Thursday, October 15, 2015

SWFL developers, local officials, and community leaders discuss how to create more walkable communities

The Oct. 15th Walkable Urban Communities symposium sponsored by Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson, Council and staff was an outstanding opportunity for local elected officials, developers, real estate professionals, planner, bankers, government staff, and advocates to learn from the national experts about how to create walkable communities in Florida. The mayors of all 8 SWFL municipalities participated, along with many Council members and staff. Kudos to the organizers and all the speakers for such an informative day.  As evidenced by the panel featuring the 8 SWFL mayors, as well as Shark Tank presentations by local officials of four projects under development, our municipalities are focused creating these projects.  Below are local news stories about today's event.

News-Press 10/16/15: 'Friendly shark tank' helps local communities with plans, By Dick Hogan

SWFL Mayors' Panel (Photo by DLetourneau)

They went into the shark tank, and did not emerge unscathed.

But it was a friendly shark tank after all, and the teams of businessmen and elected officials also came away with fresh perspectives on their redevelopment ideas from some of the top urban planners in the nation.

It was the featured event Thursday at the Mayor’s Symposium on Walkable Urban Communities at the Harborside Event Center in downtown Fort Myers.

The teams had three minutes to make their pitch to a panel of top developers and urban planners, who then spent 10 minutes questioning them and suggesting tweaks and sometimes all-out makeovers.

“I applaud you on your infrastructure investment,” panelist Brooke Myers, Orlando-based founder and president of Emerge Real Estate Ventures LLC, told Bonita Springs City Manager Carl Schwing after he presented the city’s plans for re-energizing a stretch of Old 41 with $18 million that paid for improved roads, sidewalks and drainage to make the area more alluring to would-be developers.

But Myers also told Schwing he should “cut the retail at least in half” because the city was planning to encourage too many stores in the area for its own good.

“Retail always follows residential, which means you’ve got to get the bodies, the people, the apartments” to furnish the spending that keeps a retailer alive, she said. “You want the retail to be wildly successful.”

A team from Cape Coral described how the city was planning to rejuvenate its waterfront Bimini Basin area along Cape Coral Parkway to make it a magnet for both residential and business development.

Washington-based urban planner Jeff Speck said he liked the idea but that the city needed to reach out to citizens using public presentations “to create a plan that’s much more detailed” and put it up for public debate. “That’s the only way we can have confidence in the outcome.”

He also suggested changing the concept from a boardwalk to an “ocean drive,” in which “the street is between the water and the stores.”

That creates “a truly public edge on the water,” Speck said. “There’s more success in that than in just having buildings on the waterfront.”

The theme of the day was blunt honesty, and the experts didn’t spare their fellow planners and traffic engineers.

A common mistake is to widen roads in an attempt to alleviate congestion, Speck said – that never works.

“The streets get wider and wider until the blocks aren’t there anymore,” he said. You end up with all streets and no city.”

Naples Daily News Oct. 16, 2015:  Southwest Florida developers powwow to create more walkable communities By June Fletcher

About 400 Southwest Florida developers and government officials gathered at the Walkable Communities forum Harborside in Fort Myers on Thursday to listen to national smart-growth experts and discuss ways to make the region more pedestrian-friendly.

Mixed-use cities with thoughtful architecture, sidewalks and varied modes of transportation “attract highly educated people like a magnet attracts filings,” said Chris Leinberger, a veteran land planner and developer, smart-growth advocate and professor at the George Washington University School of Business.

Because they are denser and more efficient uses of space, they also bring more tax revenues to the city per acre, and boost tourism, he said.

But many cities are behind the curve in their planning process, said city planner Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City, and one of the city planners who worked on the downtown plans of both Naples and Fort Myers.

“If you haven’t had code redesign in past 10 years, you probably don’t have a very good code, because they don’t allow you to be urban,” said Speck, adding that since the 1960s, most codes were set up to promote suburban sprawl.

But when a downtown is redesigned for walkability as Naples was in 1993 by the Miami-based architecture firm Duany Plater-Zyberk, it attracts people who are trying to escape the “miasma of sprawl,” he said.

Speck said when he first saw Fifth Avenue in Naples, “you could fry an egg on the pavement and not be hit by a car.”

Its current popularity with tourists and residents alike had much to do with reorganizing scattered parking, turning bland one-story buildings into two-story ones, and most importantly, bringing housing back into what had been a mix of retail and offices.

“When you bring back housing, things are revved up,” he said, because it brings restaurants and life to an area round-the-clock. “That made Naples what it is now.”

In a truly walkable community, the need for cars is limited or eliminated. But because we have become a car-centric society, many places require homes to have garages and offices to have sprawling parking lots or parking garages, Speck said.

Much of the objection to new development and higher density from existing residents is a reaction against the problems cars create, he said, including “the ugliness of storing them, competition from onstreet parking and traffic congestion.”

To create walkable places, Speck said, communities need to give people a lively streetscape — “no one will walk from sameness to sameness” — as well as a safe, comfortable and interesting experience. “The more mixed uses, the better,” he said.

Higher density is another antidote to sprawl, but many residents have a knee-jerk fear of it, several experts pointed out.

But walking down the street, most people can’t tell whether a project has a density of 5 or 25 units per acre, said developer Tim Hernandez, principal of the New Urban Communities Corp. in Delray Beach, Florida.

“Density is an objective number, but when it comes to design it’s subjective,” he said.

While planners have been touting walkable places for decades, there are still obstacles for achieving them.

One is the current “siloed” zoning that separates residential and commercial uses and predominates in most cities.

For that, the only solution is to “change the damn ordinance,” said Joe Minicozzi, principal with the consulting firm Urban 3 in Asheville, North Carolina.

Minocozzi advocated “running the numbers” to prove to officials that the costs of sprawl, such as running infrastructure to new developments in remote areas, makes it cost-prohibitive compared with redeveloping existing places.

Another is getting lenders to underwrite projects that don’t conform to siloed zoning.

“As creative as we want to be, we definitely have our hands tied by lenders,” said Brooke Myers, president of Emerge Real Estate Ventures, which focuses on urban infill and mixed-use projects in Orlando.

Integrating affordable housing into a new plan is also a challenge, said Speck, since as a city improves, it also will gentrify. Most cities don’t have such a plan, he said.

That’s one area Fort Myers Mayor Randall Henderson said he was concentrating on as he and planners decide how to handle the city’s redevelopment.

“We’ve done a pretty good job for towers for rich people,” he said. “Now we’re laser-focused on getting millennials, firefighters and teachers.”

Bonita Springs mayor Ben Nelson said he’s trying to draw families to what had been a “degraded downtown” by upping code enforcement efforts and developing a fund to invest in small businesses.

Punta Gorda Mayor Carolyn Freeland said her city has developed nine miles of pathways as part of its comprehensive plan, and brought in pickleball courts and community gardens to draw people into the city.

Village of Estero mayor Nick Batos said he’s looking into mixed use on the municipality’s undeveloped areas, and is looking for cooperation from the public and private sector.

And Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane said the island is promoting bike lanes to discourage traffic, and donating 26 acres to encourage development in one place while limiting the need for infrastructure in an environmentally sensitive spot.

As the region’s cities plan for growth during the current real estate boom, they “have the opportunity to look within themselves,” he observed.

And how government officials handle this growth will have an impact on whether sprawl will continue to reign or downtowns will be revitalized.

“If we don’t pivot and move in a different direction, we are going to leave our cities behind,” he said.

FDOT District 1 Secy Hattaway with Stacy, Jenn, and Diana (Photo: DLetourneau)

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