Nestled between Miami and Palm Beach, Coconut Creek, Florida is more than just another suburb. Money Magazine named the planned community one of the “Best Cities to Live in America,” while Movoto and NerdWallet ranked it as a Top Ten Place to Live in Florida. Home to 58,000 residents, Coconut Creek is garnering attention for its green spaces, sustainable development, and healthy lifestyles.
“The City is widely recognized as a well-planned community with a unique environmental and health consciousness, featuring an abundance of beautiful parks, greenway trails and pedestrian amenities, trees, waterways, and butterfly gardens throughout the City,” says City Manager Mary Blasi. The city’s large butterfly population has earned Coconut Creek the title Butterfly Capital of the World ®, while its forward thinking commitment to green living led the community to adopt the name City of the Future.
Until recently, however, Coconut Creek’s remarkable potential was unrecognized or underutilized. “Over the last few years we’ve really focused on creating an image for Coconut Creek because, even though it is a planned community, it was planned [to be] part of the greater Fort Lauderdale area,” says Sheila Rose, Director of Sustainable Development. In the 1980s, when city leaders first began laying out plans for Coconut Creek, they could not envision the community as anything more than a suburb to its larger neighbor. “It didn’t really have an identified character independently.”
When the community came together in 2009 to develop a ten-year plan dubbed Vision 2020, they realized that Coconut Creek could be a destination in its own right – if they could tap its underutilized assets. “It became clear that what was really unique about Coconut Creek is that we have really great natural areas and really great parks,” Ms. Rose remembers. Mayor Becky Tooley adds, “We have more green space than probably any other city.”
It was time for city leaders to roll up their sleeves and turn Coconut Creek into a community that takes full advantage of its wide-open spaces. “[During the] Vision 2020 planning all of the green issues emerged at the top,” Ms. Rose recalls. “But how do you translate those issues into actionable items?” The planners decided the first step was to establish a Greenway Master Plan. They put in a series of new trails and bicycle paths, utilizing natural areas to link the community.
But that was only the beginning. City leaders and residents also envisioned a high-density city center full of restaurants, shops, and housing. They designed the new trails to end at this imagined downtown, determined to reinvent Coconut Creek’s core. “The overall vision of that Greenway Master Plan is that all roads lead to our future MainStreet,” Ms. Rose explains.
Unlike surrounding communities, Coconut Creek actually has undeveloped land available. “We are lucky to have a vacant section of land,” says Ms. Rose. “A big section of vacant land is very hard to come by in Broward County.” Coconut Creek’s original comprehensive plan – the one developed back in the 1980s – planned to zone this vacant land as light industrial. Imagine a highway lined with billboards, car dealerships, and warehouses. Today’s city planners “wonder what they were thinking,” Ms. Rose admits. “When you pull out to a bird’s eye view, you see that land is in the middle of Coconut Creek. That ought to be downtown.” But city planners in the 1980s thought this prime real estate should support spillover from Fort Lauderdale businesses.
By 2009, the community realized that Coconut Creek could be so much more than what was originally intended. “We are not a suburb of Fort Lauderdale,” Ms. Rose insists. “We are our own town. The vision is very clear that the land shouldn’t be developed as industrial warehouse buildings to support Fort Lauderdale; the natural vision is that it becomes the center of Coconut Creek. That is what triggered this idea of a regional activity center and all of the comprehensive plan amendments that support that.”
The only catch is that Coconut Creek does not own the land that will become the city’s new downtown. “We had to take a little bit of a different approach,” Ms. Rose explains. “We can’t tell them [the landowner] what to do, but we do have the ability to regulate how it is done. So we started a little bit backwards from the traditional comprehensive plan. Instead of changing the land use and then changing the zoning and then developing the architecture, we actually developed the theme for the architecture before we changed the land use and the zoning.”
The community chose a sustainability focus for the architectural theme, rather than a particular style. “The vision is that that square mile would be the largest assembly of LEED certified buildings in the country,” Ms. Rose reports. The plan also calls for a generous amount of green space throughout the downtown area. “Green space is so important,” Ms. Tooley points out. “You’ve got to have a place to play.”
The concept for a bustling new downtown will be executed through the MainStreet Project, which has already earned the “Award of Excellence” for its Design Standards by the Florida Chapter of the American Planning Association (FAPA). The city has approved 2 million square feet of new commercial space in the area, in addition to a million square feet of office space. As many as 5,300 residential units could eventually be added as well. The city also plans to have entertainment venues along MainStreet. “I’d like to see a little museum or a place where we can have outdoor concerts,” Ms. Tooley remarks. “Something for the residents to do that is free.”
The MainStreet area is already home to the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek and the Coconut Creek Promenade, a 23-acre, open-air, upscale shopping and restaurant center. Both entities have already made strides toward Coconut Creek’s LEED goals. “The Promenade was the largest core and shell LEED certified shopping center in the country when it was built,” Ms. Rose reports, while the parking garage for the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek “has one of the most magnificent displays of green technology you will ever see. It is so amazing.” The LEED Silver certified building boasts solar shades, a sculptural biofiltration wall, and a living work of eco art. “It is a beautiful, artistic instillation.”
Coconut Creek’s development and beautification efforts are spilling over into all parts of the community. For instance, the education corridor along Coconut Creek Parkway has recently been transformed into a welcoming boulevard for residents to enjoy. “Ten years ago, Coconut Creek Parkway was just an assembly of a bunch of different schools along the road,” Ms. Rose remembers. “Now it has beautiful walkways and bus shelters, and landscaping that makes it a really unique part of Coconut Creek.”
Coconut Creek’s efforts toward sustainability and livability are attracting hip, young professionals. “We are starting to see a change in Coconut Creek with the younger demographic moving in,” Ms. Rose reports. “Bar Louie just opened last week, the World of Beer is hopping every night of the week. So it is a different vibe than it used to be.” Restaurants and bars are just a few of the new establishments flocking to Coconut Creek. A wide assortment of businesses are eager to take advantage of the community’s development plans and pro-business environment. “We are very friendly as far as permitting and helping them along the way,” Ms. Tooley reports.
Coconut Creek’s sustainable development is also garnering recognition from numerous environmental award programs. Since the 2009 vision went into effect, the Florida Green Building Coalition has recognized the city’s outstanding environmental stewardship with a Gold Certification under the Florida Green Local Government Designation Program. Coconut Creek received the highest score of all certified local governments in Broward County and the fifth highest in the State. The city is the first in the State of Florida and eleventh in the country to be certified as a “Community Wildlife Habitat”. “The City has also received the Tree City USA designation for 26 years, receiving the growth award from the Arbor Day Foundation this past year, and has received the Green Community Award and Sustainable Community Certification by the Audubon Society,” Ms. Blasi adds.
With so many opportunities for outdoor recreation, it is no wonder that Coconut Creek has also earned recognition for its healthy living. “The City is a State of Florida Surgeon General 2015 Healthy Weight Community Champion, demonstrating the City’s commitment to making Coconut Creek a healthy place to live, work, and play,” Ms. Blasi reports. In addition to providing plenty of walking and biking trails, “the City has been recognized for its best practice policies and programs to promote healthy weight and healthy lifestyles for its residents, business community, and employees.” Coconut Creek earned the Playful City USA designation for four years in a row, and the American Heart Association has recognized the City as a Gold Level, Fit-Friendly Work-site for two consecutive years.
With such a strong commitment to healthy living and sustainable development, the community’s designation as City of the Future is well founded. “Coconut Creek strives to be the “the City of the future with a personal touch” by fostering continuous quality improvement to enhance a sense of community, quality of life, and personal security,” Ms. Blasi summarizes. “The vision is now being realized with the implementation of policies and initiatives that make Coconut Creek unique, competitive, and a leader in sustainability in South Florida.”