“Don’t be afraid of Downtown West Palm Beach. Sell your house, leave the suburbs, come to the city,” says Rick Gonzalez, president of REG Architects on 300 Clematis Street. “There’s a lot of room, we still have a lot of empty parking lots and green spaces.”
Enamored with this striving city, Gonzalez’ energy and fervor is contagious—enough to make you get up and go. To his credit, you can feel this change already happening in our city, especially on the weekends when droves of people from all walks of life and ages head to the Green Market—where pedestrians rule. And with the much anticipated Brightline [new fast train], Gonzalez thinks this city is going to hit a new level. He says, “It’s not going to be car-centric; it’s going to be people-centric.”
Born in Cuba and later raised in the States, Rick Gonzalez has always had a fascination with history and architecture. His seasonal historic walking tours of West Palm Beach have opened a door to the past, best ventures on foot, of course. His dramatic and remarkable developmental preservations have improved our public spaces. In the late 90s, charged with the task of revitalizing the Harriett Himmel Theater in downtown West Palm Beach, Gonzalez set out to make this gem shine by restoring it to its original architectural beauty. Today, the Harriett building is not just a landmark at CityPlace, which is unlike any other entertainment venue in the area; it’s also helped enliven and enrich the experience of urban life.
Influenced by his rich and exotic Cuban heritage and his father’s profession, Gonzalez went to Washington DC to study architecture. There he saw how cities were starting to evolve town centers around the train stations, turning them into more walkable places. That was 35 years ago, and though he veered away from that inner compass as he settled into suburban life for a while, in the past year he’s come back to live downtown, fully embracing the heart and energy of this city.
His dream is to see an increase of walkability in West Palm Beach and South Florida over time. From his point of view, it’s part of a new trend around the nation where we need to become healthier. He says, we’ve been sitting behind cars and eating fast food for too long. His solution? Move back into the city, and enjoy city life.
And that’s exactly where we found him. Enjoying a cup of coffee at Subculture—his favorite café joint on Clematis Street in downtown West Palm Beach.
MC: Rick, what do you do?
RG: I’m the president of REG Architects on Clematis Street.
MC: And what does that job entail?
RG: I have a company that does architecture, historic preservation, urban design, interiors. We’ll be celebrating 30 years in April, so we started in 1988 right downtown on Clematis Street. We work all over South Florida and a little bit of the islands too, and we love to work in this environment and create beautiful complete places for people to enjoy.
MC: What inspired you to go into that field?
RG: My father is an architect too. He had a home office and I’d go in there and watch him work when I was 10, 12 years old. I liked what he was doing, so… He never pushed me into architecture, I kind of made the decision on my own. And so after I graduated, I went to school in Washington DC, I moved back down to South Florida. I worked for a couple of companies for three years. Then I started my own business with his help.
MC: How has it been working with your dad for all this time?
RG: It’s been quite an experience. He’s retired but he does come in and work on a part-time basis—once or twice a week.
MC: What are you working on right now?
RG: We are restoring the old Boynton Beach High School in Boynton Beach. It’s going to be a community center, a 5 to 10 million-dollar project—part of a 250-million-dollar urban renewal project that will include a new city hall, new library, apartments, restaurants, offices, and hotel. Same kind of environment on a small scale similar to CityPlace.
MC: You were very much involved with CityPlace in the Harriet Himmel Theater, correct?
RG: Yes, we were the only local architect back then, almost 18 years ago. We did the Harriet at CityPlace, which was the old Methodist church, and we did a couple of small retail spaces too, but we were also helping the architects Alkus Manfredi from Boston with local input.
MC: So the Boynton Beach project is going to be a small version of that.
RG: Yes, an urban revival bringing people back East, which is a wonderful trend that’s been going on the last 20 years or so, where people in South Florida have decided that they don’t want to be slaves to their cars anymore. And they want to be able to walk to get coffee, to work and meet friends, live downtown and play downtown. And then now with the rail coming it’s going to be even more of a stronger connection, I think.
MC: Where were you born?
RG: I was born in Havana, Cuba. I left when I was a baby.
MC: Has your heritage influenced you in any way, as an architect, and in becoming the businessman you are today?
RG: I think so, I mean Cuban Americans and Cubans tend to be entrepreneurial. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial desire to have my own business. We also like design and architecture and history, and I think I got that from my heritage. From seeing photography and finally from visiting Cuba last October.
MC: How was that experience?
RG: It was a great experience. It was interesting to see. I was interviewed by the Post at the time and I would call it like Coco Chanel meeting Mad Max. It’s like the best of both worlds, you’d see these beautifully historic buildings next to like Zombieland, end of the world infrastructure shambles—complete contrast.
MC: I don’t recall much, as I too was very little when my family left Cuba. But it’s got to be very painful to see that, right?
RG: Yes, because you see the potential of what it could have been. Look what the Cuban Americans have help to create with Miami, I mean they helped transform that place from a sleepy town to a very International world city now.
MC: I believe you see that type of influence in this town too, because there’s a huge Cuban colony here.
RG: Here in West Palm Beach there are a lot of Latinos, and Cuban Americans are a big part of that too, and it’s…for several decades, yeah. For the last twenty or thirty years. I remember when I got here in the mid-to-late eighties there were a few, and now there’s a lot more.
MC: What were some of your first jobs as a new architect?
R: At first, we didn’t have a lot of work so we would supplement our work by teaching at Palm Beach State College. At the time it was called Palm Beach Junior College. I would teach design and my dad would teach renderings. Some of our earlier projects included contracts with West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County. We did a water tank for St. Mary’s Hospital, for the City of West Palm Beach that won a national award, because it was very beautiful. It had a trellis and water features as part of the tank.
MC: How about your work on Clematis Street?
RG: We were involved in the renewal of Clematis Street in the early 90s. So we worked on Pioneer Linens, the Starbucks building, Harris Music Loft, and a whole bunch of other restorations of these historic beautiful buildings here in our downtown on Clematis Street.
MC: You obviously have a heart for history. What other ways have you been involved in our city?
R: Well, I’ve been involved, for quite a while now, in historical preservation in Florida. I was a past president of the Florida Trust for historic preservation. In fact, our preservation planner here in town, Friederike Mittner, is the current president. So, that’s kind of nice that in the last four years we’ve had two people from West Palm Beach be presidents. I’ve been also on the Florida Historical Commission for a while, so that’s helped me get a nice perspective about preservation statewide that I can bring home to West Palm.
We’ve done some very interesting projects here in the city. We did a house, a historic home, that was destroyed by fire. We just finished the reconstruction of that house on Flagler Drive for Jim Green. Wonderful client, a local attorney here in town, who wanted us to try to salvage and used as much of the building as we could, which we did.
MC: With the original infrastructure?
R: Yeah, some of the parts of the building we were able to reuse. Some of the design we were able to mimic in the new setting, and so that’s been really fun to do that. We also did the 1916 courthouse, which believe it or not will be 10 years old next March. We did that when our company turned 20.
MC: Across from the street from the new courthouse?
RG: Yes, that’s a historic building next to the Palm Beach County office building, and it’s now the Richard and Pat Johnson Museum.
MC: The Palm Beach County history museum, where the little trolley tour starts?
RG: That’s right. When CityPlace opened, I got involved with a historical society, and we launched a historic walk tour of downtown Clematis Street to the courthouse, to talk about the courthouse project and the historic shops in the district on Clematis Street. I’ve been doing that for 17 years, and I’ve also done a couple of walking tours of CityPlace.
MC: What’s the frequency of your tours?
RG: The Clematis tour is during the season, and we have two options: we do the first Friday of the month, October through April. And then last year, Mary Pinak of the West Palm Beach Green Market came up with a great idea: to have a Green Market walking tour, but in reverse. It’s from the green market to the courthouse. That one has been hugely successful, and we do it the first and third Saturday of the month, also from October through April.
MC: Do you lead the tour?
RG: Yes, I do. That’s one of the things that I do, talk about the history of West Palm. It’s a fun tour.
MC: Typically, who goes on your tour?
R: I’d say about half of the folks that come on the tours are tourists from Canada, Chicago, Philadelphia, and the Northeast. The other half are people that live in West Palm, Boynton Beach, and Jupiter. They want to get to know the city they live in. Sometimes they’ll come a little bit earlier so they can walk through the museum, which is a great little museum. It showcases the history of Palm Beach County. Or on the Saturday tours, which is in reverse, they’ll stay after the tour and do a little bit of research on the history of our area.
MC: What’s so fascinating about history?
RG: History gives you a sense of place, and it really ties you to a place. If you destroy everything you have, then you’re in constant change; there’s no grounding. One of my favorite examples is the Harriet Himmel Theater at CityPlace. Back then, Mayor Nancy Graham put out the request for developer proposals, and she only had one requirement: that the church be incorporated as part of the redevelopment. Because she knew back then, just as we do now, that the anchor development with a historical component makes it a wonderful development. Again, it brings that sense of place, and it ties you to the local place; yet, it also shows you new development and construction around it. So when your kids or grandkids come back in 20, 40, 50 years, they can see some of what was—the hands that built West Palm Beach a hundred years ago in 1920.
MC: I agree. Historical places are places that matter, like you said, they give a sense of place, unlike any new architecture.
RG: It’s interesting you say that because after only 10 years, they’re talking about replacing it. I’m a little bit disappointed in CityPlace. They’re talking about redoing all the facades of the buildings. The project is not even 20 years old! That design was based on the 1920s original design and on European influences too. Now they want to do something trendy and modern just like everybody else, instead of keeping it, and refurbishing it, and restoring it, so that in 50 years it too can become historic.
MC: I like those projects that try to tie in a piece of history.
RG: Well, the courthouse was a great way to anchor the civic governmental area of Downtown West Palm Beach, with the new courthouse in City Hall and County Hall—all of it with this beautiful building sitting in a green space like it did a hundred years ago.
MC: This leads to my next question. I appreciate a modern building, but what’s your thought on modern buildings being built today that are almost aesthetically very dull as far as design? They’re boxy with not a whole lot of color.
RG: They don’t seem to have a lot of detailing to them, right? A lot of it is very repetitive. You’ll see a lot of them in Miami, a little bit here in West Palm Beach. These new buildings have a podium for parking, anywhere between 6 to 10 stories of a parking structure. Those are very negative things for city living because they’re very large and they take up a lot of space. And the buildings are typically very repetitive, in windows and balconies.
MC: Like the Bristol, for example. It promises to be beautiful, however, it does have that feel.
RG: Some people are going to call it a work of art, other people will call it an eyesore. It’s a very large structure and it will be in your face, you’re going to notice it as you drive or walk by, and time will tell if that’s the correct trend or not. There are a lot of buildings like that down in Brickell Avenue in Miami. When I grew up in Miami, Brickell was recognizable, drivable, walkable. Now it’s chaotic. It’s Shanghai, you know? It’s very over the top.
MC: That’s a very good description.
RG: You get a lost. So is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s good because there’s a lot of people enjoying the city and there’s all sort of new shops and restaurants and things to do, but the density without a proper way of transportation becomes a nightmare or a headache for some cities.
MC: Oh, absolutely. And think that West Palm Beach has done a great job of addressing those issues. Where do you see this city, let’s say five, or even ten years from now as far as walkability?
RG: A couple years ago, I bought a book on walkability that Jeff Speck wrote and I gave it to Mayor Jeri Muoio. She really liked it, and invited him to come down here and speak. It changed her perception as to the means of transportation. Not everything has to be car oriented. And I think one of the things about West Palm, in ten years it’s going to be one of the most exciting cities in Florida, because long ago it addressed certain key components on transportation that are not going to become as critical.
MC: What are your thoughts on TriRail and the Brightline and its impact in the near future?
RG: They’re both within a three-block walk from each other. The main stations in West Palm Beach and the transit village. By then hopefully the transit village will be built. You can see right now, around the Brightline there is a district of apartments coming, and office buildings. It’s very exciting that you’re going to have a city that has not one, but two major forms of train transportation with central hubs here in Downtown in West Palm Beach.
MC: Years ago, there were multiple parking structures planned around the city. Now, I think they could have been better designed, like with retail on the ground floor to cover the parking, but what are your thoughts on strategic central parking?
RG: In many cities, you just park once and you just walk around for the whole thing and that’s it. That’s what I do every day, unless I have a meeting out of Downtown and Delray Beach for one of my projects. So that’s a good setup that the city did and the great means of new transportation in just the last couple of years—think about Downtown before SkyBike.
MC: Well, I think the Downtown Development office has done a great job of thinking out of the box about those kind of things.
RG: That’s right. Even Palm Beach Free Ride…I take that all the time. It’s a little app that you have, and you can call for a ride on one of these golf carts. They pick you up and drop you off.
MC: And the trolley system. That started as an experiment once CityPlace opened.
RG: Between the DDA and CityPlace—they’re connecting Clematis Street and CityPlace. It’s been a huge success. They now have a trolley line to the Outlet Mall, to the train station, and hopefully they’ll have another one down Flamingo Park to the Norton Gallery, and then another one down Northwood.
MC: I hear the mayor’s going to add another stop to the WPB Warehouse District, too.
RG: That’s another up and coming district like Wynwood, down in Miami. I wish the trolley system had an app like Uber where you could see where the trolley is and use it more effectively. You know when they’re coming, and not guessing like you are right now. And that’s a standard requirement—it has to be on a timely basis otherwise people don’t use it. And they’re working on it. I think someone told me that the mayor is planning on an app for the trolley system, which would be fantastic.
I live a block away from the TriRail. I went to Europe in November, I took the train to Miami, which has an amazing new Miami Intermodal Center, located just east of the Miami International Airport, where you can rent a car or take the train or the bus. From there it took me straight into the airport. You don’t have to park or drop off somebody, it was fantastic. The same thing when you go to Fort Lauderdale Airport to travel to other places around the country or South America. I think West Palm will be very different from places like Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
MC: There’s a balance here, I think. And we have historic buildings, like Flamingo Park, where I live, and Clematis’ historic district.
RG: And they’re protected. There are over 20 historic neighborhoods in WPB. There’s a lot of balance between the new and the old, and the historic. I don’t think you could see that much in downtown Miami or Fort Lauderdale because a lot has been demolished.
MC: I went to the University of Miami, and Coral Gables and Coconut Grove were my favorite hangouts. My husband and I loved to take long bike rides on Sundays to Coconut Grove, and now it’s so incredibly congested. If I lived there now, I’d be afraid to go on a bike ride anywhere there.
RG: I lived there on 17th Avenue, so my favorite place to go and get away on my bike was Coconut Grove, too. It’s changing rapidly, even right now there are very large buildings that have been introduced into the Village. We’ve been part of a group trying to save the old Coconut Grove Playhouse. We’re getting close to saving it, to restoring it, but they’re building five, six, seven, eight story buildings in a district that was all one and two stories. That changes the character of a place. Just like when you drive downtown by the arena of Biscayne Boulevard, you’ve got ten-story garages with 40, 50, 60 story apartment buildings above. That changes things.
MC: It changes the skyline for sure.
RG: The urban fabric. It works maybe for them on the first level on Biscayne Blvd., but then anything that gets redeveloped behind it has a very poor fighting chance, because it’s all been taken by the front row buildings facing the water. Instead of creating more of a district, like the city planning you see in Washington D.C. or Paris, places that have a good sense of scale. That Houston scale, that Miami scale is a little different. I like the WPB scale better.
MC: Rick, people love taking your tours. You’re very much loved in our city, where you are involved with its history and preservation. What would you like to say to our WPB readers?
RG: There’s lots to do in Downtown WPB, so sell your house in the suburbs and come to West Palm.
Rick Gonzalez is Loving the City Life in West Palm Beach