WEST PALM BEACH--FLORIDA'S NEWEST HOT SPOT
By Si Liberman
(Si Liberman is a renowned travel and feature writer)
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – It doesn’t have a bathing beach or a five star hotel, but suddenly this city of 82,000 is rivaling South Beach and Ft. Lauderdale as a major destination and cultural center.
Massive downtown redevelopment still in progress has produced a $600 million showplace entertainment/shopping/residential complex and turned nearby Clematis Street, the city’s virtually abandoned ghostly, historic shopping hub, into a five-block, palm tree-lined section of trendy restaurants, jazz and rock joints, outdoor cafes, bars, art galleries and an intimate modern theater featuring off-Broadway type shows.
The long depressed urban Palm Beach County seat has come alive, and Donald Trump has been quoted in People magazine as describing Clematis as “the hottest street in South Florida.”
It’s where the immodest billionaire promoter has put his name, bucks and prestige on twin 30-story, downtown condominium towers overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway, the town of Palm Beach and the Atlantic Ocean. As an added entitlement of the 400 members of his Palm Beach Mar-a-Lago Club, he’s built a 241-acre, $30 million golf course in the city adjacent to the Palm Beach International Airport and recently plunked down $43 million to purchase a 43,000 square foot mansion across the Intracoastal waterway in Palm Beach.
Within a 15-minute drive from downtown and across any one of three bridges can lead to public bathing beaches in Palm Beach and Lake Worth, the city’s coastal neighbors, and its burgeoning international airport. Minutes away, too, are the Port of Palm Beach with its new state of the art cruise terminal and accessibility to daily gambling cruise excursions and ferry service to Freeport, Grand Bahama, an in-town greyhound racetrack, science center and zoo, Palm Beach’s chi chi Worth Avenue with its array of international designer shops and multi-million-dollar, wall- and shrub-shrouded Mediterranean-style beachfront castles.
Impetus for the city’s reincarnation came in 1992 when the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, a $68 million glass and steel gem, opened. Named after the late Palm Beach philanthropist Raymond F. Kravis, it replaced a neglected neighborhood of shuttered and broken buildings and weeded lots near the heavily-trafficked intersection of Interstate 95 and Okeechobee boulevard, bringing with it an impressive lineup of Tony-award winning Broadway road shows, celebrity entertainers and internationally-acclaimed performing artists. A $31 million addition to the three-stage showplace for young performers and artists was completed in 2003.
The untra-modern, fountain-adorned, round entertainment palace is also the home of the Palm Beach Pops Orchestra and its multi-talented conductor, Bob Lappin, a gifted pianist and Florida Atlantic University’s 2004 Cultural Leader of the Year honoree. Across the street an $80 million-plus, 350,000 square foot convention center able to seat 2,500 for dinner opened last January. And next door construction is expected to begin soon on a $300 million hotel/condominium complex. And within walking distance there’s the Norton Museum which last year completed a $20-million-plus addition, making the art museum Florida’s largest and establishing West Palm Beach as a major cultural center.
Immediately east of the Kravis Center a 55-acre, European-style open air shopping plaza and family entertainment center called CityPlace (CQ) debuted four years ago. Amidst a spectacular, illuminated dancing fountain are palm tree-lined walkways, dozens of specialty shops, a Macy’s department store, 9 restaurants, a concert/exhibition hall, 20-screen movie theater, more than 500 condominium and rental units and free garage parking for 3,000 cars.
A free 10 minute ride in an open air vintage-style trolley on wheels connects CityPlace (CQ) to Clematis Street, the city’s hip downtown area. On almost any day you’ll see young pedal-pushing entrepreneurs wheeling tourists around town in bicycle-pulling carriages.
At night, the street rocks. It’s a night clubber’s feast with places like the Bliss, known for its VIP rooms. And there’s the Respectable Street Café, a grungy bar with psychedelic wall murals, that’s blossomed into one of the area’s most popular live music venues. At the Monkey Club, a tacky, Caribbean-inspired, 7,500 square foot dance club, a subdued version of wet T-shirt contests take place, surprisingly, is often jammed with well-dressed revelers.
On Thursday nights, there are free concerts by the area’s top rock, jazz, blues and reggae bands in front of the city library fountain at the east end of Clematis Street.
To cope with a nasty parking problem, Clematis merchants have been testing a tip only valet service. Vehicles are placed in parking garages on other streets. You can avoid the usual night-time $8 to $10 fees at private downtown parking lots, though, by leaving your car in one of CityPlace’s four free parking garages and hopping the trolley shuttle over to Clematis.
Meanwhile, three downtown boutique hotels are on drawing boards, and the city’s largest hotel, the 379-room Marriott near the Kravis Center and CityPlace recently completed a $5 million facelift. The hotel is within walking distance of a chock-a-block group of antique emporiums on Dixie Highway.
Palm Beach County leads the state in growth. Its population has quadrupled to 1.1 million in 30 years, averaging nearly 3,000 new residents a month. That plus the seasonal influx of tourists inspired the urgency and ingenuity that led to the metamorphosis of this 110-year-old city – an amazing metamorphosis that continues with no end in sight with a half-dozen high rise, luxury condominium buildings under construction.