As All Aboard Florida begins construction on its train station in downtown West Palm Beach, the company’s leader is drawing inspiration from a similar project he helped spearhead in the heart of Denver.
Nearly a decade before Michael Reininger was hired to return passenger train service to Henry Flagler’s historic railroad corridor, he helped lead a complicated effort to transform Denver’s 100-year-old Union Station and its rail yard into a modern transportation hub with rail lines, bus routes and businesses. The station received national attention and became an example of how to blend rail lines and downtown development.
The project required Reininger to oversee a consortium of development firms, while also partnering with local officials in charge of managing the public rail lines and bus system.
As All Aboard Florida’s president, Reininger has been tasked with an equally complex level of planning and coordination as the company works to bring its express passenger train service to South Florida. He points to the station in Denver, saying All Aboard Florida’s train stations in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami will have a similar impact on the downtown neighborhoods that surround them.
“We learned a lot about the integration of transit systems into downtown environments,” Reininger said of his work in Denver, where he spent two years as a managing partner with the Union Station Neighborhood Company. “In my view, if you do things right, a place should have a feel unto its own. One of the great things about Denver is it is unique. You get a real sense of place in Denver, and Union Station really contributes to that sense of place. We are going to do the same thing in Miami, Fort. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.”
To make that happen, Reininger said he and his team at All Aboard Florida are focused on the project’s most minor details. The architectural design of the stations, the customer service offered on the trains, and the amenities in the rail cars — right down to the comfort of the seats — are all important, Reininger said.
“There is an underlying belief that you can be innovative and you can make things better than they are today with finite details,” Reininger said. “Every little component is an opportunity for design.”
Attention to detail is a skill Reininger — an architect by training — honed while working with the Walt Disney Company, where he spent more than a decade overseeing a number of construction projects, including the design of two cruise ships.
As Disney’s director of development, Reininger helped lead the company’s failed push in the early 1990s to build a historical theme park on 3,000 acres in a community southwest of Washington, D.C. The plan for the park, which was to be called “America,” also included hundreds of hotel rooms and golf courses, which were expected to draw up to 30,000 people on peak days.
Although Reininger argues the theme park and All Aboard Florida’s passenger service have “nothing whatsoever in common with each other,” both plans had opposition.
Disney’s plan drew mounting criticism from nearby residents before the company ultimately decided to shelve the proposal. The opposition focused on the park’s proximity to a Civil War battlefield, worries it would bolster development toward the Blue Ridge Mountains, and questions about the use of tax money to help build roads to the facility.
While All Aboard Florida has received a mostly favorable response from areas in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, there is opposition in northern Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast. Martin and Indian River counties have filed federal lawsuits to block the project.
All Aboard Florida plans to run 32 trains per day on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks, and Treasure Coast officials have argued that the rail traffic would threaten public safety and quality of live in their communities.
“Anytime you undertake a major initiative like this there is going to be some degree of a counter point of view,” Reininger said of his opponents. “The opposition to All Aboard Florida is really quite limited when you take it in comparison to the incredible widespread support across the state.”
Local tourism and business leaders have heralded the project, saying it will bring much-needed development to a key piece of downtown real estate, encouraging new businesses and drawing more visitors to downtown West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County.
Dennis Grady, president and chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches, first met Reininger three years ago when All Aboard Florida began working on plans for the downtown station. Grady said he was immediately impressed by Reininger’s work in Denver and his history with Disney.
“His track record in Denver made me very comfortable that he was exactly the kind of guy that we want to manage this project,” Grady said. “You probably couldn’t have put together much better of a background for an individual to manage this project.”
Robert Poole, South Florida-based transportation director for the Reason Foundation, doesn’t know Reininger, but looks favorably on his resume. He said a construction background is critical when leading a project like All Aboard Florida. Real estate experience is also important, he said.
In Miami, All Aboard plans to build a massive complex around the station that includes shops, restaurants, rental units and a hotel. A residential development is also planned just west of its station in downtown West Palm Beach.
“A big part of the financial model for this enterprise as I, as an outsider, see it is the real estate development related to the stations,” Poole said.
After leaving Disney, Reininger spent eight years as a vice president for The St. Joe Company, a real estate firm and one of Florida’s largest landowners. At St. Joe, Reininger was in charge of creative services. He emphasized “place making,” a design approach that uses public spaces to make people feel welcomed. The approach has become one of the company’s hallmark traits as it builds residential communities in the state’s panhandle.
Place making is also key to All Aboard’s success, he said.
“All Aboard Florida is a challenge that has come along at a time that allows me to use important parts of everything that I have learned from the rest of my career all at once,” Reininger said.