Historic Preservation in West Palm Beach
By Friederike Mittner, AICP
What a journey it’s been!
Most residents and visitors alike have heard the story of West Palm Beach’s early settlement between 1884 and 1902. How, Henry Flagler after being enchanted by the area, while expanding his railroad south, created the Town of Palm Beach as an exclusive seaside resort for wealthy northern industrialists. Then in 1893, Flagler purchased land on the west side of the water body Lake Worth to establish West Palm Beach as a separate commercial center. The first FEC train pulled into town in 1894, and things have been full steam ahead since then.
While showcasing modern high rises in this dynamic metropolis, West Palm Beach can also proudly point to a rich collection of revitalized, historic neighborhoods. Finding the balance of the past, present and future demands and aesthetics is not always easy. Yet, the historic resources of the community are links to our past. They make our community unique and give it a sense of place. One of the great success stories in West Palm Beach is the preservation and revitalization of its historic neighborhoods, as a result of dedicated property owners coupled with a successful historic preservation program at the municipal level.
Although the National Historic Preservation Act was enacted in 1966, an interest in historic preservation was slow to take hold in West Palm Beach. From 1989-1990, with grant funding from the State, the City embarked on a historic sites survey that identified more than 5,200 buildings, at least 50 years old at the time. The survey laid the groundwork for the adoption of the City’s first preservation ordinance in 1990. This ordinance set the standards for the designation, protection and regulation of the City’s historic resources. The building analysis was the basis for the first designation of historic districts and individual sites to the West Palm Beach Register of Historic Places. In 1992, the City became the state’s 18th designated Certified Local Government, which provides both greater autonomy and support from the States’ Division of Historical Resources.
The City now boasts 17 historic districts and 46 individually designated properties. 11 of those districts are also on the National Register of Historic Places. Listing on the National Register of Historic places is an honor and may lead to some federal incentives. However, the strength of all preservation programs lies at the local level, with the ability to save buildings from demolition and indistinguishable alterations. Often, it is the loss of a significant building that spurs the protection of others, such as the razing of the elegant, eight-story, 1926, Pennsylvania Hotel on Flagler Drive. Many residents can recall a lost building they miss and the nostalgic feeling that place evoked. The goal of the City’s Historic Preservation Ordinance which can be found codified as part of the Zoning and Land Development Regulations (ZLDR) is to “identify, protect, restore and encourage reuse of resources, all of which are essential to the City’s health, safety, morals, and its economical, educational, cultural and general welfare.”
The City’s preservation program is implemented through professional City staff and a citizen volunteer board. Historic Preservation staff work alongside the Planning and Zoning division within the Development Services Department in City Hall. The primary tasks of staff implementing the code include: advising the historic preservation board on applications, evaluating and recommending sites for designation, advising on Section 106 reviews for federally funded projects, reviewing all demolition permits within the City, administering the Ad Valorem Tax Exemption program and historic preservation grant funding. So often, the Historical Society and Historic Preservation staff are interchanged in the public’s minds. Of course, gladly support each other. However, each group has a distinct mission from the other. Historic Preservation staff happily direct the customer to the correct source.
The Historic Preservation Division of the City is active in aiding efforts to preserve the unique ambiance of the neighborhoods. The Division makes sure that properties are rehabilitated using the latest preservation technology and ensures that alterations and additions are in keeping with the character of the historic property. The purpose of historic preservation is not to halt growth or change, because it is recognized that both are needed to keep a community viable. Instead, the goal is to integrate the past with the present and the future through the reuse of existing buildings with modern conveniences, while retaining character defining features, materials and craftsmanship.
The West Palm Beach Historic Preservation Board was established by the Historic Preservation Ordinance. It consists of seven members and two alternates who are appointed by the Mayor. Board members serve three-year terms and must be residents of the City or have a principal place of business in the City. The Board meets monthly and has the authority to review any exterior improvements to a locally designated property and properties located within Historic Districts, as well as demolition requests and those for new construction within a district. The Ordinance also empowers the Board to recommend to the City Commission sites and districts worthy of listing in the West Palm Beach Register of Historic Places.
Both staff and the Board are guided by several documents including the Comprehensive Plan, the ZLDR, the Secretary of the Interiors Standards and the City’s published design guidelines. The National Park Service, as a part of the Department of the Interior, has established 10 Standards for Rehabilitation. These standards include guidelines on how to achieve a successful rehabilitation project while protecting and maintaining historic building materials and character defining features. The City’s Design Guidelines, which are available on the City’s website, further illustrate appropriate treatments for historic buildings. These guidelines utilize text and graphics that are specific to the community.
West Palm Beach has been innovative in its incentives to balance historic preservation with the upfront financial investment often required. In the downtown Master plan (DMP) area, sites have been identified that can participate in the Transfer of Development (TDR) program. This encourages official designation of historic sites and allows them to send or transfer unused development rights to another appropriate receiving site. There is even a unique, tiered level of designation, with the Landmark classification modeled on the federal program. Since 1994, an Ad Valorem Tax Exemption Program has been administered by the Historic Preservation Division. The exemption from City and County property taxes is a financial incentive to encourage restoration and rehabilitation of historic properties and to stabilize and improve property values in the City. A plethora of studies have demonstrated how property values in historic districts are, at least, even and usually higher than those in comparable non-designated areas. The Ad Valorem Tax Exemption Program allows the exemption of up to 100 percent of the assessed value of all improvements (interior and exterior) to historic properties resulting from restoration or rehabilitation, and even on-site related new construction and additions of such properties. To qualify, the property must be designated as an individual site or as a contributing property within a historic district on the Local or National Register of Historic Places. Of course, other economic benefits of preservation have also been documented such as tourism dollars and lower foreclosure rates. There is also a reinvestment in the local economy by using skilled labor to rehabilitate versus new construction, where a significant portion is spent on new materials from outside the local area. Other benefits for property owners of historically designated properties include exemptions or flexibility with certain building code requirements.
Rehabilitating and reusing buildings is one of the best forms of recycling. Most historic buildings are inherently sustainable given the building materials and siting on a property to maximize the breeze and shade for the sun. The sustainability aspect of preservation is appealing to many.
So, how would one know if their voyage has brought them into one of the great districts? The City of West Palm Beach has a street signage program for the historic districts listed in the local Register of Historic Places. The program consists of installation of blue background street signs (rather than the typical green background signs) to inform the public that they are in a historic district. The City also coordinates with property owners and a foundry for the purchase of plaques designating a historic site or structure within a historic district. These bronze plaques include the structure’s date of construction. Some districts or sites also have large, freestanding State Markers that provide more information about the area.
We encourage the public to continue to support preservation for many reasons including sustainability, intrinsic value as art, tangible link to the past and a sense of place. The same natural beauty that drew Henry Flagler here continues to attract new residents daily to enjoy the architectural gems we have to offer.
With the 125th anniversary of the City, it is great reflect on the many places and people that have ensured this preservation of the past. Let the journey continue!