It’s not unusual to find Raphael Clemente, Executive Director of West Palm Beach’s Downtown Development Authority, walking up and down downtown’s main street. His office is just around the corner of Clematis Street. However, every other Wednesday afternoon, at exactly 3 pm, chances are you’ll find him at 314 Clematis Street, chatting with locals and sipping a small cup of Cafecito Cubano (Cuban coffee). Widely known for its intensely rich, strong taste, when mixed with scalded milk and sugar, it tastes like pure joy.
“We wanted to sort of lower the barrier and invite people to have a conversation with us about whatever it may be,” says Clemente as we take a pause in the middle of the day to sit and chat while enjoying a cafecito.
“Do you want to talk about the weather? Fine. Do you want to talk about a development project or business idea? Fine. We have no agenda other than welcoming you to come in and meet us face to face right here in public, on Clematis Street,” he says about the purpose of the invite.
As people gather around us, it’s interesting to watch who’s decided to come and have a cafecito and a sweet bite from one of the local bakeries. Typically, it’s those who decide, “You know what?… I have a few free minutes, let me go down from my office.” Or perhaps people who truly want to meet the DDA and say, “Hey, I have this idea, I’ve been meaning to come by the office, or call you….” Then, they spend a few minutes just having a conversation, which is a better connection.
According to Clemente, if he’s learned anything in his 16-years of service at the DDA, and as director for about a decade, is that you should “give everybody at least five minutes to present their new idea.” His mentor, the former DDA Executive Director, Melissa Wohlust, taught him that.
“So often, we get super busy and somebody is trying to share something with you and you just think you don’t have the time. But, if you take at least five minutes with them, they may have the best idea you’ve heard all year! And they just needed a chance to express it,” he says.
Not every idea you hear is good or feasible, of course, but people want to share it. And, especially if you’re in a position to help execute that business or community concept, like the DDA is, or even the thought that we can make the downtown area more interesting or more attractive by doing an art project or by bringing a certain event in—their most innovative and creative ideas generally come to them from the community.
The other idea generator is the DDA’s A-Team. From the talented staff to the magnificent seven-member board of directors—men and women who have a real connection to the place as they own residential units and business properties in our community. They have the skillset and the game. So, between the board and the staff, the DDA has come up with some innovative ideas and projects, like Community Cafecito.
Initially, the DDA wanted to do the Community Cafecito in their office, which is actually a cool place with its open floorplan and rustic environment. But, with Covid and everything else, they decided to do it out in the street on the porch of The Thoroughfare building located at 314 Clematis Street. And judging by the regular gatherings, it’s worked out quite well. Perhaps the main attraction is the cool address. While most architects are looking to create structures that are modern or futuristic, Downtown WPB has opted to retain this, and other buildings’ retro architectural setting, which is quite remarkable. And, when you learn about the building’s history, you can understand why they chose it to host Community Cafecito.
The building is on the 300 block, or “the middle child of Clematis Street,” as I like to call it—if you go back a few generations in our community’s history, not necessarily people generations, but development cycles. All of the things that we now call big box stores were here before we had suburban development. Woolworth, America’s five and dime department store resided here. For those of us who lived here at that time, you may remember their lunch counter, which served delicious sandwiches, root beer floats, and of course, hot coffee and an assortment of pastries. What is now Duffy’s was Walgreens. Burdines was also on the 300 block, then moved to the 400 block, where the library now stands. Meyers Luggage and Anthony’s Men’s Store was right there in the Anthony Building.
For people who grew up on these streets as kids, this space is constant and familiar. Sadly, we saw a decline in the area during the mid-seventies. Stores like Woolworth and JC Penney’s left our downtown when the Palm Beach Mall opened in the late 60s. And like most downtowns in the country, it got very bad. Imagine if you had a Publix shopping center closing down. Everybody else—flower shops, coffee shops, dry cleaners, etc.-would be wondering, “How do we get out?” That’s what happened, until . . .
…our conversation is suddenly interrupted by a couple who stops by and greets Clemente. “That gentleman,” Clemente tells me, “is a new coffee shop owner that just moved into the old Dunkin’ Donuts space.”
He then continues to recount how most main streets all across the country, even Clematis Street, suffered greatly in the 70s and 80s. Suburbanization was a completely new concept in the 1970s. Malls attracted small businesses and retailers, which led to an increase in traffic. That’s where the growth was, so stores flourished. Meanwhile, downtowns declined.
Now we are seeing the reverse in a massive way. Everybody wants to be back downtown. Millennials, Baby Boomers, shorter commutes, and a tougher home-buying market are the usual explanations for the attraction. The urban revival happened in the 2000s, when more college-educated professionals–the key indicator of an area’s growth potential, in the eyes of urban economists—moved downtown. This revival was true in places like New York City, San Francisco, and West Palm Beach.
The ground floor model has changed dramatically in this area, though. But, not even Amazon, the Great Giant Retailer that draws people in droves, as they can easily download an app on their phone, tablet, or computer, and with one click and a swipe, the purchase is done—has been able to stop this huge rebound.
People want community. They want to live and work near bars, music clubs, theaters, and coffee shops. Here, they can sit and read a book purchased from a small store just around the corner. For decades we had a downtown bookstore, then it closed. We had Barnes and Noble at The Square. One day, they packed their bags and left, and LA Fitness came in its place. “When Barnes and Noble left, my oldest daughter cried. That was her favorite place. She’s sixteen now, and you can’t pry a book out of her hand. It created a reader out of her,” says Clemente.
That’s what downtowns do. It really caters to the locals, as you become part of a real community, where people connect, exchange ideas, and have real conversations—a real community. And that’s the keyword. Community.
Community Cafecito is just another excuse to get together and chat in a downtown that’s really an approachable and walkable neighborhood. “Whether you think of it as a place where you live here in a condo, apartment, or house, or you spend 40 to 50 hours a week out of your life here, it functions as a neighborhood,” explains Clemente. “If you work here and you walk downstairs to get lunch, or on a given Wednesday to grab a Cafecito, you bump into those same people every day.”
There have been some interesting studies about how urban places that have mix-used residential and commercial retail spaces, which are dense and walkable, relate to the whole idea of human capital—the connections in the community that make things possible. That many of them happen serendipitously, like “I didn’t know I was going to bump into you, even though I knew I was about to have a conversation with you about a business idea, but a year later, we have a business. And if we had been driving in our cars, at a light, that would have never happened.”
So, urban places are not just economic engines on the dollars and cents scale; they’re economic engines on the human capital and community growth scale. And there’s a real value that you can assign to that. You can put a dollar value on the connectedness of a community, and that will pay off long-term.
How much are you willing to pay in rent? Well, that all depends on how much you care about that place. If you’re in a suburban strip somewhere, you drive in, park, and walk to your office every day. . . Yeah, you work hard there, too. You sweat blood and tears, but if you walk down the street here every day and you bump into someone like Jaime from Salento Coffee Shop, suddenly, it’s not just a guy that you go get coffee from, that’s your neighbor. That’s a guy you have a personal connection to. It’s customer loyalty, it’s friendship. And that’s why the DDA decided to do this “coffee meet up thing on Clematis Street because that’s where the people we want to talk to are,” says Clemente. And what better attraction than a Cuban Cafecito? It’s a local thing! It’s the thing that connects us, and it’s authentic to this place. Everybody gets it, even if you’re not Cuban or Hispanic.
Like so many other things the DDA has done, Community Cafecito is an experiment. “We are small enough and ample enough that we have a supportive community that trusts us to try some stuff,” says Clemente. “This is a low barrier—coffee, pastries. . . but it’s an experimental thing. If in time, we get a successful response from it, we’ll grow it or plug it in.”
Many of the things the DDA has done in the past have been pilot projects that were tested similarly. Some turned into long-term successes, like the “street with wider lanes and narrower sidewalks” concept they tested fifteen years ago. The DDA recognized then that there was a demand for more public space. When the restaurants were busy, the bistro tables were squeezed on the sidewalks, making it challenging for pedestrians to walk by. With the aim of providing more space for people and for business, they started an initiative called “Parking Day.”
This parking day idea evolved in San Francisco in 2005 or 2006, and we implemented it here in 2007 in front of Starbucks on the Clematis’ 100 block. The City had one of its vendors bring in a palette of sod, and cool outdoor furniture with umbrellas and potted plants was added. Starbucks provided coffee and the restaurants put some food out and a parking space was suddenly turned into a mini-park with real grass!
The DDA invited everybody to come out and sit on the street and have a cup of coffee with a bit of pastry, chips, and salsa. The reaction of the people was amazing. “Let’s do the whole street this way!” they said. But, the collective minds, particularly the business community, saw a challenge: “We need all these parking spaces, we can’t lose the parking!” they replied. In spite of this, the City kept piloting this idea in different ways, such as with the “Street Balcony” initiative.
In 2015, imagine if you had the curb dropped off and flushed with the sidewalk—like a deck. You could walk off the sidewalk and walk on it. The space was the size of a parking space, where restaurants could put tables and chairs on it. And it was essentially a sidewalk extension, which gave you more space. The pilot project was paid for by the DDA and used Roco’s Tacos [lunch\dinner menu], Field of Greens [breakfast/lunch menu,] located on Clematis Street, and a boho restaurant called Le Rendezvous, which offered primarily dinner and nightlife venues on Datura Street.
All three of those restaurants had success with it, not just because of the additional seating on the street, but also because their internal revenues were up. This is because if you’re walking around looking for somewhere to eat and see a place that looks busy and lively, it draws you in. You want to know what’s going on there. If you see a place with nobody there, you say, “Nah, doesn’t look that good.” It’s human nature. People draw people.
Therefore, it was really the street balcony concept that tipped the conversation in favor of curb-less streets. Now, the design process with designers and architects took time to develop, until things really got done, but the introduction of that idea of taking more space for people and activity, landscaping, and shade trees, was introduced again and again. People are averse to change. You have to warm them up to the idea before you can say, “Okay, go!”
Collectively, the City, the community, and the DDA got it right. As more people come here, and as more businesses open up, the DDA is committed to keeping up with its game. Increasingly, it’s focused on public road maintenance, and it’s a challenge that they’ve embraced. A sizeable chunk of their budget and staff time is allocated to the experience of the public space. Not just that it is clean and safe, but is it active? If you walk down the street, is there something that gives you a little joy, like public art, or pre-holiday lights?
Clean and safe—those are the things that go beyond the bare minimum, that give you a sense of community. When you woke up this morning and somebody asked you, “How are you doing?” And you say, “Well, I woke up.” Well, that’s the bare minimum! If somebody brought you flowers unexpectedly or you saw a friend that you hadn’t seen in six months, well, that’s joy packed with a red bow! That’s what the DDA does with public projects like Community Cafecito. Giving people a cup of joy.
Clemente credits his wife with giving him this piece of advice: “Don’t just think about the nuts and bolts. There’s got to be some whimsy—a little magic in the city.” And they’ve done that with the public art, street lights, and water lights at the end of Clematis Street. And, of course, how could we forget to mention our holiday star, Sandi, the Christmas sand tree by the waterfront, and the free musical events at the amphitheater on Flagler Drive. Or putting a poet on the street on Valentine’s Day, having them write a love note or a poem for you to take to somebody. Things like that that just catch you off guard and make you think, “Wow, that’s pretty cool. I didn’t expect that today.”
One of my favorite things that the DDA has ever done wasn’t necessarily a monumental project, but I loved the way people reacted to it. They put this Boogie Woogie blues piano band on the corner of Clematis St and Olive Ave. For those who recognized the music, it took them back to the era when blues piano playing thrived back then. The band consisted of three musicians, a piano player, a bass player, and a drummer. And they just rocked it! Traffic stopped while people danced in the streets and took photos of the players. What they found in that mid-afternoon lunch break was a moment of joy. And they probably returned back to the office feeling, “Okay, today was not so bad after all.”
As Clemente and I end our conversation, he spots two of the City’s urban design officers a few steps away, having a cafecito. Several downtown residents soon join them, and Clemente turns to me and smiles. “That’s what it is all about,” he says.
For more information about Community Cafecito, follow the DDA @DowntownWPB and @WestPalmDDA on Facebook and Twitter.