In homage to its West Coast forebear, Worth Avenue in Palm Beach is sometimes called the Rodeo Drive of Florida. Host to nearly 250 high-end retail shops, including Giorgio Armani, Neiman Marcus, Gucci, Chanel, and more, Worth Avenue is a four-block street running from the Atlantic Ocean on the east end to Lake Worth on the west end, across which is mainland Florida. The avenue’s gentrification dates back to the construction of the Everglades Club in 1918, and the Worth Avenue Association was officially established in 1938, permanently securing the area’s prestigious and lucrative role within the Palm Beach retail economy. More recently, after accommodating tens of thousands of shoppers every year for decades, Worth Avenue began to exhibit pedestrian wear and tear as well as natural deterioration caused by Florida’s tropical climate. That’s when Bridges, Marsh & Associates (BMA) got involved.
Although BMA is primarily focused on residential architecture, it also fields work in the public sector. Through its work as an architectural consultant for the town of Palm Beach, the firm came into the Worth Avenue project in 2008, when the site’s three main landlords decided an upgrade was necessary. “Between the late 1960s to early 2000s, the avenue had been deteriorating and had lost much of its magnetism,” BMA partner and principal Mark Marsh says. The firm contracted with the city and the site’s property owners to oversee a $13.5 million renovation that would replant, repave, and rebuild key sections of the half-mile stretch.
Palm Beach has a rich architectural history—predominantly residential—informed by a Mediterranean revivalist style that reflects the economic and demographic wealth of the area. The style of the shops on Worth Avenue is no different, and because BMA tends toward traditional design, one of its goals for the renovation was to rethink the infrastructure of the district to create a classic, walkable space emphasizing the beauty of the buildings.
From the start of the project, BMA sought to work closely with all the major stakeholders. “We created preliminary design concepts, through various reviews, to promote and educate the interested parties as to what the avenue could be transformed into,” Marsh says. Because the project was financed through a combination of public and private sources, the owners on the block had full participation in BMA’s design plan, but the town made the final design decisions through its board and committees.
Rather than introducing several new elements to the avenue, BMA opted for a more restorative approach. “This is a strolling type of shopping experience, so we revisited the design of the vehicle movements; increased the width of the sidewalks with tabby, shell-aggregate material; and introduced more landscaping,” Marsh says. BMA reintroduced 200 mature coconut palm trees to line the avenue, and the trees’ narrow trunks and 50- to 60-foot canopies shade the sidewalks and street without impeding storefront views. BMA also included more pedestrian seating areas along the walkways, a new clock tower on the eastern end of the avenue, and a living wall along a formerly stark section of the avenue—all while preserving extant parking and drive space.
Renovations were completed in 2010 on a tightened deadline during the off-season tourist months, when construction would be least likely to drive away shoppers. “The avenue was [like] a beautiful girl in a tattered dress,” Marsh says, “and we’ve been able to make her clothes beautiful again.” ABQ