed that there were no intersections on the relevant portions of Okeechobee Boulevard that were failing—or at a level of delay deemed unacceptable by FDOT. The City also reviewed data and forecasts of future ridership on commuter rail, trolleys, bicycle and pedestrian traffic which indicated that mode shift away from single passenger occupancy vehicles was growing.
Your safety will always remain our top priority, and our future mobility network provides specific plans and projects to create a safe and desirable environment for all users including pedestrians and cyclists. It will also address concerns noted by our residents and prior studies, including the Downtown Walkability Analysis, which specifically stated that certain streets-- most notably the state-owned Okeechobee Boulevard and Quadrille Avenue-- are considered “hazardous” to pedestrians. The FDOT District 4 Road Safety Audit Report of the Okeechobee Corridor pointed out that there were considerable needs in making the area safer for pedestrians, providing alternative means of transportation, and reducing conflicts between pedestrians, bicycles, and vehicles in the area.
Recently, the City implemented some of the safety recommendations noted in the mobility study. For example, we launched Vision Zero, a goal of eliminating serious injuries and fatalities on our roads through engineering, education and enforcement. Construction will begin in the next 30-60 days on other initiatives including lighting improvements at the Rosemary and Okeechobee crosswalk and a traffic signal and lighting at the Fern and Quadrille intersection.
The Economic Impact Analysis of the OBD conducted by Fishkind found that the City’s Class-A office market is underserved, that the City’s market has a vacancy rate far below average for business districts in Florida or the United States, and that a new Class-A office building in the OBD is likely to have a beneficial impact on the City’s office market. The study also concluded that the OBD could create 1,000 new high-wage jobs and create additional demand for residential housing, that a new Class-A office building would likely generate $1 million in tax revenue for the City, and that approval of the OBD would not have a detrimental impact on surrounding Class-A offices.
The West Palm Beach Economic Development Study by Avalanche Consultants further evaluated economic and demographic data and concluded that Class-A office space was in high demand and that the creation of the OBD would allow the City to increase the supply of Class A-office product in a prime downtown location. This, coupled with a renewed interests in downtown residential development, would encourage more people to live and work in the downtown, thereby reducing the number of commuters.
Finally, with our partners, we’re working to make improvements along the Okeechobee Corridor such as improved bridge opening timings, signal timing synchronization, and better lighting and crosswalk designs. The City remains committed to investing resources and to working with our partners, stakeholders and other governmental entities to improve the efficiency and safety of our transportation network for residents, visitors and stakeholders.