The New Face of Downtown

Renderings of Open Shore design plan

One year ago, PBI reported on the changing face of downtown West Palm Beach. The city, and its waterfront district in particular, continues to look toward tomorrow as seen in initiatives like Shore to Core.

In 2016, the West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency was searching for ways to transform the Banyan Garage and enlisted the nonprofit Van Alen Institute to launch an international design competition. They widened the project’s scope to include the waterfront, the Great Lawn, the Meyer Amphitheatre, and the Clematis Street alleyways.

Out of 40 proposals, Open Shore by Ecosistema Urbano was selected as a framework for development. Allison Justice, senior project manager with the WPB CRA, explains that this plan—which includes bioclimatic domes (climate-controlled enclosures) as well as interactive alleys outfitted with rock-climbing walls and other activities—is just a jumping-off point.

“This process was to pick the team we thought could implement positive changes, but we still have to go through a public process to get to the final product,” Justice says. “We’re not in the business of what [the waterfront] will look like tomorrow. We have to make sure it’s sustainable for 20, 40 years down the road.”

The WPB CRA will make transforming the alleyways an immediate priority, and then focus on the Banyan Garage. These elements, as well as community input, will dictate the direction of everything else. Want to learn more about the future of Shore to Core? Below, a few of the project’s key players weigh in.

David van der Leer, executive director of Van Alen Institute  

PBI: What initially attracted the Van Alen Institute to the project?
Van der Leer: As a nonprofit, rather than a company, we’ve worked with cities tackling issues of climate change, sea level rise, shifting demographics, and wellbeing; we approach these challenges holistically through the lens of design. Shore to Core aligns with our work toward healthier, more vibrant cities that are intelligent, flexible, and responsive.

We were attracted to partnering with West Palm Beach as it is a forward-looking city with rapidly changing demographics and has the potential to develop a dynamic downtown and waterfront. At Van Alen, we’re focused on how our environments impact us, and it was all the more fortuitous that West Palm Beach was open to complementing the design competition with a parallel research component for studying the effects of urban landscapes on individuals over time.

What makes West Palm Beach a good candidate to become a model waterfront city?
The dynamism of West Palm Beach—it’s a destination for young professionals launching careers, and diversity is a core feature of its population—encourages residents and city leadership to try new modes of urban living. West Palm Beach faces challenges of sea level rise that many other coastal cities must grapple with, and it’s the city’s distinctly forward-looking mindset and openness to innovation that makes it ideal for implementing the findings of Shore to Core.

What surprised you about the design proposals you received? Were there common themes or ideas that emerged across the submissions?
When most people think about building cities, they typically think of towering, man-made structures. We were surprised by the prominence of nature in many of the proposals: Designers worked with the environment to create a more resilient infrastructure, and to foster citizen wellbeing. Our research team, Happier by Design, found that native plants in tandem with other strategies allow residents to feel more at ease in their environments. I think West Palm Beach may be at the forefront of emphasizing the “jungle” element of “concrete jungle.”

In addition, the idea of creating flexible, complex spaces was a common theme among the entries. Several teams envisioned interactive spaces with multiple uses that appeal to West Palm Beach’s unique demographics. And of course, many designs responded to the city’s warm climate, and how climate change will intensify the need for innovative design solutions.

What stood out most about the Ecosistema Urbano proposal? What ultimately led to its selection?
Ecosistema Urbano’s multipurpose bioclimatic domes harness the coast’s natural winds, and innovative, practical infrastructure strategies for tackling sea level rise are the sort of bold proposals that will allow West Palm Beach to act as an example for other waterfront cities. They reframed existing features of the city, such as the Banyan Garage and the alleyways, to provide shade and active programs that could support a wide array of users, but can also adapt to changing needs over time. We were impressed by how the new outdoor areas and waterfront activities in their proposal will bring together the city’s population to socialize in a dynamic and public way that will evolve along with the city itself.

How will the winning research proposal by Happier by Design influence the development of the West Palm Beach waterfront moving forward?
Happier by Design met with each of the teams to give them advice on how their proposals could be adjusted to take advantage of the [findings] from their study. Ecosistema Urbano’s proposal includes many ideas put forth by Happier by Design. For example, the proposal is oriented toward the water and encourages interaction between passersby, reflecting the recommendations of Happier by Design’s study. This emphasis on capturing attention and facilitating interaction is carried through in their proposal for the main pedestrian intersection south of the Great Lawn.

The city intends to implement the proposal for enlivening the alleyways in the short term, and plans to further develop designs for Banyan Garage, transforming a parking structure into a beacon that offers diverse, publicly available amenities. Over time, the city will carry out Happier by Design’s principles of developing a restorative waterfront that’s more interactive and engaging, enhancing the wellbeing of West Palm Beach’s population for future generations.

Renderings courtesy of Ecosistema Urbano and the West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency

Belinda Tato, co-founder and director of Ecosistema Urbano

PBI: Why did Ecosistema Urbano decide to participate in the Shore to Core call for proposals? What initially attracted the company to the project?
Tato: We were fascinated by the huge potential of the site and how, through design, the relationship between the city and the water could be enhanced, making the waterfront both more socially active and inclusive as well as becoming more economically developed. Also, by looking at Banyan Garage, we envisioned a number of opportunities [as to] how this existing building could become the catalyst of this urban transformation, an icon of the whole intervention. At Ecosistema Urbano, we are very interested in the design of public space, its social dimension and how, through climatic solutions, we can multiply the possibilities for interaction and innovation. We saw an opportunity in West Palm Beach in this direction and decided to enter this challenging competition.

When researching West Palm Beach, what did you find most interesting or most compelling about the area?
We believe one of the amazing assets of the city is its climate; being able to enjoy the outdoors most of the year is nothing short of a luxury. We are aware the summer can be tough, and confronting this is one of the strongest aspects of our proposal: designing a public space that provides climatic comfort throughout the year, addressing specifically the summer season. This bioclimatic design, combined with an intervention that maximizes the relationship of the city with the water, can make downtown West Palm Beach a super attractive place to live and a destination for both residents and visitors. Another amazing aspect is how this climate allows nature to bloom. Vegetation in the area is superb, which is why it was included as a main feature in our proposal.

How did those findings influence your proposal?
We paid attention to the local climate, the seasonal fluctuations, and the layout of the waterfront. We read about the city, studied it, and interviewed
locals—and most importantly we experienced West Palm Beach first hand a number of times throughout the process, which allowed us to identify opportunities. We were inspired by many of the things observed and lived but also saw room for improvement. We believe the city of West Palm Beach has  great potential and that the downtown could become denser, with more mixed-use buildings, and become more walkable. At the same time, as climate is an important factor, the climatic domes incorporate vegetation, airflow, shade, and water displayed in various ways. Through the use of these elements, we can bring down the temperature and improve thermal comfort. By addressing this issue, especially in the summer, we are creating the conditions for a more lively public space. By improving the downtown, we can also connect to the different neighborhoods and serve them better. A walkable and climatically conditioned downtown will attract more people to live, work, and enjoy.

Overall, what major goals did you want to achieve in your proposal?
We wanted to make a softer and more natural connection between the downtown and the water. By re-naturalizing this limit, we can allow people to get closer to water, to experience it in different ways. At the same time, by introducing other uses and activities we would reactivate the waterfront all year round. The Banyan Garage can become a hybrid-use building, capable of generating innovation by means of interaction between diverse users and activities in fruitful proximity; a flexible building that has a bioclimatic performance that fits the flexible architectural schemes and different programs. The alleyways can be repurposed to serve as quality, active public spaces that will enable the creation of a pedestrian network in the city. All these elements working together can boost the identity of West Palm Beach, increasing the already high quality of living the city provides. The proposal is about connections: better connecting different parts of the city to the water, connecting people to people, and reconnecting people to nature.

In what ways does this proposal make the West Palm Beach waterfront a year-round destination?
Our design combines natural elements and technology to promote activities to happen day and night throughout the whole year. The waterfront is not the end of the city any longer; it is just the gate to new experiences and myriad possibilities.

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