A Long Walk

Fort Lauderdale continues to experience rapid, sustained population growth. The question isn’t whether the city will continue changing into a more urban, crowded place – it will. The question is what we do about it.

If you want to show a visitor where Las Olas Boulevard is, simply point to the construction crane.

From the glass windows on the 11th floor of the 101 Building in downtown, you can spin in a circle and count the cranes hovering over scaffolding. On Las Olas, neighboring the historic Stranahan House, the Icon building is shooting out of the ground with 272 units to be filled. Nearby, the soon-to-be-finished Las Olas Place will bring a dozen more businesses and the visitors that come with them. A short walk to the north, new apartments and condos continue to go up in Flagler Village. The city is booming, and with it comes more people and more cars.

Driving through Fort Lauderdale, likelihood is high that you’ll be stuck in traffic or circling through city blocks in search of a parking spot. However, there’s not much of a chance that you’ll find yourself stopping to allow pedestrians to cross the street. Sure, there’s a few lawyers clad in ties and suits running to the courthouse or perhaps coworkers picking up coffee during their lunch break, but Fort Lauderdale — or South Florida as a whole, for that matter — is not known for being a place that’s easily navigable on foot.

“Fort Lauderdale definitely has a walkable downtown, but what are you walking to? Where are you going? Right now, the environment is very one-dimensional,” says city councilor and vice-mayor Dean Trantalis. “The idea now is to fill in the blank spaces, fill it in with the needs, fulfilling the needs of the people who will live and work downtown.”

As the Venice of America grows, both in scaffolding and population, the infrastructure must follow suit. Here, more people translates into more hours spent sitting in big-city bumper-to-bumper traffic – but fewer big-city opportunities to safely walk or cycle, or to take public transportation.

Some of Fort Lauderdale’s changes are simply that – changes, not problems to be fixed. It’s becoming a major city, and major cities have congested downtowns. But there are ways to give residents more options. For leaders and residents, the challenge is changing a former beach town into a multimodal city of walkways, bike paths and public transportation.

According to the U.S. Census, South Florida is now the country’s eighth largest metropolitan area – and growing fast. That boom is thanks to growth pretty much everywhere across Broward County and the tri-county area; last year, the region topped 6 million people for the first time. Fort Lauderdale is a fast-growing city in a fast-growing region in one of the country’s fastest-growing states. “Fort Lauderdale seems to be experiencing a spike in growth that we have never before seen, and often we usually measure that growth based on development that we would see on the beach, but now it’s happening in our downtown,” Trantalis says.

That sort of growth can bring frustrations. But it can also bring opportunities.

“It’s important for the dialogue to always recognize that successful cities and vibrant places are not dead ones, and they’re constantly evolving and changing,” says Jenni Morejon, the deputy director of the Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority.

“All great cities have a traffic problem, and I think if we just understand the trade-offs and the co-benefits that go along with a growing metropolitan region, we’ll be able to deal with maybe some of the frustration that seems present today.”

To accomodate all this growth, the city has a number of infrastructure projects in the works. The city’s 2013 Neighbor Survey indicated that 52 percent of residents were satisfied with the 420 miles of sidewalk in Fort Lauderdale, and 29 percent believed maintenance of the streets, sidewalks, and infrastructure needed to be made a priority.

Identified needs include more and wider sidewalks, accommodations for bicyclists, more room for public transportation – oh, and it all still must be accessible for fire and police.

This is where young cities like Fort Lauderdale run into problems.

“What’s different in terms of Fort Lauderdale to maybe older cities in the Northeast that have for hundreds of years redeveloped, we’re a city that’s been built around the automobile unlike maybe some of your Northeastern cities that have these huge roadways for horse and buggy back in the day, so they have ample space,” Morejon says. “We’re limited with the public real estate. It becomes a matter of trade-offs. We’re not going to be able to fit between one edge of the street to the other edge of the street every single mode [of transportation] that everyone wants to have.”

This tradeoff comes into play at places such as NE 13th Street, one of the places where the city is taking away lanes for cars. These “road diets,” which are growing in popularity with planners around the country, are part of the city’s “Complete Streets” initiative that seeks to make streets friendly and useable for everybody, not just drivers. Other roads included in the project include parts of NE Fourth Avenue and Wilton Drive in Wilton Manors, parts of SW 27th Avenue and, perhaps most prominently, parts of A1A.

While drivers will be losing lanes, the city plans to add bicycle lanes, enhanced crosswalks, pedestrian-scale street lights, street parking and landscaping. It is all a part of the city’s plan to encourage growth of neighborhoods as more walkable business districts.

If you’re caught in traffic near a road diet or an under-construction multi-family building that’s going to add even more people to an already crowded area, you might think not much planning has gone into this. You’d be wrong. It is a part of a carefully crafted master plan set out decade by decade, and while the city encourages its residents to give feedback and participate in public meetings and town halls, that doesn’t necessarily mean residents take up the opportunity to engage.

Or pay for it.

In the last election cycle, the county put forth two half-cent sales tax initiatives on the November ballot — the two items would only pass if both were voted through. One failed. Broward County residents were in favor of increasing the sales tax for transportation improvements, but did not vote for the half-penny tax for city infrastructure.

That was the fourth sales tax referendum that failed in the county in the last 30 years. Meanwhile, Palm Beach County residents voted to pass a sales tax increase.

“We’re not going to be able to fund these modernized and often proactive infrastructure investments with a constant, stagnant millage rate,” Morejon says. “We have to as a community and as a region look at alternative funding sources. Sales tax – it’s something that can really take advantage of our spot as a tourist mecca.”

However, county officials are optimistic about putting the initiative back on the ballot, since voters were in favor of at least one of the two. As President Trump puts emphasis on infrastructure — he has proposed a $1 trillion plan — Morejon is hopeful for the possibility of grants or fund matching to bring improvements to Fort Lauderdale sooner than anticipated.

Florida is not a pedestrian-friendly state. In fact, it boasts eight of the 10 most dangerous cities in the country for pedestrians, according to a study by Smart Growth America.

Is it because Floridians are bad drivers? Too many pedestrians jaywalk? No — the study’s writers believe poor planning is to blame.

Jeff Speck, a city planner, urban designer, and the author of the book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, advocates for planning and design that gives rise to residents putting their feet to the pavement instead of on the gas pedal. Not only does walkability in a city lead to saved time, he says, but it also lends to healthier residents and a smaller carbon footprint.

“We have learned in Florida and elsewhere that what you gain by building more and wider roads to absorb traffic is only more lanes of the same congestion,” he says. “Most growing cities are experiencing the same problem … the best answer to congestion is to plan and build communities where you can walk to most everything you need because it is nearby, thanks to mixed-use zoning.”

Speck has some specific knowledge of Fort Lauderdale. In 2013, he presented a study of the city’s walkability. In it, he gave advice such as increasing parallel parking, using shade trees rather than palm trees and adding bicycle lanes. All the suggestions jibe with Speck’s belief that walkability should be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting. The area of the city that succeeds in all those areas, Speck wrote in his report, is East Las Olas Boulevard.

In his book and his TED talks, Speck notes that walkability is not only convenient, but it leads to healthier lifestyles. The more people walk, the more active they are and the less likely they are to keep on weight. Fewer people driving means less exhaust for residents to inhale. Fewer cars on the road in a well-planned city makes for fewer car crashes.

“Cities of the future are thinking about multimodal ways of transportation,” says Rebecca Bradley, the co-founder of Fort Lauderdale’s Cadence Living landscape architecture firm. That’s something that’s important for our city for sure, and multimodal means there’s many different ways for people to travel to and from destinations.”

Cadence’s employees took the challenge of not driving to the downtown Fort Lauderdale office. From her home in Boca Raton, Bradley rode her bike and took Tri-Rail – and was happily surprised with the ease of the trip. In the future, there will be more options for rail-based travel in Fort Lauderdale. Scheduled to open later this year, the Brightline train will carry passengers along the FEC tracks between downtown Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm beach – and eventually, along a new line to Orlando. Locally, an electric streetcar called the Wave has been in the planning stages, with work expected to soon start. Construction was planned to begin in 2016, but there have been delays due to additions to the $195 million plan’s proposal. Additional light rail is now being discussed; the first phase will be a 2.8-mile route that connects the downtown core to the south side’s courthouse and medical center area.

Finally, for walkability, bikeability and public transportation to work, upgrades to sidewalks and roads aren’t enough on their own. Cities also need to plan what businesses will be placed where. If someone lives in downtown or a residential neighborhood, but can’t walk to dinner, the grocery store or the drug store, what use is there in having beautiful landscaping and pristine sidewalks?

One theory says that plans like Fort Lauderdale’s – slimming and slowing roads, allowing for more density, creating walkability – also creates the conditions that attract varied retail. It’s a theory that’s starting to work in areas such as Flagler Village, where shops, cafes and bars are moving into the growing, walkable neighborhood.

“I’d like to see more of the everyday amenities being built within walking distance of where these new housing projects are being created,” Trantalis says. “As you fill in the spaces with these amenities, these buildings become more attractive, the areas become more livable, and the urban environment becomes much more self-contained and we can eliminate the need for vehicular traffic, or at least minimize it.”

Mockingbird Trail
One of the most highly anticipated projects taking shape in Fort Lauderdale is the Mockingbird Trail — a two-mile urban art trail that snakes through Flagler Village and downtown with sculptures and art along the way.

“This is the first time in Fort Lauderdale — that I’ve experienced — where this idea for making creative improvements in the public realm didn’t come from the public sector,” Jenni Morejon, deputy director of the Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority, says of the trail. “It was people who have kind of a territorial stake in their neighborhood and their communities who want to leave their thumbprint on where they call home or work.”

The project is spearheaded by Cadence Living, founded by Rebecca Bradley and her partner, Gage Couch. So far there are six stops along the trail with two more to come, all in the search for the elusive, mythical mockingbird. The artworks, created by sculptor Valeria Yamamoto, include a metal feather, egg, and footprints, all calling cards of the bird for the public to enjoy.

“You can’t connect to someone when you’re driving in your car,” Bradley says. “[Walking gives] people the chance to sit and visit and pass one another and make eye contact; that’s when people are able to make connections with their neighbors.”

In conjunction with the BBX Capital Foundation, Cadence Living published a 58-page strategic plan outlining the benefits of such an urban art trail. Some benefits include providing a place for native flora and fauna to call home, creating a soothing exercise space, showcasing artwork, and being a tourist destination.

“The trail itself can benefit lots of things; it’s not just to be a place for people to hike but it’s a trail where people can meet,” Bradley says. “You can utilize the trail as an education piece, it improves the health of people living in the city, and it’s really a public amenity that is for everyone.

Originally published in Fort Lauderdale magazine.

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