December 20, 2018
Keith Williams Talks Through His Award-Winning Landscaping at the Royal Poinciana Plaza
With thoughtful layout and lush greenery, Nievera Williams brings the 1950s era structure back to life
“It really was a revitalization project,” says Keith Williams of the Royal Poinciana Plaza, a John Volk–designed retail destination in Palm Beach, Florida, that has, in the span of a few years, gone from run-down ex-mall to bustling destination with offerings like beloved the French café Sant Ambroeus and chic bookseller Assouline. This fall, the Palm Beach civic association gave the revitalized property a “Beautification award,” recognizing the success of the revamped plaza in a town where that reception certainly wasn’t guaranteed. The plaza holds a special place in the hearts of locals. After much success in the 1950s and ’60s as a new kind of shopping plaza—replete with a theater and dining options—it fell into disrepair in the late 1970s. “Over the years, several developers wanted to tear it down, but its neighbors put up a fight,” says Williams, one half of landscape firm Nievera Williams and also a Palm Beach resident himself. In 2014, Samantha David and her development company, Up Markets, began plans to revitalize the plaza as a modern retail destination. Nievera Williams joined the project the following year. Sensitive to the special place the plaza held in the hearts of its neighbors, the landscape architects were careful to ensure that their plans did justice to the original design—and pleased locals (who would, after all, be the plaza’s customers). “We spent a lot of time talking to the community, meeting with commissioners, neighbors, and presenting concepts,” Williams tells AD PRO. “And I don’t think anyone had an objection, out of all those meetings.” It’s not hard to see why: Nievera Williams’s design breathes new life into the project without distracting from the architecture, offers pleasing natural elements that don’t inhibit shopping, and encourages community engagement. Now, Williams talks AD PRO through the design.
“Much as you would at a home, you want to create a sense of arrival,” says Williams. It’s a feat the firm accomplished by way of tall date palms that direct visitors into the Plaza. One of the less pretty—though most important aspects was the traffic flow, which Nievera Williams worked with a traffic engineer to optimize. Though things have smoothed over by now, initially it was a tricky transition: “For a few months, I’d drive by and you’d see tire tracks over those plants where the driveway used to be,” Williams recalls. “People were so used to the old layout!”
The same gentle guidance carries through inside, where, Williams says, “the way the landscaping is set up clearly defines the breezeways and plazas and separates them from the courtyards, but you get these little peeks of everything that make you want to walk around. It’s the way we allow things to be viewed; we give little signals and nods as you walk through.”
“The two courtyards were basically just areas with grass and lots of old equipment acquired over the years,” laughs Williams. The team cleaned up these areas and created a mix of courtyards and small gardens. “We designed gardens to connect those structures with the landscape,” he says. “We wanted to draw people out of the breezeways and into the gardens, like you would do at home.”
As for the flora selected, it was all done to complement the architecture. “The building is Regency style and we didn’t want to do anything that was contrasting that,” says Williams. “We wouldn’t have gone modern.” A mix of native and exotic plants are arranged in areas where partial shade cuts down on the amount of water they need—a more eco-friendly consideration for the plaza’s future.
“Most of the materials were selected to contrast with one another, in texture, color, and even fragrance,” Williams says. The team endeavored to protect existing bougainvillea at the site, while adding in other flora. “The major thing the site lacked was a tree canopy,” Williams says. “It was just a big parking lot with a bunch of palms. We created more areas for landscaping, we provided walkways and access and things that work with the building architecturally, and from a circulation standpoint.”
“We really wanted to create some interesting contrast, and create niches in the garden area where you could go sit,” Williams says of the seating areas, which appear nestled within the landscaping. “When we first started, there wasn’t outdoor seating, but we anticipated that might happen so we designed for it.” They were right, and now the outdoor tables are a hit.
For the new pavement, Nievera Williams used materials that appear similar to what would have been used in the 1950s.
In the loggias, a black-and-white scheme provides a contrast to the lush greenery.
The plaza’s existing fountains were in disrepair, so Nievera Williams created exact replicas—with one adjustment. “The original fountains had bubblers in the water, but we decided to have them interact with people more by having the water coming in from the outside,” Williams says. Now, he continues, “there are kids running around it all the time.” It’s a sight he relishes, saying: “When we do residential work, unless I’m invited to a party, I don’t get to see people use it. When I go to the plaza, I can see people enjoying it, having fun, doing yoga on the lawn. It’s incredible—it’s the most rewarding part of what we do.”
By Hadley Keller