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Downtown West Palm Beach

In 1984 the City of West Palm Beach formed a CRA to address issues in the City Center (the expanded downtown) and the Northwood/Pleasant City subdivisions. Neither residents nor city officials could have then anticipated the tremendous changes coming to the western downtown area.

As a developer in northern Virginia, Henry John Rolfs, Sr. (1908-1994) adopted 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 amassed over 4,000 acres.

With David Paladino, Rolfs developed a plan in 1986 for a project called Downtown/Uptown. Over eight months, they quietly bought over 300 properties covering 26 blocks and 77 acres in downtown West Palm Beach. The developers tried to interest the Guinness Book of Records in their feat, as analysts knew of no other private urban redevelopment with as many sellers and parcels.

After the partners had received government approvals and razed everything on the site except the former First United Methodist Church, the 1990s recession destroyed their plans. Parcel by parcel, creditors claimed the land; Rolfs and Paladino managed to donate five acres for the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts. Rolfs lost his $54 million investment and half of his western lands, which others developed into the subdivisions of Riverwalk, Andros Isle, and Montclair Lakes.

With the help of the power of eminent domain and a multi-million-dollar loan, the City of West Palm Beach, under Mayor Nancy Graham, bought the Downtown/Uptown site and created a competition among national developers. The result was CityPlace, which opened in 2000; the 11,000-square-foot 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. The city honored Henry Rolfs by placing a statue of him in the median of Okeechobee Boulevard next to the Kravis Center.

A current revitalization of the waterfront in downtown relocated the city library, creating a view corridor from Clematis Street to the Intracoastal Waterway, where a wide public pier invites the community to gather.

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