From Deadliest Streets, To Complete Streets: Central Florida Gains Walkable, Sustainable Pockets of Mixed Use Neighborhoods
By Paul Nutcher
ORLANDO — Ribbons of high speed boulevards sew together pockets of walkable neighborhoods in Central Florida. These metropolitan arteries sprouted along Interstate 4 from Daytona Beach in the east, to the well-know Disney tourist attractions in the southwestern reaches of Orlando. The city’s urban core and its regional pedestrian friendly enclaves have come a long way in satisfying their wayfaring residents reversing post-World War II automobile designed communities.
Before ground breaking at Walt Disney World and the construction of Interstate 4, Orlando was a relatively small city in population. It was better known as a railroad crossing: a meeting point between all the cattle ranches throughout Central Florida and the region’s working “Crackers” — a term for native Florida’s cowboys and the crack of a their whips used to keep their herds in check. Then in 1965, Disney announced his plans to build theme parks at the outer limits of Orlando along the relatively immature Interstate 4 corridor — in an area once agricultural and equidistant from Daytona Beach to the northwest and Tampa to the southwest. Seemingly overnight massive housing and strip mall developments began springing up as fast as algae blooms in a stagnant retention pond in the burgeoning Orlando metropolitan area. Parking lots, divided highways and subdivisions paved over the far flung orange orchards in the exurbs of Orlando, surrounded by Orange County and the other counties of the Central Florida region (including: Volusia, Lake, Sumter, Osceola, Polk and Brevard counties). The I-4 corridor quickly became clogged and despite several roadwork expansions, the main thoroughfare has never been able to keep pace with the massive amounts of commuters and tourists on the cross-state highway. The slowdowns come in waves fueled by spikes in population and the expansions in theme parks area (now including: Legoland, Universal, and SeaWorld among other smaller parks). This is despite the less than two decades old system of toll roads circling the City Beautiful and its multiple chains of lakes.
Now with a midsized city population, and as if the urban area possessed an immune system only really the region was suffering from poor growth management, its angry and careless drivers killed pedestrians here at alarming rates placing the city at the top of the worst cities for pedestrians lists and keeping its orthopedic trauma surgeons extremely busy for more than a decade. As city and county residents entered the new millennium, this tragic reality came to light in May 2014 from the non-profit Smart Growth America report entitled, Dangerous by Design, which stated:
“Metro Orlando tops the list of most dangerous areas to walk this year, followed by the Tampa-St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Miami and Memphis regions. Across the Orlando region, the calculated PDI for 2003- 2013 was 244.28, four times higher than the national PDI. The Birmingham, Houston, Atlanta, Phoenix and Charlotte regions round out the list of the 10 most dangerous places to walk.”
New Generation Demands Walkable Cities
As the Great Recession ascended on Central Florida, the Millennials arrived (many were graduates of the now 2nd largest university in the nation; the University of Central Florida). Their on-demand, not-like-my-parents attitudes have helped transform downtown Orlando from a late-night ghost town to a nightly Mecca for party goers. They want to live somewhere else after growing up in their parent’s disconnected, suburban cul de sac. Instead of wandering further down the boulevards where roadside markers show where cyclists and pedestrians lost their lives trying to use them to travel on foot or by bike, they chose to migrate and settle inward to the city. The City of Orlando has become the place to be for its nightlife and its career opportunities in recent times. Apartments and condominiums as high as a Cape Canaveral launch pad surrounded the urban core and its skyscrapers. Today, city residents enjoy all the amenities via a short ride-sharing service or in some sections of Orlando: walkable spaces and pink bike rentals.
In fact, a recent report by real estate firm Redfin ranked the mixed use neighborhood around Orlando’s Lake Eola and its iconic fountain and swan boats, as the second most walkable neighborhood within Florida. The report, which was published by the Associated Press (Sept. 17, 2016), gave neighborhood’s with amenities such as restaurants, shops and other businesses high marks for walkability. By comparison to Orlando, a Miami neighborhood took first place, with neighborhoods in St. Petersburg and Sarasota, Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach rounding out the list.
While most of Orlando’s boom cycles occurred after World War II and few neighborhoods escaped the auto-dependant mode of transportation, young upstart, Chris Castro, recently named the City of Orlando’s Director of Sustainability is trying to reverse past development trends.
In March 2016, the city adopted a Complete Streets policy to ensure when designing and constructing City projects, all modes of transportation are considered. According to Castro: “Adopting policies, like this that promote a multi-modal environment ensures Orlando remains competitive in attracting new business, retaining a diverse workforce and providing safe walkable and healthy communities.”
He compared Orlando’s innovative efforts to those in other cities such as Austin, Denver, Salt Lake City and San Antonio.
Since the negative report in 2014, Orlando has implemented many new initiatives including a Bike Share program last year with 34 stations and 200 bikes. “Users have traveled nearly 50,000 miles, burned nearly two million calories and offset 41,000 pounds of carbon emissions when compared to a car,” Castro explained. He has a long list of improvements including bike only bridges connecting new and existing trails, strategically located bike repair shops and launched a bike rack request program for businesses and honored 30 of those requests to date. The city’s programs are well timed. With these and many other improvements for pedestrians and bicyclists, the places people need to live to enjoy these amenities also have mushroomed in Orlando.
Plans for future biking and pedestrian route improvements and additions include:
- Completion of Gertrude’s Walk in Downtown Orlando, restoring the previous path created in the 1880’s running from South Street north to Concord Street. The new off-street trail will provide both pedestrians and cyclists with a convenient route through the Central Business District.
- Construction of the Colonial Pedestrian Overpass which will connect Gertrude’s Walk with the Orlando Urban Trail and provide access to the LYNX Central Station.
- Expansion of the Shingle Creek Trail from Sand Lake Road to Oak Ridge Road to further our regional connections. When complete this 32-mile trail will connect the City with Orange County, Osceola County and the City of Kissimmee.
The core downtown — once with just a smattering of bars below its highrise office towers conveniently located to snare workers after their daily grind for happy hour drinks — has become the place to be at night for the below-age-30 crowd. City police barricade several blocks of Orange Avenue for a block party atmosphere late nights on weekends and holidays. The partygoers can dance and stumble across the main drag between dozens of nightclubs and bars without being struck by a ride share driver. Students come from as far as the city orbiting University of Central Florida to patronize their fraternity brothers bartending at the clubs. Conventioneers and tourists migrate from the attractions area and their timeshares near Disney to escape the nighttime family friendly-only offerings around the theme parks. The touristy watering holes at Disney Springs, Universal’s City Walk or International Drive near Seaworld are all rated G. While this is the Deep South, at moments late on Saturday nights the city’s downtown can be as decadent as a Bourbon Street or a casino floor in Las Vegas, minus the all-day-drinking-allowed laws. All the bars close at 2 a.m. here. In the Bible Belt, everyone has church in the morning.
From Walkable Cities to Walkable Suburbia
Even the far flung subdivisions in established metropolitan Orlando have entered the millennium of the walkable city; from Winter Park, Maitland, Casselberry and Winter Springs along the once mindless stretches of strip malls along the State Road 17/19 corridor that dead-end in the nearby City of Sanford, new urbanist mixed-use cores are popping up every few miles or so.
Despite efforts, some of these new urbanism town centers have struggled even post-Great Recession, including the Winter Springs Town Center along State Road 434. There are vacant retail spaces in the Town Center but new apartments in the city have sprouted there too adding bodies for business owners hoping for higher walk-in traffic who are affluent enough to spend on goods and services. Despite the apartment building, Winter Spring politicians fear the multi-family units could become remarketed as affordable housing if vacancies in the new multi-family housing projects become a reality.
Conversely, Winter Park town center was a seed that sprouted separate growth along the 17/92 corridor with the addition of both walkable amenities such as new eateries and car accessible shops such as a Trader Joe’s.
The less-than-a-decade old medical city outside the Orlando core, between the rings of toll roads south of the city near the Orlando International Airport, which boosts a Nemour’s Children’s Hospital, Veterans Administration Hospital and UCF’s Medical School, offers multiple subdivisions and gated communities for the doctors and newly arriving residents to Central Florida.
Walkable urban districts are the expertise of EDSA president Doug Smith. He sums up successful walkable, mixed use neighborhoods as addressing three components: 1. The transportation network; 2. The DNA or the streetscape; 3. Health in relationship to good design.
Smith and his colleagues drill down to the size of the city block, taking into account “the pattern of the place,” he said. Residents of a walkable neighborhoods thrive in blocks around 1,600 linear feet, which take a five to seven minute walk to orbit. The place helps them form their identity, develop social networks and supports them; he called these places “complete streets” with pedestrians, bicyclists, businesses and other amenities all coexisting.
These blocks can be strict grids such as you find in New York City but often can be angled urban blocks, he explained. “In good pedestrian environments, there is a pedestrian priority.” To further promote walkability, “one of the things I promote is a good street tree program in both residential and commercial areas,” Smith explained, adding: “There needs to be many interesting components along the way.” In such a setting, highway scale lighting does not fit; it has no relevance to humans. Rather it needs to be human scale as does other elements including appropriately proportioned sidewalks. “People will walk if they feel safe.” There are aesthetic efforts too. Local groupls have, for example, installed sculpture throughout the downtown core and its neighborhoods as eye candy for the bicyclist and pedestrian.
Sustainable Xurban Expansions
The horse breeders and Sorrento ranchette owners as well as environmental groups have made sure the proposed northern stretch of Orlando’s planned a circular toll road system was built with ecosystem preservation in mind in order to preserve the rural nature of the region. The toll road will be elevated along environmentally sensitive areas including the Wekiwa River area. The current terminus of the Toll Road 417 dead ends near the closest walkable neighborhood and at its intersection with Interstate 4. The Lake Mary town center or Colonial Townpark, with a super market, movie theater and eateries in a small and compact xurban, new urbanism development nearly two decades since it was developed.
There is hope that walkable cities will have a positive effect on traffic along Interstate 4 and will keep some of the outer toll roads less congested. Central Florida as a region will never be able to escape its hydra-like development between its great stretches of highways. However, the concentration of urban mixed-use developments around its xurban subdivisions offer promising walkable attributes to the region. Still, as the current I-4 Ultimate project now under construction for the addition of “Lexus lanes,” toll roads with demand-surge toll pricing, and improvements to the interstate’s width, alignment and exits gets underway, there is an increasing chance a toll payment will be unavoidable on drives between Central Florida’s walkable neighborhoods if commuters want to arrive on-time. This is the price for past unbridled development and life without a state income tax.
Systematic Sprawling Developments
While strip mall developers and home builders may seem to blame, a recent article suggests that the federal government also plays a role in driving sprawling regional development dependent on the automobile. Walkable mixed use developments are in high demand according to a report by Curbed.com, which cited studies from the Regional Plan Association paper Strong Town and the American Planning Association survey.
In Strong Town, a majority of Millennials (56 percent) wanted to live in these neighborhoods while 44 percent of the Baby Boomer generation also said they wanted to move to walkable cities. The APA noted that fewer people want to live in the suburbs and 40 percent of the study respondents currently lived in an auto-dependent area, while 10 percent would prefer this type of neighborhood. They also found that across generations 56 percent of Millennials and 46 percent of Baby Boomers preferred life in walkable, mixed use neighborhoods.
Despite these numbers, the APA report found that the federal government retains a preference toward single-family homes to the detriment of the others. The study by RPA found that 81 percent of all federal loans went to larger buildings and cap commercial floor space in mixed use projects, discouraging the mid-level, multi-family projects needed in desperate urban areas with high demand for walkable, mixed use neighborhoods.