CityPlace: New 'distraction' for Fla. county

Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers stayed within U.S. borders on a recent trip to West Palm Beach, Fla., but did spot palm trees and tropical drinks. Here is her report:

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Who doesn't remember hanging chads, pregnant ballots and recounts?

Despite the area's very visible media presence last November in the eye of the presidential election storm, humor is alive and well in Palm Beach County.

T-shirts emblazoned with the ballot maze are offered in all the souvenir stores, but there's far more happening here these days than last fall's fiasco.

Palm Beach, of course, has its island aura, with seaside castles, grand hotels and gold-plated neighborhoods.

However, the county also features West Palm Beach, located on the mainland across the Intracoastal Waterway.

West Palm is no longer just a country cousin to its blue-blooded neighbor. It's a happening place, filled in part with visitors crossing the waterway from Palm Beach.

The catalyst for this excitement is CityPlace, a 55-acre, $500 million mixed-site development project situated in the heart of what once was a decaying downtown area.

I'd heard about CityPlace, which opened last October.

To see it is quite another thing, as to visit it requires a plan of sorts.

I took the free shuttle on a Saturday morning from Worth Avenue in Palm Beach to the $3.5 million fountain that marks the epicenter of CityPlace.

Trolley cars link CityPlace with the five-block Clematis Street District of West Palm Beach. This is no ordinary fountain -- 186 jets and 200 lights illuminate a three-minute automated water show, accompanied by Strauss waltzes. This show is even more spectacular at night when the lights can be seen.

Florida's drought and water restrictions affect even fountains, so the show is now hourly instead of every 30 minutes.

Visitors who arrive at CityPlace can park free in nearby multistoried garages.

Trolleys loop through CityPlace every five minutes, heading for Clematis Street a few blocks away.

This ride is free and very popular. Ridership on the three trolley shuttles spurted to 67,896 passengers in March, surpassing the initial projection of 35,000 in the first year of operation.

Italy's hill country architecture was the inspiration for the overall design of CityPlace and is seen in its wall fountains, grand staircases, upper galleries, earth-toned residences, ivy-covered apartment balconies and open-air plazas.

CityPlace was built in 22 months from what had been a landscape of weed-filled, vacant lots surrounded by broken chain-link fences, shuttered storefronts, shuffling drifters and gaping potholes.

These streets are now paved, cobbled, free of litter and named for flowers and herbs.

With an architectural styel reminiscent of the Paris Opera House, the Muvico movie complex is a popular attraction at CityPlace. Its 20 theaters, gourmet concessions, lounges and babysitting facilities put a new spin on going to the movies. What I saw was a sensory delight -- lighting fixtures inspired by the lanterns that illuminate Venice; pedestrian-only brick streets; landscaping and fountains; town homes and artists' lofts with Tuscan facades; dozens of restaurants and cafes, and retail stores circling open-air plazas with tree-lined walkways and benches.

The centerpiece of the main square is the former First United Methodist Church, dating from 1926.

The three-story building was restored for $6 million and reopened as the Harriet Himmel Gilman Theater for the Performing Arts.

By noon on the day of my visit, the entire place was jumping.

Families jammed the fountain plaza for a free concert; vendors sold fresh orange juice and double-scoop ice cream cones, and visitors sipped coffee at outdoor cafes.

At FAO Schwarz, one of the development's high-profile anchor tenants, adults streamed in the front door as fast as their kids, who were drawn by the giant teddy bear stationed at the entrance.

I saw other retail brands I recognized -- such as Restoration Hardware, capped by a weathervane sculpture; Pottery Barn, and Barnes & Noble -- side by side with gourmet markets, restaurants, European boutiques and name-brand apparel stores.

Then I saw the movie theater.

No, that's the wrong phrase. Muvico is actually a 20-theater cinema complex, contained in a building whose architectural style resembles elements of the Paris Opera House.

There's a supervised playroom for children so their parents can see a movie; several restaurants and lounges, and five premier theaters with reserved seats and bar and meal services.

All this along with miles of flocked drapes, marbled balustrades, vaulted ceilings with pastel murals, a four-story atrium and valet parking.

The concessions concourse offers popcorn shrimp, cheese popcorn, quesadillas, curly fries, chicken breasts, salads and international coffees.

This is definitely not a Milk Dud kind of place -- just like CityPlace is not a shopping mall.

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