Artist Alley, weekend street parties ending: Clematis businessman calls out mayor for ‘retribution’
Updated: Apr 15
TWO POPULAR DOWNTOWN West Palm Beach outdoor areas have been shut down by the city, public casualties in a political dogfight between Mayor Keith James and the downtown businessman who dared challenge him, Rodney Mayo.
Mayo’s brief mayoral campaign ended in January when a judge disqualified him from running, ruling in a lawsuit brought by James that Mayo doesn’t live in West Palm Beach, as required by the city charter for candidates.
The ruling essentially gave James a second term — he was formally sworn in on April 6 — and canceled the March election. When Mayo filed papers in November to run, he shrugged off warnings by some of his supporters that James might retaliate against him if Mayo lost the election.
Now, after the city this week took action to shut down two public areas frequented by patrons of bars and restaurants owned by Mayo, he thinks there was merit to those warnings.
‘It's retribution for me daring to run against Keith James,’’ he said. “And there is more coming.’’
James, who has feuded with Mayo for years, had no comment on Mayo’s accusation.
The first public space affected by the city’s orders was Artist Alley, known for its colorful Albert Einstein mural next to a city-owned storefront leased by Mayo for two of his six Clematis Street establishments, Subculture Coffee and ‘Ve vegan restaurant.
Under a separate permit with the city, Mayo had been leasing Artist Alley since 2015, first for $100 a month then for $200 a month. He transformed what had been an abandoned dirt path into a safe outdoor space for art shows, poetry readings, live bands and patrons seeking to relax on comfortable outdoor chairs and tables Mayo purchased for the alley.
During his mayoral campaign, Mayo used Artist Alley as a backdrop for live-streamed campaign talks with constituents.
The alley’s latest amenity, added just over a week ago, was a public herb garden — box planters with fresh rosemary, oregano and other herbs that Clematis Street patrons were encouraged to pick for free and consume.
But on April 2, that all came to an end when Mayo received a hand-delivered notice from the city terminating his public-use permit for the alley. According to a statement signed by James, Mayo’s use of the licensed area was “not compatible with the use of a pedestrian walkway” and he “failed to meet” four conditions of the license.
The four errant conditions: Failing to keep a clear 8-foot-wide pedestrian pathway; changing the approved site plan without the city’s written approval; storing a Dumpster and other materials in the alley; and failing to keep the alley clean and “in good repair at all times.’’
“The tenant has been asked to restore the property to its original condition or a better condition (than) at the time of issuing the license,’’ said the statement, released by the mayor’s new communications director, Diane G. Papadakos.
Mayo said he thought that statement meant that he had to remove “Einstein’s Theory of Love,’’ the popular mural painted by celebrated street artist Eduardo Kobra in 2015 during the second year of his lease.
On the night of April 2, Mayo vented about the city’s closure of Artist Alley in a Facebook post. He admits the title of his post — “Goodbye, Einstein and The Artist Alley!” – may have inflamed the situation because it misled many on social media to believe the mural was being painted over.
That turned out to not be the case. The mural is still there and will not be removed, city officials said.
But by Monday morning April 3, Mayo’s staff had cleared the alley of the outdoor lounge chairs, tables, umbrellas, herb planters and string lights Mayo had bought over the years for $35,000.
Mayo said that when he became aware of the eviction deadline, he told city attorney Kimberly Rothenburg he was willing to donate the outdoor furniture to the city. That way, the public could still have a safe and comfortable place to hang out, even if Subculture or ‘Ve was no longer part of the space, he said.
“The city attorney said, ‘No, get your stuff out by Monday,’’’ he said. “I’m offering them $35,000 (worth of outdoor furniture) to beautify the alley. For them to turn that down, that's where it was so clear to me that it's just spite.’’
As Mayo spoke with a reporter outside Subculture Coffee on April 4, he watched a car on Clematis Street turn into the alley, its driver apparently thinking the empty alley was a road (as shown in the video clip below and in the photo at the top of this story).
Mayo said it was the third time that day drivers had mistaken the alley for a road. After seeing the dead-end at the north end of the alley, the drivers had to back out across the busy sidewalk and onto Clematis Street as bewildered pedestrians watched.
Over the previous eight years, Mayo said, the city never reported any problems to him about the alley. He said he has tried to ask city for an explanation, but no one at City Hall will talk to him.
ByJoeCapozzi.com asked Papadakos via email for more information about James’ decision to close the alley, including the date the city first became aware of alley uses that were in violation of the lease terms.
“At this time, I can only provide you with our written statement. This is a legal matter,’’ Papadakos wrote in a reply.
Mayo said the city started picking the alley fight with him in late March, a week before the city revoked his permit, when the city sent him a bill for $13,900 in alley rental payments the city told him he hadn’t made.
At the time, Mayo said he thought he’d made “an honest mistake.” He immediately sent a check for $13,900 to City Hall, which the city cashed.
But he said he learned a few days later, on April 4, that he had indeed been making monthly rental payments and that the city made a mistake. He is trying to get the city to refund him the $13,900 he gave them.
Artist Alley isn’t the only popular 500-block public space in the city administration’s crosshairs.
On April 3, the city sent Mayo’s staff an email denying his request to extend the weekend street closures on the 500 block through November. The last street closure will be the final weekend of April.
The block closures started in early 2020 before being postponed by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the public eased into post-pandemic norms, the 500 block blossomed into a festive public safe space with games, artists, drag queen shows, a disc jockey and bands.
Mayo has been paying the city $1,000 for each weekend block closure. The city for the first year or so paid for and posted barricades blocking traffic but later stopped, forcing Mayo to purchase, post and store his own barricades.
In denying the permit extension, the city's email said the street closures "created a burden on traffic, or neighborhood parking issues; or noise issues; or impacted on city services; or resulted in multiple or excessive citizen complaints."
Mayo said he wasn't aware of any problems until he received the city's email this past week.
“The intention has never been to have a permanent weekend closure on any block on Clematis,’’ Assistant City Administrator Armando Fana said in an email to ByJoeCapozzi.com. “In the past they have been on and off for specific events or time periods, not permanent.’’
Supporters of the 500 block are planning to attend a city commission meeting April 17 to protest the decision to end the weekend street closures.
Mayo has been at odds with James since at least since 2019 when James, then a city commissioner, ran for mayor against City Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell. Mayo supported Mitchell, a lifelong friend. James won.
Mayo and his supporters are convinced the recent closures are a direct result of Mayo’s attempt to challenge James’ bid for a second term. After the judge disqualified him from running, Mayo launched a recall petition, but that fizzled because he was unable to gather the necessary signatures.
Mayo said he hopes the city changes its mind and reopens Artist Alley and continues the weekend traffic closures on the 500 block.
He also said he is looking forward to extending his lease for the city-owned storefront that Subculture Coffee has occupied since 2014. The lease expires this fall.
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.