Longboat Key will be one of more than 30 chapters in a book tentatively titled “Smart Growth: Master-Planned Communities Developed by Chuck Cobb.”
Currently, the SWA Group, a practice of landscape architects, urban designers and planners, is working on a book that will detail each of the 30-plus new towns and master-planned communities developed under the direction of Charles “Chuck” Cobb, who served as CEO of Arvida Corp. from 1972 through 1987. Devoting a chapter to each community, the book will rank each according to how closely it came to its original plans.
For Cobb, near the top of that list would be Weston and Boca Raton. The South Florida town of Weston, west of Fort Lauderdale, has grown to a population of 65,000 with parks, good schools and homes that, at the time of development, sold from $100,000 townhouses to a $5 million mansion owned by former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino.
Boca Raton, which has a higher price point, developed with great vibrancy, Cobb said. Also near the top of that list would be Coto de Caza in Rancho, Calif., which Cobb says has culture, beautiful landscaping and is home to more than 30,000 manufacturing jobs.
Longboat Key will probably rank closer to the middle of the list. Cobb says he would give the island an overall grade of a “B” or maybe a “B-minus.”
When it comes to factors such as landscaping, natural beauty, quality of life and architecture, the island gets an “A,” he says. The Longboat Key Town Commission and Key property owners have been good stewards, Cobb said.
“The beaches are as beautiful as any,” he said during a visit Monday to Longboat Key. “The quality of the buildings and the landscaping are also very high.”
When it comes to community, culture and family dynamics, Cobb gives Longboat Key a “C.”
“We were hopeful that it would be a community with families and destination visitors,” he says. “That was our vision.”
Look magazine dubbed Arthur Vining Davis the “world’s fastest spender.”
It was 1957, and the 89-year-old mogul, then general manager of Aluminum Corporation of America (Alcoa) had purchased farmland in Palm Beach County for $75 an acre and transformed part of the land into the Palm Yacht and Country Club. One year earlier, Davis had purchased 1,500 acres of land, including the Boca Raton Hotel and Club for $22.5 million. According to Gary R. Mormino’s “Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Florida,” the purchase was then the biggest real-estate deal in Florida history.
Davis retired from Alcoa in 1958 to focus on his Florida real-estate investments. That year, he incorporated Arvida Corp., combining the first two letters of his first, middle and last names to form the company’s name.
In 1959, Arvida paid an estimated $13.5 million when he purchased 2,000 acres that included the southern half of Longboat Key, most of Lido Key and all of Bird, Otter and Coon keys from the John Ringling estate.
Following Davis’ death in 1962, his heirs sold his 59% stake in Arvida to Pennsylvania Co., a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which later merged with the New York Central to form the Penn Central Railroad.
Throughout the late 1960s, Arvida’s land holdings had virtually no management. Only a small portion of the land had been developed.
A 1988 Palm Beach Post article, which featured a look back at the first 30 years of Arvida’s history, describes Penn Central as “mired in its own financial malaise” during the late 1960s and states that the company “did little to energize its newly acquired real-estate assets.”
In 1970, Penn Central filed for bankruptcy, one of the largest filings in U.S. history. In an attempt to resurrect the company, its officials began to look at its land holdings, considering the idea of developing and managing residential communities.
Cobb, who holds an MBA from Stanford University and had developed communities in Arizona and California, was recruited by a headhunting firm to lead Arvida. Cobb planned to bring Arvida into the business of developing communities.
At the time, community development existed, but mostly in the form of installment sales, in which developers sold land for little money down without showing that they had the necessary infrastructure to support the communities.
Cobb wanted to build communities that would be sustainable, with sufficient water supplies, sewage and roads. He also wanted to build communities with culture, amenities and educational opportunities.
Longboat Key had few of its current developments when Cobb first visited the island in 1972. Country Club Shores was there, having been developed in the mid-to-late 1960s, as did Sands Point. The Longboat Key Golf Club was located where the Longboat Key Club and Resort’s Islandside golf course stands today. Most residences, hotels, restaurants and shops were located at the north end.
During his first year with Arvida, Cobb worked with Gov. Reubin Askew to create the Environmental Land and Water Management Act of 1972, which strengthened Florida law to require that developers show that they could provide the necessary infrastructure for what they built.
Arvida sold its land holdings south of St. Armands Circle during Cobb’s early years with the company. He exercised caution on Longboat Key, knowing that residents and commissioners were concerned with traffic and seemed hesitant to increase tourism on the island.
During his 16 years at Arvida, the company developed multiple condominiums on the island, including Seaplace, Longboat Key Towers, Beachplace, Inn on the Beach, Fairway Bay, Sunset Beach, Grand Bay and hundreds of single-family homes in Bay Isles. Putting single-family units on Bay Isles, rather than focusing exclusively on condominiums, represented a downzoning from the land’s maximum density, but Cobb thought that single-family housing was essential to draw families.
In 1980, Arvida negotiated to bring Publix to Avenue of the Flowers to serve as an anchor for a high-end shopping center. The project was met with protests from residents who worried that mainland residents would cross the bridge to shop on the island.
In retrospect, Cobb wishes he had made provisions for family-friendly features such as a school site, more parks and a larger public library. Unlike most other communities Arvida developed, he didn’t make those provisions because he wasn’t sure they would work on Longboat or were wanted.
Cobb left Arvida in 1987, when President Ronald Reagan invited him to serve as undersecretary of commerce.
But he said that he is mostly pleased with the way that Longboat Key has since developed.
“My only disappointment is that they have not encouraged families to live there,” he says. “Secondly, I’m disappointed that there wasn’t a greater encouragement of destination visitors and encouraging people to rent their homes.”
He said that other communities have found that embracing families and destination tourists makes for a “more dynamic” community.
Cobb said that he thinks the Key Club’s $400 million Islandside redevelopment plan will be good for the island, saying that additional villas and condominiums are needed.
“People who buy into a community usually stayed there one or two times before and got to know the place,” he says. “But if there are few destination hotel opportunities, they aren’t exposed to the place.”
But he cautions that that alone can’t revitalize Longboat Key.
“One hotel doesn’t make a destination,” he says.
He says that turning around The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort and attracting other resort hotel units are important. Attracting families is also key to a vibrant community, he says.
He points out that the many vacant storefronts in Avenue of the Flowers are the result of how the Key developed.
“When you don’t have destination resorts and don’t have families, you don’t have the commercial (developments) that are normal byproducts,” he says. “Hotels need competing commercial developments and restaurants.”
He says that Longboaters travel to Sarasota for amenities such as symphony or opera. When he began to develop Longboat Key, he hoped the end result would be more families and a destination resort town with hotels, restaurants and businesses.
But when it comes to Longboat Key, Cobb says the last chapter hasn’t been written. Asked if he thinks that Longboat Key could transform into a resort destination, he responds with a single word:
Then he says:
“There’s still time.”
Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected]
Chuck Cobb holds an MBA from Stanford University and was an alternate member of the 1960 U.S. Olympic team for 110m high hurdles. A former U.S. Navy officer, he has served as CEO of Arvida Corp., Disney Development and Kaiser Resorts and is currently CEO and senior managing director of the investment firm Cobb Partners Ltd. in Miami.
Cobb served as undersecretary and assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Commerce during the Reagan/Bush administration and as ambassador to Iceland during the Bush/Quayle administration. He has also served on the boards of nine publicly traded corporations and multiple private corporate boards.
Cobb has been married for 51 years to Sue McCourt Cobb, a fellow Stanford graduate, attorney and author who detailed her 1988 attempt to become the first American woman to reach the Mount Everest summit in her book, “The Edge of Everest.” She is the former U.S. ambassador to Jamaica and former Florida secretary of state.
The Cobbs have two sons, Christian and Tobin, and seven grandchildren.