By Larry Barszewski

Moving the headquarters of Delray Beach’s police and fire departments could create new possibilities for redeveloping West Atlantic Avenue between Interstate 95 and Swinton Avenue, officials say, the latest idea in a difficult, decades-long effort to transform the stagnant downtown gateway.

Not only is the stretch of West Atlantic east of I-95 the most significant corridor into the city’s bustling downtown, it is also the major route to and from the city’s beaches and oceanfront communities.

A conglomeration of major governmental and public structures — a mix that includes the Delray Beach Public Library and the city’s tennis complex, the South County Courthouse and the police and fire buildings — has created a dead-zone barrier for pedestrians and visitors, dividing the downtown to the east from the neighborhoods to the west.

But a recently approved $100 million public safety bond referendum could change that. City commissioners at an Oct. 17 workshop said using the money to build a new police station farther west on Atlantic could open the Police Department’s current location to a residential or commercial development that would bring more life to a West Atlantic Avenue better connected to the downtown. And the same idea goes for the fire headquarters, they said.

“This is the perfect opportunity for us to really kind of re-envision what’s happening on West Atlantic,” Mayor Shelly Petrolia said. “I would love to see, personally, West Atlantic be almost like the destination people turn off to before they even get to East Atlantic,” that it become a stretch “so unique and so interesting” with lots of places for people to go and have things to do.

Anything that would be done, however, would be in the context of plans, developed with community input, that are in place and being updated. One of those is The Set Transformation Plan, so named because the West Atlantic area is collectively known as The Set, encompassing neighborhoods between I-95 and Swinton Avenue from Lake Ida Road south to Southwest 10th Street.

“I just want to make sure that we are paying attention to what the residents wanted, the residents that live in that area,” Commissioner Angela Burns said. “And that whatever we do will engage the people that live in that area: Housing that matches the income, not necessarily looking exactly like downtown, but bringing those kinds of businesses to this area as well — family restaurants, coffee shops, nice green space. The people in this area deserve that.”

The moves would also allow for development connected to Northwest and Southwest Fifth avenues, the historic business district for the city’s Black community, a business corridor that Petrolia said had the potential of becoming a Pineapple Grove-type offshoot to West Atlantic.

Vice Mayor Ryan Boylston said moving the police and fire stations could make a dramatic positive difference in developing the corridor.

“If we’re able to do that, that’s five uninterrupted blocks without any city facilities. It’s two blocks with the courthouse and library, and then it’s five — on both sides of the street — it would be five uninterrupted blocks with Fifth right in the middle. I think that could be transformational,” Boylston said.

It has been 35 years since the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency first put forth a plan — widely panned by nearby residents who weren’t consulted about what they would like to see happen on West Atlantic — that would have dislocated hundreds of families living within a block of the avenue to make way for commercial developments.

Over the ensuing years, progress has been made, with residents playing an active role. Vacant lots along the avenue were spruced up, and gateway art installations near I-95 welcome visitors. Likely the most significant redevelopment change to West Atlantic has been the construction of the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott, in the 900 block of West Atlantic Avenue.

More needs to be done. Petrolia said she sees people bicycling on West Atlantic, but lamented, “They’re not bicycling to something. They’re bicycling through it.”

Most recently, the city has been discussing what to do with land its Community Redevelopment Agency has acquired in the 600, 700 and 800 blocks of West Atlantic Avenue. Instead of using the land for one big project, commissioners are discussing making it available for smaller projects.

“We’re saying, we’re open to whatever’s best. We’ll move our things around accordingly,” Boylston said.

Commissioners said they still wanted the police and fire departments to remain in the corridor, with Boylston suggesting they might make more sense next to and across from the Fairfield. “I think it’s absolutely worth a conversation that there would be a better location for those two stations,” Boylston said.

The library and courthouse weren’t part of the discussion because they are not city-owned.

“The ones [with] the potential for land swapping or relocating would just be the police I think first, because of the bond funds, and then the fire. I don’t think there’s funds for that at this point, but that may be a future idea,” CRA Executive Director Renee Jadusingh said.

Deputy Vice Mayor Rob Long said if the two headquarters were moved farther west on the corridor, they could be designed so that they had passive parks or light commercial use directly on the avenue that would improve the pedestrian experience.

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