David Paladino, the unsung hero developer of what is now called CityPlace and who donated the land that is now the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, had one of the wildest rides in modern real estate history. Betting big and losing bigger, he and his partner Henry Rolfs, shaped a city in a way that few private developers have ever had the chance to do.
In this story there are heroes, villains, Art Deco building damsels in distress, secret transactions, international banking deals, a Supreme Court case and a Mayor finally making a grab for the glory.
David Paladino moved to West Palm when he was 7, attended Palm Beach Junior College and started a little music store business. The store was taking so much of his time his professors actually advised him to drop out and concentrate on that, which he did. The store lasted a few years and in his mid-20s after a year of managing apartments, Paladino bought a property that housed The Hut, a classic shuttered drive-in that had seen better days. He sold the property to Murray Goodman who constructed The Phillips Point office tower.
Buoyed by the success of that sale, he set his sights on flipping some properties in downtown West Palm Beach’s crumbling, dangerous core in the 1980s. Cited by the FBI as the most crime-ridden city in America, besotted with crack, abandoned buildings, and shootings, West Palm Beach was ripe for change.
David Paladino met Rolfs through a mutual business associate in Palm Beach and approached him with a plan. Rolfs was a seasoned developer who had made millions developing land in Florida and Virginia.
Henry John Rolfs, Sr. (1908-1994) went by the motto, “Buy in the path of progress.” Rolfs applied this philosophy when he and his wife, Zoe, moved to Palm Beach County in 1964; the visionary eventually amassed over 4,000 acres, mostly west of the city.
The master plan was BIG – buy up and raze a good chunk of West Palm Beach, and create one of the largest urban renewal projects in the country, a plan they christened Downtown Uptown. Rolfs was game, they would design and build a grand entryway on what they wanted to call Royal Palm Way – the street that Okeechobee Boulevard changes into when it crosses the Palm Beach island bridge. There would be parks and huge palm trees, Spanish themed office building skyscrapers, entertainment venues, plazas and hotels.
It was so ambitious it had to be done in secret, lest the city get wind of what the two private developers had in mind. So in the mid-1980s Paladino started working the phones with Rolfs money and began buying properties in the 77-acre area from Fern Street south to N Street and from Florida East Coast Railway tracks west to Georgia and Lake avenues.
That’s 26 city blocks, 240 separate parcels “filled with bullet holes, drug dealers, and homicides” Paladino says while sitting in Lake Worth’s Blue Front Bar & Grill, which is owned by his son John Henry – named after Henry Rolfs. Before that, it was a neighborhood of more than 600 homes and businesses — mostly built during the boom years of the 1920s and early ’30s — in historic, if not officially designated historic, buildings.
They used 20 different buyers to cover their tracks. After buying up all the lots and making a deal to save the historic First United Methodist Church, they first presented their plans for the Downtown Uptown development in October 1987.
A Palm Beach Post story about the presentation described the project: “The focal point of the project would be two parks between Florida and Georgia Avenues on the north and south sides of the widened Okeechobee Boulevard” which would have an 900-foot-long palm-lined median “to encourage pedestrian traffic.” Okeechobee Boulevard would become an “important commercial address, much like New York’s prestigious Central Park.”
In March 1989 the 77 acres would become “one of the nation’s largest demolition projects.” But ultimately it would sit razed and flattened for nearly a decade.
“The whole plan was in my head,” Paladino said. Grinning, he pulls out a large architectural rendering of one of the Spanish style skyscrapers he had designed for Downtown Uptown and still hopes to get built one day. “It would have been beautiful, but then the city turned against it. New players came in, a recession hit, and there were so many deals going on that fell through.”
The real estate depression of the late 1980s and early 1990s sent the project into a downward spiral with multiple foreclosures as payment deadlines were missed and personal losses totaled nearly $55 million. As the losses mounted they donated over 5 acres of land for what would become the Kravis Center.
“We donated 10 million in real estate and I don’t even have a plaque in the place,” David Paladinosays. Rolfs died in 1994, virtually impoverished, and a bronze statue of him now stands in the Okeechobee Boulevard median thanks to a final deal Paladino made on his way out of the project.
“Money is not the only way to measure success”, David Paladino says of the resulting revitalization of the city.
“Rolfs lost money, yes, but other than that it was an almost impossible assemblage that has raised property values and gave the city the chance to reach its full potential.”
As the City pushed the developers out, they – and in particular Strong Mayor Nancy Graham – wanted to turn the failed Downtown Uptown project into the opportunity of a lifetime, grabbing the glory with her own vision of filling the razed acreage with high-end retail, offices, market-rate housing, cultural facilities and public spaces that encourage community interaction. She used an “eminent domain” lawsuit to take the land back from the various developers and banks.
The last of the private owners, Bert Moerings, took the case all the way to the Supreme Court to retain his development rights he claimed had been given to him by David Paladino. Then Mayor Graham did what most women do – she went shopping – issuing a nationwide request for proposals to top commercial and residential real estate developers for a new urban vision and in 1996 selected three powerful teams to present concepts for the property. An entry called CityPlace won out, and after years of construction was finally opened in 2000. The 11,000-square-foot saved church building became the Harriet Himmel Theater for Cultural and Performing Arts. On the south side of Okeechobee Boulevard, there was room left over for the Palm Beach County Convention Center.
“I’ve still gone unnoticed by the Kravis Center, and CityPlace may become the next Palm Beach Mall,” Paladino wryly comments, citing the demolished Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard shopping center that is now thriving as a discount outlet. He alludes that foreign interests, such as oil-rich Dubai – are propping up the partially vacant CityPlace businesses downtown.
“It seems pretty soulless to me. Architecture is what gives a place its soul, it’s certainly not what I would have built. I still see great improvement that can be done, particularly to Okeechobee Boulevard – a name I think sounds clumsy, it should have been Royal Palm Way. They need to put in some striping for parking like they have in Palm Beach and slow those cars down to 30 mph, it’s a freeway now the way it is. Anything is possible, it can still happen. I just like to see if I can get things done.”
Aside from being a real estate maverick, David Paladino has been singing and playing various instruments since the age of 7, and has performed at the Kravis Center, The Breakers Hotel, Trump’s Mar a Lago, The Colony Hotel, The Ocean Reef Club, The Caryle Hotel in NYC, the home of Anthony Shriver for the Best Buddies charity, and with the Woody Herman Band and with Jaco Pastorious, to name just a few. He is most proud of his friendship with Pastorious, the late electric and electrifying jazz bass player who was killed in a brawl with a bouncer after a Carlos Santana concert in 1987. Pastorious praises Paladino and his guitar playing in an online YouTube interview.
David Paladino performs every Friday at the Blue Front Bar & Grill and knows the Great American Songbook inside out, he nails Sinatra’s phrasing and way with a song, giving a lightness of touch and smooth delivery to every tune. His crack band has a baby grand piano player, bassist and drummer.
He has tales of hanging backstage with his hero Sinatra a few times at the Kravis Center and claims that Sinatra is “probably the first and only person to put out a lit cigarette on the stage of the Kravis Center.” Yeah, only Ol’ Blue Eyes could get away with it, and sweep that cigarette butt glory to the trash bin Mayor Nancy Graham. A rare bird even in the eclectic world of city pioneers, Paladino keeps his eye on the prize as he snaps his fingers to his own swinging beat. After all, as the song says, the best is yet to come.
**This story was first published in WPB Magazine’s print edition of September 2015**
David Paladino, the unsung developer that now sings like Sinatra at Blue Front Bar & Grill. Here’s the story of one of the visionaries of what now is CityPlace.