Newspaper Editor Sings Praises of Narrowing Main Street in Florida

By Ron Cunningham, The Gainesville (FL) Sun

Sunday, June 23, 2002

 

Bringing back University Avenue

“The city shall encourage University Avenue to become Gainesville’s ‘Signature Street,’ as a potential magnet for high-quality development. The City’s investment in infrastructure on this corridor, from West 38th Street to Waldo Road, shall be the highest priority in the city.”

– Objective 3.2 in the Urban Design element of Gainesville’s Comprehensive Plan.

Take a walk along Gainesville’s “Signature Street,” in search of “high quality” development. Start at the entrance of the University of Florida, at 13th Street, and walk north toward 6th Street.

Pass the garish orange-and-blue gas station and convenience store. Stroll by the designer nail salons, tattoo parlors and body piercing emporiums that seem to go in and out of business with revolving-door regularity. If you want to pawn a watch, or if you are in the market for exotic lingerie, handcuffs, a gas mask or a samurai sword, you’ve come to the right place. Ditto if you need gasoline, rolling papers, used clothing, lottery tickets, a lube job or a U-Haul rental.

Notice the empty store fronts, eight of them at last count. Drop into one of the three or four popular restaurants that have withstood the test of time despite the street’s seemingly inhospitable business environment.

Take in the fast-food joints, the buy, sell or trade CD shops, pawn shops, the occasional bookstore and the army surplus store.

Notice the scrawny street trees and the weeds poking stubbornly up out of the cracks of the narrow gray cement sidewalk. Try to ignore the litter and cigarette butts, but do admire the graffiti that decorates many of the building fronts, street light poles, newspaper racks and street signs.

Observe the unkempt appearance of many of the building facades – the discolored awning here, the fading paint there. Notice how some businesses have plastered over their windows with come-on ads touting discount prices, while others have taken pains to maintain an attractive storefront and even tidy landscaping.

Sit on one of the few public benches and take in the street life. Watch the competition for finite sidewalk space between the occasional pedestrian and the cyclist who, having no death-wish, declines to ride on the street. Dig into your pockets for change as the panhandler on the rusty bicycle approaches.

And absorb the noise of the street: that nearly continuous roar of the traffic that makes normal conversation on the sidewalk difficult. Watch the automobiles, pickups, SUVs and even semi-tractor trailers jockey for position on four-lane University – very often at speeds quite in excess of the posted 30 mph.

And then recall the words of South Miami town planning consultant Victor Dover three years ago, during the final presentation to the City Commission of Dover, Kohl and Partners’ plan to turn University Avenue into Gainesville’s “signature” street.

That study focused specifically on transforming University Avenue between 6th Street to 13th Street into Gainesville’s gateway to the University of Florida.

“Every city needs great buildings and great public places,” Dover told the commissioners. “Great cities are defined more than anything else by their great streets. Great streets are the public rooms of a city. And they are almost always a result of careful planning.”

Last Monday, Dan Burden, nationally renown consultant with Walkable Communities Inc. took that stroll. He surveyed the narrow sidewalks and marginal nature of many of the businesses, doled out change to the panhandler and snapped a few photos along the way.

Long based in High Springs, Burden spends most of this time helping dysfunctional cities around the country turn traffic-congested, and usually blighted, corridors into pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly walkable town centers.

“This is a street that has no sense of itself, it could be any suburban roadway in the country,” Burden said. “It really hasn’t healed itself in 20 years. . . . There are businesses here, but it’s not the highest and best use of University Avenue. People are not investing in their buildings, they’re run-down. It’s not a good mix of uses.”

When he gave his presentation for transforming University Avenue, in 1999, Dover cautioned the commission: “It’s only going to get more difficult as you wait.” That has turned out to be a prescient statement.

The Metropolitan Transportation and Planning Organization has put the redesigning and narrowing of University Avenue on its long-range Transportation Improvement List. But the project won’t work its way to the top of the list until about 2010. And even then, it is uncertain that funding will be available to reduce four lanes of traffic down to two lanes and a turning lane, to provide on-street parking, to widen the sidewalks and make other improvements.

And then there is the question of political and public support. Already, a popular backlash has developed against the notion of narrowing University Avenue. In the last election, the last two city commissioners to vote for the Dover, Kohl recommendations left office. Pegeen Hanrahan, stepped down due to term limits; John Barrow was not re-elected.

Both those former commissioners were bullish on remaking University Avenue to “calm traffic” and be more inviting for pedestrians, bicyclists and investment. Both have since been replaced by commissioners who ran in opposition to reducing lanes on University Avenue.

One on them, Commissioner Tony Domenech, ran radio ads proclaiming that it was “insane” to eliminate lanes on Gainesville’s major east-west corridor.

“I conceptually have difficulty understanding how you can move people from Point A to Point B by restricting the amount of flow,” Domenech said recently. “It’s just like a pipe – there’s a certain volume that goes through the pipe, and when you restrict the pipe, you increase the pressure going through there.”

However, a traffic analysis completed by Orlando traffic engineer Walter Kulash shows that reducing lanes on University Avenue would not create the traffic gridlock that many opponents fear.

Traffic counts record some 26,500 vehicles a day on University Avenue near 13th Street, dwindling to about 18,500 vehicles per day east of Main Street. Kulash’s analysis showed that 1,740 vehicles an hour could be accommodated on a two-lane University Avenue.

That count is exceeded on University by, at most, about 200 vehicles per hour between noon and 6 p.m. on weekdays. Some of that additional traffic will elect to divert to other routes, Kulash predicted, but even if it does not, motorists “will experience an additional 20- to 30-second delay – during the peak period only – at each signal on University Avenue between NW 6th Street and NW 12th St. This makes for a total time loss of 1 to 2 minutes along the route.”

Gainesville’s street grid system also provides numerous alternative routes for motorists on “short trips to and from University, downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods,” Kulash said.

Because University Avenue is a state highway, SR 26, the consultant also mapped out several potential east-west “regional bypasses” that could be used to reroute through-traffic away from University Avenue; the most likely bypass being Archer Road to Williston Road to E. University.

“People are so convinced that traffic is like water; it has to go somewhere,” Kulash said recently. “But we know that once an area becomes vibrant, some traffic disappears. People change their destinations very quickly. What we see when an area becomes viable is that people want to live there and spend time there instead of driving 8 miles out to visit a discount store.”

Among the skeptics of the contention that University Avenue can function just as well as a two-lane road is Aage Schroder, regional secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation.

“We don’t think it’s a particularly good idea,” he said. “There’s no way to mitigate the impact on traffic. I’m sure that (reducing lanes) is not the consensus of the community. It’s the consensus of the few.”

If the last election is an indicator, Schroder is probably right. Even among people who do business on University Avenue there is disagreement over changing the street.

“We can’t even greet our customers until they’re inside and the doors are closed,” because of the traffic noise, says Dotty Faibisy, owner of Wild Iris Books. “We’ve got traffic booming up and down University. It’s just not a friendly place for people or bicyclists.”

But across the street, at Myrt’s News, Myrtle Gunter says “narrowing the street is a horrible thought. This is a major east-west connector. My customers can find a parking space when they want to come by for a newspaper.”

“They’ve got to do something,” says Nick Farah, who has owned Farah’s On the Avenue for 23 years. “We’re sitting here and semis are going down the street at 50 mph. I’ve seen a lot of people hurt out there. If not narrowing, they need to do something to calm the traffic.”

While any decision in regard to altering University Avenue may be years away, the city is planning to take several more immediate steps to try to make the avenue more attractive.

A University Avenue “Spruce Up Day,” to clean up pick up litter, remove graffiti and so on is planned for Aug. 2. In addition, the city has plans to pressure wash the sidewalks, paint decorative crosswalks at intersections, improve streetscaping and install more attractive street lighting, parking meter posts, benches and trash cans.

New design standards will also ensure that any future development will conform to the city’s vision to make University Gainesville’s “signature” street. And recently, the commission voted to spend $466,000 to help a Jackson- ville-based company, LB Jax Development, build West University Lofts, a $2.8 million mixed-use development at the intersection of 6th and University.

Chris Brown, a partner in that firm, was a city planner for Delray Beach when that coastal city made the decision to narrow a section of Atlantic Avenue as part of a wildly successful effort to revitalize Delray’s downtown area.

“What about two-lane roads as Main Streets?” Brown posed. “It’s been an economic miracle, the saving grace for retailing downtown. In the late 1980s, the merchants weren’t absolutely convinced, they didn’t even want to see trees on the street blocking their signs. But it really worked in Delray, everybody wants to shop there, and everybody wants to eat there.

“We’re looking forward to the day they beautify University Avenue,” he said. “I think it (University Lofts) will be viable either way, but probably real estate values will go way up if they do narrow the street.”

Traffic calming advocates argue that the city’s planned embellishments alone will do little to improve the commercial viability of University Avenue or to attract more pedestrians or bicyclists (read, customers) to the corridor.

“It’s not a matter of if you do it, but when,” said Burden, who has seen traffic calming pay economic benefits in cities all over the country.

Three essential elements to bringing back University, Burden and others say, are:

1. Wider sidewalks, adequate to support foot traffic, outdoor cafes, bicyclists and other activity. Currently, sidewalks on University are as narrow as 5 or 6 feet. The Dover, Kohl study recommends sidewalks of up to 15 feet in length.

2. On-street parking on both sides of the avenue, not only to accommodate motorists who wish to stop and shop, but also to provide a physical barrier between strollers on the sidewalk and moving traffic.

3. Fewer and narrower travel lanes to slow down traffic and to make it easier and safer for pedestrians to cross the street. Currently, the travel lanes on University are 12 feet wide, which Kulash calls “interstate highway standard.” The three-lane alternative envisions 11-foot lanes.

“No other business environment in Gainesville is saddling themselves with having 40 mph traffic 3 or 4 feet away from people who are out of their vehicles attempting to enter a business establishment,” Kulash told the commission. “Not even the strip malls put up with those kind of conditions.”

Ultimately, if Gainesville does decide to redesign University Avenue, it will likely first have to negotiate an agreement with the DOT to take over responsibility for the street. “We’re not interested in maintaining it if that’s the case,” Schroder said.

A similar transfer of control was arranged on Main Street, which in two years is scheduled to undergo lane reduction and other improvements from Depot Avenue to N. 8th Avenue. Advocates are hoping that the Main Street project will do exactly what it’s supposed to do – revitalize the street without creating traffic jams – and thereby build support for narrowing University Avenue.

“The way you win public acceptance is by having one great model that proves the world does not fall off its axis if you do this,” Burden said.

Sunday, June 23, 2002

Successful Main Street models

Scenes from an urban landscape:

Scene One: It is Mother’s Day, and Park Avenue is alive with people.

They stroll leisurely up and down one of Florida’s great “Main Streets.” They window-shop at The Gap, the Banana Republic or one of the avenue’s other high-end retail stores. They lunch at the sidewalk cafes, or cross the street for a walk in the park; perhaps to watch a train pull into the Amtrak station.

On the street itself, a steady stream of traffic creeps along. Motorist patiently search for a gap in the wall of parked automobiles that separate pedestrians from motorists, or they duck into side streets looking for an available space. They want to get out of their SUVs and sedans and join the procession of strollers up and down the avenue; to see or to be seen in fashionable Winter Park.

Winter Park, home of Rollins College, is a green oasis of studied elegance in the middle of the unrelenting concrete and asphalt wasteland of suburban northeast Orlando. Hailed as one of Florida’s most “liveable cities,” the town long ago discovered that ambiance is a bankable commodity. Winter Park has some of the highest property values in Central Florida, and Park Avenue is surrounded by expensive homes, condos, townhouses and above-store apartments.

Scene two: It is Mother’s Day and Church Street Station is hanging on for dear life.

Church Street Station, in downtown Orlando, is a Disneyesque attempt to recreate from whole cloth a sort of faux-Bourbon Street atmosphere. It is located right next to I-4 for ease of access. Acres of parking is provided just a few steps away for the convenience of shoppers and night-life seekers. With its turn-of-the-century ambiance and theme park-like flavor, Church Street Station ought to be a consumer magnet in a town that survives on luring the tourists out of their rental cars and hotels and into yet another spending opportunity.

And yet, Church Street Station is on a downhill skid. Rosey O’Grady’s, for years the night-life anchor on the street is gone. The chain stores and restaurants are leaving, one by one. There are empty store fronts where T-shirt shops and souvenir emporiums used to be. Very few people wander about, and a handful of street vendors stand on the sidewalk, expectantly, as though still awaiting the onset of the business day.

Why does a Park Avenue thrive while a Church Street Station dies?

Well, for one thing, Disney and Universal Studios looked at Church Street Station, figured out that there was a market for adult night life that the giant theme parks weren’t capturing and then went after it. Competing with Park Avenue was another story.

“Church Street Station was always commercial tourism,” says Walter Kulash, senior traffic engineer for the Orlando-based community-planning firm of Glatting, Jackson, Kercher, Anglin, Lopez, Rinehart Inc. “Winter Park is a real town center. Church Street Station doesn’t get local people coming on a repeated basis; it didn’t get local people coming at all after awhile.”

Perhaps the lesson of Church Street Station is that you can’t build a pretend Main Street. For downtown commercial and entertainment centers to survive and thrive, they must look and function exactly like what they are supposed to be – the organic heart of the community, not just another roadside tourist attraction.

Florida’s best known and most successful Main Streets – Park Avenue, Miami’s Coconut Grove and South Beach, Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue and Key West’s Duval Street, to name a few – long ago learned the secret to survival in a state that has for half a century blindly embraced suburbanization as the dominant lifestyle: Invest in public infrastructure, pay careful attention to street-scaping and urban trees, adopt design standards that support the village-like character of downtown, and make sure the sidewalks are adequate for people to walk, dine, window shop and congregate.

And above all, get control of the traffic. Traffic is a Main Street killer.

Slow it down by design – with narrow streets, fewer travel lanes, roundabouts, landscaped traffic medians, on-street parking, raised intersections, speed bumps and other “traffic calming” techniques.

In fact, cities all over Florida have begun to “take back” their downtowns in recent years, following successful Main Street models like Winter Park, Coconut Grove and South Beach. From Sarasota to St. Petersburg to New Smyrna Beach to Clearwater to Hollywood, virtually all have adopted a variety of traffic calming policies designed to put automobiles in their place and bring people and investment back to long-neglected city cores.

Here are a few examples of cities that have taken back their downtowns:

FT. PIERCE – BACK TO THE FUTURE: “I grew up here . . . we belong here,” says Jim Gately, from behind the counter of his popular sidewalk eatery Gately’s Grille at the corner of Orange Avenue and 2nd Street. “People had abandoned downtown for years, and now they’re coming back. And they’re not blowing by at 35 or 40 mph, either. They’re getting out of their cars and spending money.”

For three years, Gately has been doing a brisk business in Fort Pierce’s newly restored downtown, an area that has taken on the feel and flavor of the Mediterranean village that town fathers had begun to build in the good times of the 1920s – before the Florida land boom went bust.

Fort Pierce is a city of 20 square miles and 37,516 people. Located where Florida’s Turnpike meets I-95, it sits at the northern tip of the burgeoning Gold Coast megalopolis. A rather nondescript city of sprawling, unconnected subdivisions, Fort Pierce is also one of South Florida’s less affluent coastal communities.

But in 1995, city officials set out to rebuild an urban core that had long ago been dissected by U.S. 1, which funnels 40,000 autos a day through the heart of Fort Pierce. Over the course of dozens of community charettes and workshops, traffic calming emerged as an important component of revitalization.

To the east of U.S. 1, Orange Avenue, a three-lane, one-way high-speed road running into the heart of downtown, was converted to a two-lane, two-way street. To the west, Delaware Avenue, a once elegant street lined with stately oaks, was reduced from four-lanes to two lanes. Several other downtown corridors were also put on a “road diet.” Indian River Drive, a well-traveled road along the lagoon that connects to the beach, was fitted with a traffic circle at the intersection with Avenue A.

The roundabout – with its carved pink stone base and lushly landscaped center – is both an efficient way to move traffic through downtown and a popular “photo opportunity” spot for tourists. This in marked contrast to the ugly metal barrier that once blocked the view of the waterfront at that intersection as motorists backed up in all directions while waiting for the light to change.

“Multiple lanes don’t move traffic,” says Ramon Trias, Fort Pierce city planner. “All it does it stack traffic. The problem with the old traffic pattern was that it was dysfunctional.”

In addition to reconfiguring the roadways, Fort Pierce invested something like $20 million over six years – building a new downtown library and police substation, restoring the 1925 City Hall, and renovating the 1923 Sunrise Theater into a 1,200-seat cultural arts center. An abandoned high school on Delaware Avenue was turned into a magnet school for the arts. Such expenditures in turn generated more than $31 million in additional investments, and the downtown tax base has doubled.

With its red-brick sidewalks and stately palm tree-lined streets, downtown Fort Pierce has a low vacancy rate. And the street narrowings notwithstanding, some 1,500 workers and commuters move through downtown each day, not to mention 150,000 visitors a year.

“If traffic gets bad, people drive less,” says Trias. “Isn’t that logical?”

WEST PALM BEACH – MOVING BACK IN: Just a decade ago, West Palm Beach was an urban jungle at night.

Drug dealing and prostitution was the main commerce on historic Clematis Street. Not far away, several blocks of one-time crack houses had been razed, and the property abandoned. In 1993, Clematis Street had a 90 percent vacancy rate and property values running as low as $10 per square foot.

If you visit Clematis Street today, you can ride a free trolly up and down its 4,500-foot length past more than 80 restaurants and retail establishments. Property values have skyrocketed and expensive new residential developments have sprung up around it.

A colorful downtown plaza at its eastern terminus sports an amphitheater and a “dancing” fountain, where delighted children drench themselves under the watchful eyes of a city “fountain guard.” On Friday nights, thousands of people gather on the plaza for city-sponsored block parties.

And at the site of the former crack houses has risen City Place, an impressive $550 million mixed-used development of stores and restaurants, a multiplex movie theater and performing arts center, townhouses and rental apartments. City Place has attracted several major chain stores, including a Publix Super Market that, thanks to local design standards, looks like anything but a Publix.

A decade ago, West Palm Beach’s ability to finance public improvements was practically nonexistent. So the city went into traffic calming as a reclamation and economic development tool in a big way – aggressively narrowing lanes and redesigning streets to slow down traffic all over the city.

“The city was broke, and its physical environment was dilapidated,” senior city planners Tim Stillings and Ian Lockwood have written of West Palm’s experience. “West Palm Beach had much larger issues that required immediate attention beyond simply speeding, collisions and cut-through motor vehicle traffic. At the heart of many of its challenges were the negative effects of those vehicles in the city and past treatment of street environments.

“The evolution of traffic calming combined with the use of New Urbanist principles and a host of other initiatives allowed the city to begin its metamorphosis into a ‘masterpiece city.’ ”

Clematis Street, one-way with three travel lanes and two parking lanes, was converted back into a two-lane, two-way street with angle-parking on both sides of the street. City Place was likewise designed and constructed along New Urbanist principles, serviced by two-lane streets and on-street parallel parking. Soon, two other major downtown streets, Dixie Highway and Olive, will also be narrowed in an ongoing traffic-calming effort.

“Once Clematis Street was done, businesses started coming back downtown,” says Stillings. “It’s not only a better business climate but also a much nicer environment for people.”

As a result of the city’s revitalization efforts, people are moving back into downtown West Palm Beach. As much as any city in Florida, revitalized West Palm Beach is benefiting from the “empty-nest syndrome” as baby boomers whose children have left home are electing to leave the suburbs to spend their golden years in a more stimulating urban environment.

“The public realm is the connective tissue of our everyday world,” Nancy Graham, the former West Palm Beach mayor who led the downtown revitalization effort, once told a reporter. “Human scale must prevail over the needs of motor vehicles.”

STUART – NO SURRENDER TO DOT: For residents of Stuart, a former railroad town nestled in a tight peninsula on the St. Lucie River, the crises point occurred in 1988. That’s when the state Department of Transportation made hurricane evacuation plans that included construction of a new multi-lane bridge across the river, widening U.S. 1. and running it through the heart of this small but viable downtown.

“The DOT is an enormous, rich, self-righteous bureaucracy experienced in getting its way,” a little-known architect named Andres Duany told the city in a report that year. “You will have a battle, but it is one that must be fought.

“Remember, DOT in its single-minded pursuit of traffic flow has destroyed more American towns than General Sherman.”

Duany went on to become a founder of the New Urbanist movement, and Stuart went on to win its war against DOT. The new bridge was built and U.S. 1 improved, but in a way that bypassed, not gutted, downtown. Downtown Stuart today is a picturesque village of narrow, interesting, sometimes confusing streets lined with prosperous restaurants, gift shops, art galleries, a restored theater and night spots. It’s attraction as a destination is such that it is difficult to find a parking space downtown even on a weeknight. And some of the most expensive housing in Martin County is located on the edges of downtown.

“When you think about it, lack of parking is a great problem to have,” says City Planner Kim DeLaney. “It means people want to come here.”

Stuart’s renovations have all been designed to maintain downtown as a “walkable community.” Some 21,000 employees work within a two-mile radius of downtown. As many as eight freight trains a day come through the town center, and 8,000 vehicles move through downtown during the evening rush hour.

Traffic is heavy at such times, but not gridlocked. Stuart’s “Confusion Circle” – a much celebrated roundabout located where no fewer than six streets and a railroad crossing come together – somehow manages to keep traffic flowing more or less smoothly. Indeed, watching traffic move around the circle, one has difficulty imagining how the flow of traffic from that many converging streets could even be regulated by traffic signals.

“We do see a lot of accidents, but they’re all fender-benders, because nobody is driving too fast,” says Loretta Englishman, who works at an insurance agency located across the street from Confusion Circle.

“Once in a while you’ll see senior citizens go the wrong way on the circle, but people will usually just get out of their way.”

Only one street leading into downtown, Colorado Avenue, is wider than two lanes. It is visibly the least attractive and economically stagnant street in downtown, and the city is making plans to slow down traffic on Colorado in order to stimulate investment and attract people. The anticipation is that revitalizing Colorado will, in turn, help spark reinvestment in some of the less affluent residential streets that intersect it.

n LOS OLAS – PART-TIME CALMING: Los Olas Boulevard has always been an elegant avenue of expensive shops, fashionable galleries and offices. But the eastern shopping district of downtown Fort Lauderdale all but closed down at the end of the working day, and for much of the off-season, for that matter.

“Some merchants used to put up signs at the end of Memorial Day saying ‘Come back again next season,’ ” recalled former Fort Lauderdale City Manager George Hanbury. “You could roll a bowling ball down Los Olas after 5 p.m. and never touch anyone.”

Even as Fort Lauderdale’s downtown business district was undergoing a major economic revitalization, Los Olas remained an under-used corridor. These days, however, Los Olas is alive with people night and day. The city did two things to transform Los Olas into the city’s most popular nighttime and weekend destination.

“It was really simple,” said Emmett McTigue, a major downtown landowner. “They changed the ordinance to allow outside dining on the sidewalks, and they narrowed Los Olas from four lanes to two lanes and allowed on-street parking during the nights and weekends.”

Actually, it wasn’t as simple as that. City officials wanted to permanently reduce lanes on Los Olas; and they had traffic counts to support their contention that four lanes were unnecessary. But Los Olas is a county road that connects downtown to the beach, and county officials wouldn’t allow it.

In the end, the county compromised by allowing evening and weekend lane reduction, while maintaining four lanes during working hours.

The compromise made a huge difference in the life of the street. The transformation of the street via part-time traffic calming has brought considerable new private investment to the area, as more and more people want to live near downtown’s lively Los Olas.

“Most of the redevelopment effort has been private,” Hanbury said. “But the catalyst was outdoor dining and on-street parking.”

Similar success stories have been repeated all over Florida, in cities large and small – in Delray Beach, DeLand, Lake Worth, Boca Raton and elsewhere.

“There’s no way to refute it anymore, when it’s done right it works every time,” says Tom Flemming, who was Main Street coordinator when Delray Beach brought its downtown back, and who is now working to create a downtown in Oakland Park, a Broward County municipality that never had a city center.

“Downtowns can’t function with both the automobile and the pedestrian being the priority.”

Sunday, June 23, 2002

Speed kills (Main Streets)

I guess I ought to start by telling you about my first traffic ticket.

I was 19, it was a Saturday night, and I was cruising down Hollywood Boulevard in my rust-yellow ’54 Studebaker.

I was driving too fast, ran a red light, and one of Hollywood’s finest spotted me from about two blocks away and nailed me before I got halfway around Hollywood Circle.

In retrospect – 35 years worth of retrospect – all I can say in my defense is that I was young and stupid and under the influence of that most powerful of all American intoxicants . . . gasoline.

And by way of extenuating circumstances, I might add that at the time you could have fired a cannon down the middle of Hollywood Boulevard and not worried too much about hitting anybody.

That’s because the downtown Hollywood of my youth was pretty much a ghost town after dark. During the daytime, too, for that matter.

Oh, when I had been 7 or 8, the place had been hopping; with no fewer than two movie theaters, bookstores, drug stores and all of the other necessary components of urban life.

But by the time I reached high school pretty much all the commercial action had moved west, out beyond I-95, where an impressive new edifice called the Hollywood Mall had risen.

Downtown Hollywood had begun to dry up and blow away – just as Main Street commercial centers all over America were crumbling in the face of the inexorable march of commerce and people toward the ever-expanding suburbs in the Interstate Age.

So why not speed through downtown Hollywood, a young, stupid, hormone-besotted teen of the time (like myself) might have reasoned. All the better to get out of that Nowheresville on the double.

I only bring up this sordid incident from my past to make a few important points about drivers, downtowns and urban evolution.

To wit:

* If you give motorists the means and the motive to drive really, really fast, a lot of them do just that. Even if it’s in the middle of town. Hollywood Boulevard, with four broad lanes, provided the means. An all but deserted and seedy downtown provided the motive.

* If you turn downtown streets into thoroughfares so people can drive to the suburbs as quickly as possible, you shouldn’t be surprised if those downtowns begin to dry up and blow away.

* And these days, if you drive down through South Florida on I-95 and take a look at all the “suburban” malls that helped turn once-vibrant downtowns into urban dinosaurs, you may notice that a lot of them have themselves achieved dinosaur status – having succumbed in their turn to the relentless march of urban evolution. They can’t compete with the larger mega-malls that have sprung up far to the west of Florida’s “first” interstate.

All of which, I suppose, is a way of saying that time, drivers and progress are fairly ruthless predators in the relentless march of urban evolution.

Or, at least, they used to be.

Seems like old times

Recently, I had the opportunity to go back to Hollywood for the first time in many years. I was astounded to see that downtown Hollywood was booming – almost as though urban evolution had begun to march backward.

It has cafes, restaurants and jazz clubs. It has art galleries and dance studios. It has retail, offices and pricey over-the-store townhouses. An eight-story apartment complex with parking garage is rising just two streets away – the first new downtown housing in decades. A new downtown hotel recently opened its doors on Harrison Street, and the value of apartments in an aging high-rise on the other side of Hollywood Circle have shot up tremendously.

And downtown Hollywood is funky – with buildings painted in a variety of bright colors, and people wandering around in the wee hours of the night. At a sidewalk cafe, a woman in a red dress sang Italian love songs to the accompaniment of a keyboard and base guitar. People sitting on benches in a pocket park that wasn’t there before. All very cool.

“We’re like a mini-South Beach and a mini-mini Los Olas Blvd.,” says Louis Morningside, a jeweler who has done business in downtown Hollywood for 40 years, and who is delighted at its resurrection from near-comatose status.

So how did downtown Hollywood seemingly reverse the course of urban evolution and make that giant leap back into the future?

It put Hollywood Boulevard on a “road diet.”

It narrowed the downtown portion of the boulevard to two lanes of traffic, one going each way. It installed angle-in parking slots in the heavily landscaped center median strip to add to the parking that has always existed along the sidewalks. It slowed, not stopped, the movement of traffic through the heart of downtown.

It made downtown Hollywood safe once again for pedestrians, shoppers, entertainment-seekers and other living things.

And this on a major east-west corridor that handles nearly 21,000 vehicles a day – not all that different from University Avenue’s traffic flow.

So did the city trade a revitalized downtown for a gridlocked Hollywood Boulevard? I asked Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti if the narrowing of downtown caused traffic to back up to the west of downtown, toward City Hall.

“Yes,” she admitted. “On Friday night, because so many people want to come downtown.”

And listen, that gasoline-besotted teen driver in the ’54 Studebaker couldn’t have sped through the center of this downtown on a bet. It’s very design mitigates against speeding, reckless driving and other uncivil acts of motorized irresponsibility. It virtually forces motorists to be polite and act responsibly.

Something else, too: When the city narrowed downtown Hollywood Boulevard, it provided a convenient traffic detour by converting lanes on Harrison Street to one-way east, and lanes on Tyler Street to one-way west. But now the city is converting both those parallel “bypass” streets back to two-lane, two-way traffic because the detour route isn’t necessary.

That’s because Hollywood, like Gainesville, is built on a traditional grid system, and drivers who want to avoid the downtown “bottleneck” have plenty of options for doing so.

Oh yes, and these days, Harrison Street – once the “bypass” street – is getting almost as much activity and new business as downtown Hollywood Boulevard.

Downtown Hollywood, the scene of my boyhood, is back. So is “Main Street” Fort Pierce, Stuart, Delray Beach, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, DeLand, New Smyrna Beach and a few other once-moribund central city districts that I recently had occasion to pass through during a five-day, 1,000-mile tour of Florida cities that are on the mend.

Backlash on University

It was a tour I decided to undertake after the last Gainesville City Commission election that saw the defeat of one “new urbanist” incumbent and the “surprise” election of two Republicans who had campaigned against long-laid plans to reduce traffic lanes on University Avenue as a means of reviving that unattractive and economically stunted connector between downtown and the University of Florida.

For the winning candidates, the University Avenue issue turned out to be a “target of opportunity.”

“It wasn’t even an issue that was on my campaign platform,” said Commissioner Ed Braddy. “But I can tell you that from going door-to-door, this (narrowing University Avenue) is not something that was warmly received. People were 8-to-1 or 9-to-1 against it.”

The decision to redesign University Avenue from a four-lane thoroughfare to a three lane (one lane each way plus a turn lane) was made three years ago after an exhaustive series of charettes, workshops, public hearings and consultant studies. And it sits so far down on the area’s transportation improvement list that it won’t happen for several more years in any case.

If it ever happens.

Because, if the last election is any indication, public support for the project is weak to nonexistent. And given the results of the last election, it’s not even clear that redesigning University Avenue to make it Gainesville’s “signature street” could even get three votes on the City Commission anymore. Warren Nielsen seems to be the only unabashed cheerleader for the project left on the commission.

So is the University Avenue project one of those “smart growth” flights of fancy whose time has come and gone? Are we so jealous of our prerogative to drive 40 mph or faster smack through the center of town that we are willing to tolerate indefinitely the blight and economic stagnation of University Avenue as an ugly means to a necessary end?

I hope not. Because Florida’s premier university city deserves a better University Avenue than it’s got.

University Avenue really ought to be Gainesville’s showcase – a “destination,” not a thoroughfare. A place where people want to go to congregate, walk, park, dine, shop, work, live and be entertained. A corridor of urban culture that reflects the values of a town that brags about hosting Florida’s “flagship” university.

Anyone who has ever been to Madison, Wis., Boulder, Col., Berkley, Calif. or even Athens, Ga. – university cities with vital, attractive downtown centers that are worthy of the great institutions they host – has to be a little disheartened with our willingness to settle for something considerably less. And for what? The ability to drive quickly away from UF’s campus?

“I’ve been yelling and screaming for years, ‘let’s stop resting on our laurels and get a grip,’ ” says Linda Crider, an avid bicyclist with UF’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning. “We are way behind other university communities.”

Behind the curve

And it’s not just comparable university communities that make us look bad. We’re also “way behind” a lot of ostensibly less progressive Florida towns, as I learned on my recent five-day tour.

They say that travel is a broadening experience. But it can also be a bit depressing. Except for the beach, I remembered the Hollywood of my boyhood to be a somewhat unappealing city. Imagine my surprise to return home recently and find out that Hollywood proper has become considerably more attractive and economically vibrant than the enlightened university town I’ve lived in for more than a quarter of a century.

And if you really want to be depressed, visit DeLand, a college town less than half our size hosting private university, Stetson, that is nowhere near UF’s stature.

Woodland Boulevard, DeLand’s University Avenue, is one of Florida’s best-kept downtown secrets; winner of the “Great American Mainstreet Award” in 1997. It puts our little three-block downtown to shame. And if you picked DeLand’s downtown up and laid it down on top of University Avenue, it would easily stretch from UF’s campus to 6th Street – the section of University Avenue proposed for lane reduction.

“My parents live in DeLand, and I visit there a lot,” says Dotty Faibisy, who owns Wild Iris Books on University Avenue. “I can’t believe the number of people in downtown DeLand. Why can’t we be like that?”

Oh yes, and like University, Woodland, with its two-laned downtown “bottleneck” is a major traffic corridor through DeLand, handling nearly 20,000 vehicles a day. Volusia County recently built a brand new courthouse in downtown DeLand, and the town still hasn’t succumbed to “gridlock.”

“Why do they have a Main Street environment that is many times nicer than Gainesville’s?” asks Walter Kulash, the Orland-based traffic analyst who worked on Gainesville’s University Avenue study. “Why do they have cafes and bookshops and coffee shops and a wonderfully restored hotel and even aesthetically pleasing burger places in a market one-fifth the size of Gainesville on a street that is a major thoroughfare?

Good questions. But you might as well ask: Why Hollywood and not Gainesville? Why Delray and not Gainesville? Why Stuart and Fort Pierce and West Palm Beach and not Gainesville?

None of those cities are “exactly like” Gainesville. But all share our traffic problems to one degree or another (no one can seriously argue that traffic in Gainesville is worse than that in West Palm Beach, where they have made traffic calming a science), and all have managed to revive their core commercial areas despite their traffic problems.

The answer is depressing. Because we are willing to settle for less in Gainesville. Instead of a “signature” street that links our premier university with our isolated downtown, we are willing to live with a decaying urban thoroughfare engineered to interstate-highway standards for our motoring convenience.

So we can drive through that blighted strip as quickly as possible. And, honestly, it doesn’t look quite so bad when you’re driving fast. As Ed Braddy told his fellow commissioners the other evening, “I just drove here on University Avenue, and I thought the sidewalks looked fine. They looked plenty wide, and nobody was on them.”

Now there’s a big surprise.

“It’s very difficult to get anything done in a university town,” Ramon Trias, the Fort Pierce planning director who is recreating a Mediterranean village in the heart of one of Florida’s most unattractive cities, told me. “The people are all very bright, and they all love to argue about everything.”

To the extent that University Avenue is a reflection of Gainesville’s values, it reflects very badly indeed on our values. Because the truth is that while we all like to brag about Gainesville, it’s not a particularly attractive city in many respects. That’s especially true of our so-called “built environment,” our public spaces like University Avenue.

“I think to an extent, the problem is that we don’t really think of ourselves as an urban area,” says Ruth Steiner, professor of urban and regional planning at UF. “We tend to think of ourselves as a suburban community.”

Like South Florida

And here’s a nice bit of irony: For the quarter century I’ve been living in Gainesville, the most oft-heard rallying cry has been “We don’t want to be like South Florida.”

Well, guess what? A lot of folks in South Florida have decided that they don’t want to be like South Florida either, and they’re doing something about it.

They’ve started by taking back their old downtowns from the insidious auto-erotic culture that turned them into ghost towns in the first place.

“We’ve been sprawl-driven for 50 years, and while that may be nice for cars, it doesn’t do a lot for people,” said Tom Flemming, who was Main Street coordinator for Delray Beach when it underwent an astonishing downtown revival. “The wide, fast, straight roadway is the death-knell of urban life. You have to decide whether you want to be a through street or a destination street. If you choose to be a through street, you have to realize that you will always have a slum on either side of it, because that’s the best you can have.”

I wonder if we’re capable of learning from South Florida’s successes as well as its mistakes? My old hometown of Hollywood could teach us a thing or two about what it means to have a “signature” street that defines it’s community’s values and aspirations.

Not to mention how to keep fuel-injected teen-agers from using downtown as a drag strip.

 

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Filed under New Urbanism: Timeless, Traditional, Walkable Design, Traffic Congestion

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