For Keith James, the Mayor of West Palm Beach since 2019, the magnitude of how rapidly things in his city are changing hit him the year he took office. That’s when the Bristol luxury condominium on South Flagler Drive was finally completed, and buyers started moving in. Even though the building’s developers marketed the Bristol as a “Palm Beach” building, it is most definitely not in Palm Beach. It is in West Palm Beach, on a spit of land that juts into the intercoastal waterway, overlooking Palm Beach to the east and the rest of James’ booming city to its west. With the opening of the Bristol, “It became okay to move from Palm Beach to West Palm Beach,” James tells me. “That was unheard of before.”
Exhibit A was Sydell Miller, the co-founder of a beauty products company that Bristol Myers Squibb acquired in 1994. In July 2019, Miller sold La Rêverie, her nearly 85,000-square-foot oceanfront home in Palm Beach’s Billionaires Row, for $105 million—then a record for the island—and moved to the Bristol, where she had already secured a full-floor condominium for $42.56 million, then also a record price for a condominium in West Palm Beach. Miller’s decision sent tongues wagging across Palm Beach. Was one of the doyennes of Palm Beach really moving to West Palm? The house, designed by Peter Marino, also featured a formidable art and furniture collection, some of which was sold in June, at Christie’s, for $17.9 million. “She had a beautiful property in Palm Beach,” gushes one seasonal Palm Beach resident. “There were a lot of Magrittes, the most beautiful Pollock I think I’ve ever seen. But, you know, maybe it was just too big a house for one person to roam around in.”
Then came the pandemic, with billionaires flocking to Palm Beach, at least part time, and hundreds of less well to-do families decamping to West Palm Beach. According to the 2020 census—an imperfect measure of the full extent of the migration—Palm Beach County’s population grew 13 percent in a decade, to nearly 1.5 million people. That number has probably grown even more, if the supply and demand for real estate is any indication. Suddenly, Miller looked prescient. The Bristol is sold out, and construction of several surrounding buildings are underway. West Palm Beach neighborhoods, like El Cid and SoSo—South of Southern— are white hot. There are new schools, new parks, and whole neighborhoods being transformed rapidly, for better or for worse. Blade, the regional high-end helicopter and plane transportation company, recently added Westchester, New York to West Palm Beach as a shuttle route, with others to follow. (One way ticket: $3,500.) “West Palm is a glaring opportunity,” says one hedge fund manager who has relocated his family to the area. “West Palm Beach will be unrecognizable at the end of the decade.”
James believes that Palm Beach and West Palm Beach are now “joined at the hip.” When he was first elected Mayor, after serving eight years on the City Commission, he extended an “olive branch” to the island. Not only was that smart politics; making peace was also a recognition of how fast things were moving. “They get water from us, and many of their cultural offerings,” James continues. Both the Norton Museum of Art and the Kravis Center for Performing Arts are in West Palm Beach. “When they’re coming from the airport, they’ve got to go through West Palm Beach to get over to Palm Beach,” James continues, “The stronger that West Palm Beach is, and the more sound, safe, and secure that West Palm Beach is, the more attractive that Palm Beach becomes.”
But James knows the city still has plenty of problems to solve. While some neighborhoods are thriving, or at least changing rapidly thanks to an influx of families, others are still struggling economically and are falling further behind. West Palm Beach recorded 22 homicides in 2021, seven more than in 2020. (Palm Beach County had 104 confirmed homicides in 2021; the island of Palm Beach has had no murders this year.) Palm Beach had 9,245 full-time residents, accord – ing to the 2020 census, a population that increased to around 25,000 between November and April. (West Palm Beach, meanwhile, had a population of 117,000, according to the 2020 census.) Affordable housing remains a major problem in West Palm Beach—despite some progress—as home prices across the city escalate as more and more neighborhoods gentrify. This may be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to solve the lingering inequities in the county.
Best-selling author William D. Cohan reports on the ups and downs of a rapidly-developing West Palm Beach in PALMER Vol. 1, available now.