Crossing Okeechobee Boulevard: Tourism leaders renew call for pedestrian bridge at convention center
Updated: Dec 29, 2021
PALM BEACH COUNTY tourism leaders are determined to revive a long batted-around idea that’s a no-brainer to some but controversial to others — building a pedestrian bridge across Okeechobee Boulevard at the Palm Beach County Convention Center.
“It's been talked about for a long time with very little action, and that has gotten frustrating to a lot of us,” Jim Bronstien, a Tourist Development Council board member, said in an interview.
“It just seems like an obvious thing that needs to happen. It shouldn't be that big of a controversial topic.’’
Yet debate has followed the idea of a pedestrian bridge or tunnel since the convention center first opened in 2004, mainly over concerns that pedestrian bridges are expensive eyesores that rarely achieve their objectives. The last place West Palm Beach city leaders want to see an overpass is at their downtown gateway.
But advocates of the bridge, which would span the busy boulevard’s eight lanes less than a mile east of Interstate 95, got a series of small but significant boosts during a discussion at the most recent TDC governing board meeting Dec. 9.
County Administrator Verdenia Baker told members she had initiated new talks about the idea a week earlier with West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James. The previous mayor, Jeri Muoio, who left office in 2019, opposed the idea.
The board agreed to send a formal letter initiating new discussions about the overpass to the city and Related Cos, which owns the shopping area north of Okeechobee Boulevard called The Square.
City Commissioner Kelly Shoaf, a TDC board member, said she would ask city officials to consider discussing the idea at a city commission meeting in early 2022. If the city agrees to schedule the discussion, Baker asked that the county and Related be invited to make presentations.
The TDC board agreed to keep the pedestrian bridge on the agendas of their monthly meetings in 2022 to make sure the idea doesn’t stall as it has in the past.
“We want to keep (discussions) going and get it done and get it across the finish line,’’ Bronstien said. “Let’s not wait until tragedy strikes.’’
While those developments may offer a jolt to get the project going, significant obstacles remain, in particular resistance from opponents wary about such a costly endeavor.
“It will be a controversial issue in the city of West Palm Beach,’’ Shoaf said after Bronstien broached the topic at the end of the board’s Dec. 9 meeting.
“Why would somebody not want it, in one sentence?’’ Bronstien asked.
“In their mind,’’ Shoaf replied, “a pedestrian pass is what you see going from a hospital parking lot to a hospital and they don't want to see that up over Okeechobee Boulevard.’’
Tourism officials say they don’t want that kind of bridge, either. The pedestrian bridge they envision at Okeechobee Boulevard would be an eye-catching artistic statement.
“Make this a unique, attractive connector, not a mundane overpass like the ones we see between hospital parking lots and hospitals. Make it a unique piece that really creates an entry way into the cities of West Palm Beach and Palm Beach,’’ said Jorge Pesquera, chief executive officer of Discover the Palm Beaches, the county's tourism marketing arm
If done the right way, the pedestrian bridge could offer another reason to visit West Palm Beach, said David Lawrence, president of the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County.
“The opportunity for this to be a piece of public art could really sway a lot of minds. Everybody talks about the Chicago bean. This could be our bean,’’ he said, referring to Cloud Gate, the formal name of a popular sculpture that anchors a downtown Chicago park.
One thing both sides can agree on: A pedestrian bridge, even one that’s not a grand piece of art, would cost millions. And that raises the question not only about who would pay for it but whether that money should be spent on less-expensive ways to create a safe crossing.
“I'm just shocked to hear this proposal is coming back because I thought they studied it to death and came to the conclusion that it doesn't make sense,’’ said John Renne, director of Florida Atlantic University's Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions, who has consulted with the city on the project.
“It seems like they want this silver bullet magic solution and unfortunately it would be, in my opinion, a huge waste of money.’’
Although the idea of a circular bridge with several entrances along the boulevard was broached as late as 2015, the most affordable option would likely start and end in one location, which wouldn’t completely solve the problem, either.
A better solution is to improve the at-grade crossing, said Raphael Clemente, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, a taxing district that promotes the downtown.
Okeechobee Boulevard “was designed like a freeway. That’s the problem,’’ he said. “There are solutions that could tame the road.’’
Traffic signals could be adjusted to give pedestrians more opportunities and more time to cross. Lanes could be reduced or narrowed without causing congestion. The sidewalks parallel to the boulevard could be enhanced with shade trees to create more of a pedestrian environment.
“A bridge works well where you don't climb because you can use the natural topography to your advantage,’’ Renne said, referring to flat footbridges above roads that slope down and under.
“In this case, it’s at the crest of a hill. That ridge creates the opposite conditions.’’
Renne and his FAU students created an animation for an underpass beneath Okeechobee from the north end of Howard Park to the Kravis Center.
But that doesn’t solve the problem because most of the pedestrian traffic is nearly a quarter-mile to the east at Rosemary Avenue, the entrance to the shopping district originally called CityPlace and now known as The Square.
For example, if it is built from the front of The Hilton, the hotel connected to the convention center to the south, it would end at Rosemary Avenue. But pedestrians who want to cross at Sapodilla Avenue a block to the west, from the convention center to the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, might be inclined to just use the at-grade crosswalk instead of walking one block east to use a bridge at Rosemary.
“Humans by nature are creatures of convenience. It's not likely people will choose to go up a staircase or an elevator or an escalator to cross a road and come back down on the other side,’’ Clemente said.
Nearly 40,700 vehicles a day, an average of about one every few seconds, pass the convention center’s north entrance at Rosemary Avenue, according to a 2020 convention center expansion study, “far outpacing convention district intersections in markets such as Nashville, (TN), San Jose, (CA), and Tampa, (FL).’’
Clemente knows firsthand about the road’s dangers. In 2013, he was riding his bicycle with his 7-year-old daughter on the back, headed to a performance of “Mary Poppins” at the Kravis Center when they were struck by a car making an illegal U-turn. He injured his knee, requiring surgery and his daughter broke her left arm.
And more recently, on Dec. 12, a 4-year-old boy who police said “darted away” from his family was struck by a hit-and-run driver speeding down the boulevard near the convention center as a traffic light was changing color. The boy’s condition has improved and police concluded the driver was not at fault.
The area is definitely in need of safety enhancements, Clemente said, but a pedestrian bridge is not the solution.
“What the pedestrian bridge idea says is, we are prioritizing cars over people,’’ he said, “so we’re going to inconvenience people by making them climb up and over this overpass rather than just saying, ‘Let’s design our cities around people.’’’
Tourism leaders also embrace the concept of designing cities around people. But they consider a pedestrian bridge part of that concept because, among other things, the safety measures it would offer, especially for senior citizens and out-of-town visitors intimidated by the prospect of walking across Okeechobee Boulevard.
“Our meeting planner customers are saying to us again and again and again, ‘If you don't build something, we can't come. We won't come,’’’ Pesquera said at the December TDC meeting.
“I may add, our residents want this. People from Flamingo Park to get to the other side have to get through gyrations,’’ he said.
Those comments drew a polite rebuke from City Commissioner Shoaf.
“It’s not all your residents that want it,’’ she said.
“Respectfully, I don't think your meetings (clients) are saying, ‘We are not coming to West Palm Beach again.’’
Pesquera reminded the board that a convention center district expansion study, released in 2020 after comments from stakeholders, called for a pedestrian bridge.
“We have a customer advisory board that told us on a number of occasions: Build the pedestrian overpass because that's a critically important piece to book a piece of business in here,’’ he said.
“I think there's something to be said about listening to our customers and getting this thing accomplished because it’s been a long time and now's the time to make it work.’’
Making it work will take a collaboration of several stakeholders. The state owns the boulevard. The county operates the traffic lights. The city and Related Cos. own parts of the median.
It might be a particularly thorny issue for Related, which, in its original CityPlace pitch in 1996, proposed integrating the convention center hotel into CityPlace on the north side of the street. Tourism officials argued that the hotel needed to be on the south side of Okeechobee attached to the proposed convention center.
“It is probably one of the most important capital improvement projects we could be doing. Until you get everybody in the same room, it’s not going to advance,’’ TDC board member Don Dufresne said in an interview.
“You can spend money on a feasibility study but I think everybody can agree it's something that's needed. I'd rather skip the feasibility study and say, ‘What kind of designs are we looking at and what are the costs of construction and where is the best location?’’’
But if all stakeholders come together for a meeting, they should consider all options, including ones that don’t include a bridge, Renne said.
“We really do need to solve the Okeechobee problem and we haven't really been willing to do it. We just kind of keep recycling, in my opinion, bad ideas,’’ he said.
“We need to roll up our sleeves and do it right and find what are the best solutions to this problem.’’
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning newspaper reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, most at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.