November 29, 2004

A Wonderful Place to Wander

Nearly 50 years ago, in the days before regular folks had air conditioning, the Intracoastal Waterway lapped at the shoreline south of Southern Boulevard.

With few houses and no streetlights, it was a good place to watch "the submarine races," said 40-year resident Gleason Stambaugh Jr.

Kids could run down the hill and cast a fishing line into Lake Worth without crossing South Flagler Drive. There was no South Flagler Drive beyond Southern.

Today, the winding 2-mile stretch of road along the lakefront, with its flanking bicycle paths and wide sidewalk, is part of the scenic waterfront that is one of West Palm Beach's best features.

"It's a beautiful walk," said Rachel Dzuris, who joins her mother, Janice, nearly every work day for a fast-paced walk beside the sea wall. They work at the Lighthouse for the Blind, several blocks away.

Walkers, joggers, in-line skaters, bicyclists and every breed of dog enjoy the sparkling lake, the view of Palm Beach mansions and the cooling breeze. Royal palms line the sidewalk. Distinctive Art in Public Places benches offer an occasional respite. Be sure to follow the sign's advice, "Leash and clean up," or you probably will get a scolding from a resident.

"I enjoy every second of this beautiful walk," said Biray Yersu, a resident of nearby Washington Road for 21 years. "I want everyone to come out and enjoy nature."

The city officially calls it the Flagler Waterfront Walking Park, except much of it doesn't belong to the city - in particular, the grassy section east of the sidewalk. Just ask any of the 65 to 70 landowners across Flagler.

Quirky arrangement

"Although we have a park there, if (landowners) wanted, I guess they could put fences up," said Stambaugh, 77, who takes a daily pre- dawn walk along the waterfront with his white German shepherd, Cleo.

Not that Stambaugh, a former president of the chamber of commerce, is suggesting that.

Gail Levine, who lives on Flagler a few blocks south of Southern, said, "The idea is to enhance the street so that everyone who wants to can enjoy a beautiful view."

A bit of real estate wheeling and dealing in the 1950s created the quirky arrangement.

West Palm Beach officials wanted to extend the road to the Lake Worth line, at the urging of upland landowners. The area south of Southern was the last piece of a grand plan to extend Flagler along the length of the city waterfront.

In order to avoid eminent domain court battles with reluctant landowners, the city bought 60- and 80-foot wide strips for $1, but left an eastern sliver, or at least the waterfront rights, in the hands of the landowners.

That's why 32 private docks, with gates and locks, still line the length of the avenue. Only a bit of beach at the eastern end of Summa Road remains without a sea wall.

The bulkhead and sea wall were built in fits and starts and weren't completed until the late 1960s. South Flagler residents remain protective of their turf, determined not to see it become a throughway or full-fledged park.

"It's a vista, not a recreational area," said a longtime Flagler Drive resident.

South-enders haven't always agreed on their goals for Flagler. The city struggled for permission from individual owners in 1991 to replace the crumbling sea wall with a $4.1 million project that also realigned the street and added palm trees.

Neighborhood changing

Residents were divided over an earlier plan to install shady black olive trees. Their canopy would ruin the view of avenue residents. Royal palms were chosen instead. But some still objected, saying there were too many; they also frowned upon too many streetlights, which would only encourage sightseers.

"We look so pristine on the outside, but there is a lot of different stuff underneath," Levine said.

Mayor Joel Daves thought he had south-end support in 2000 to create a promenade that moved the street slightly closer to homes and put the bike paths together on the east side of the road. But 300 people appeared at a community meeting to successfully scrap the plan.

"The difficulty is you do a project and you think you've gotten a good pulse of the community," said City Administrator Ed Mitchell. "Then you find out you didn't talk to this or that group of people. There have been verbal fistfights over the years."

Even now there's a rivalry between the long-established Southside Neighborhood Association and the newly founded South End Neighborhood Association.

Not everyone was pleased that the Marathon of the Palm Beaches blocked the street for several hours two weeks ago. But a group of South End men in hula skirts and coconut bras won the Wacky Water Station award for the station it sponsored at Mile 8. The $1,000 prize will help the group attract new membership.

"It turned out OK. They weren't here very long before," said longtime resident Dabney Moore, who originally was skeptical. "They took the barricades away so we could get out about about 10 a.m."

The neighborhood is turning over. Fifty-year-old bungalows are making way for two-story, Mediterranean revival homes with barrel tile roofs. Flagler lots are valued at $1 million, without a house.

"They're tearing down the old houses and squeezing houses into every inch of property they can," Stambaugh lamented.

Young families have moved in to mix with the older south-end residents, attracted partly because Olive Avenue has been remade into a residential street.

The new neighborhood group is investigating a state road beautification grant at Southern Boulevard that could dress up what resident and attorney Dan Thomas calls the gateway to the south end.

A cleanup project at Summa Beach may be in the works. "After all, it's the only beach in West Palm Beach," said Thomas, laughing.

"We have such a mixed bag down here," Levine said. "But we have a good relationship with the city and I think super-great stuff will happen here."

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