DELRAY BEACH — Residents of The Set, a Delray Beach neighborhood, have waited years for a business like this: A new daiquiri bar that will help revive long-ignored West Atlantic Avenue, just east of I-95.
Every Tuesday night, diners and partiers are packing Studio 404, which opened in March, eager for its $2 tacos, $5 margaritas and colorful daiquiris in four flavors.
Tables are filled on Friday and Saturday nights, too. The crowded indoor-outdoor gathering spot is a symbol of the neighborhood’s hopes for a comeback, especially in the shadow of East Atlantic Avenue, a regional destination for its bars, restaurants, art galleries and raucous street life. Residents designated the West Atlantic community The Set in 2016, honoring the West Settlers Historic District, Delray Beach’s first African-American neighborhood, established in 1894.
Residents of The Set don’t want the same thick crowds and accompanying noise and traffic that East Atlantic residents have to endure. But they do want a few restaurants, hair salons and grocery stores to call their own, replacing the empty lots and closed storefronts between the highway and Swinton Avenue to the east.
Studio 404 co-owner Alex Burns, who grew up in the neighborhood and formerly worked as a manager at Home Depot, said he initially looked around the East Atlantic entertainment district to open the bar because he thought that’s where he could find the partying patrons he needs to succeed. But he settled on 404 W. Atlantic, right outside the district, in a building that has had incarnations as a hair salon, post office and credit union.
“There was nothing in our community for us to enjoy,” said Burns, 39, who modeled the bar on Wet Willie’s, a daiquiri destination in Miami Beach. “We know this area is going to be built up one day. It was important for me to be downtown, or near it.”
The city has been working to redevelop West Atlantic and its surrounding neighborhoods for more than 20 years. In 1996, officials created the West Atlantic Redevelopment Coalition, a nonprofit designed to oversee the street’s transformation plans. A Fairfield Inn & Suites hotel opened in January 2015, West Atlantic’s last successful project.
Delray Beach Mayor Shelly Petrolia said Studio 404 is just the kind of business the city seeks for The Set, which has boundaries of I-95 on the west, Lake Ida Road on the north, Swinton Avenue to the east and Southwest 10th Street to the south.
“This is locals getting back into the game,” Petrolia said. The city offers rent subsidies and other incentives for businesses to open along West Atlantic, but openings have been spotty, and there are no major projects on the immediate horizon. A new development that would include a Publix, stores and apartments has been mired in delays for the past two years.
Andrea Stewart Bruton, 56, grew up in the neighborhood and remembers when West Atlantic was filled with Black-owned businesses, including soul food restaurants, a movie theater, laundromat and doctors’ offices. She said the businesses left in the 1980s and 1990s, when the city began buying up land to expand the thriving East Atlantic corridor.
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Residents agree they want Black-owned businesses to return to West Atlantic, including projects such as a cooperative market, where small businesses can be vendors on one site and share expenses, said Kristyn Cox, a partner in Thrive Collective, which works on racial equity issues in the city.
“We want to mirror East Atlantic, but with Black owners,” Stewart Bruton said. “Affordable housing, where you own your house and your land, is also important. We should not be displacing people from their homes.”
Resident Chuck Ridley said Studio 404 is the type of business that will create a sense of connection among residents of The Set.
“At 404, you see Blacks of many generations having a good time,” Ridley said. “You don’t see that elsewhere on Atlantic.”
The bar, which also serves salads, chicken wings and several New Orleans-style entrees, marks the beginning of a new kind of activism in Delray Beach, said Angela Burns, Alex’s mother and business partner, who grew up in the neighborhood and teaches at Village Academy, the neighborhood public school.
“We won’t allow the neighborhood to be overlooked again,” she said. “We’re not going to sit back and allow things not to happen anymore.”