WINTER PARK — On a cloudy Wednesday afternoon outside the Park Plaza Hotel on Park Avenue, Rick Cole was ready for his third walk of the day.
Executive director for the Congress for the New Urbanism, Cole is an advocate for walking, and he literally walks the talk. His organization promotes city planning that, among other goals, focuses heavily on adapting urban areas to be less dependent on cars.
“For the past 70 years, land use has driven transportation … to be based entirely around the car,” he said. “Which, of course, drastically disadvantages people who are too young, too old, disabled, too poor or who simply do not choose to drive.”
Selected for his position last year, Cole was invited to take a tour of Winter Park and Baldwin Park as part of a national journey to urban environments.
During his visit to Central Florida, Cole found examples of good ideas interspersed throughout one of the least walkable major metros in the nation. As the region faces tremendous growth, Cole warns that Orlando’s sprawling design can lead to worsening issues from traffic to affordable housing.
“Physical design cannot solve all social and economic problems,” he said. “But bad urban design can exacerbate such problems and always does.”
A 2019 study from George Washington University ranked Orlando’s walkability 27th of the 30 largest metros in the country.
The tour was led by Rick Geller, a former Orange County planning and zoning commissioner and chair of CNU’s Florida chapter, and Bruce Stephenson, a professor at Winter Park’s Rollins College.
Geller and Stephenson started their stroll with a walk through the Rollins campus, with Stephenson pointing out the architectural influences from Spanish settlements and other colleges such as Stanford and the University of Virginia.
The walking tour proceeded through downtown Winter Park. Stephenson pointed out that much of the old-world charm of Park Avenue, such as the brick paving and the wide sidewalks, was the result of a revitalization project that began in 1993.
Approaching the SunRail station in Central Park, Cole noted the challenges of making commuter rail functional in cities that weren’t built around transit.
“Rail is the more environmentally responsible choice,” he said. “But you can’t make rail work serving segregated, conventionally zoned suburban areas because there isn’t a great enough concentration of users.”
At its peak in 2019, SunRail averaged roughly 5,000 riders per day to its 16 stops between DeBary and Poinciana, according to data from the commuter rail. During the pandemic, ridership fell by more than half. Last year saw a $52 million budget deficit, according to data from the company.
Ridership has gone up this year, and experienced a 23% jump in February as gas prices rose, according to a report from Spectrum News13.
The tour group eventually had to pile into a car to move on to the next stop. Geller took Cole through Hannibal Square, the historically Black neighborhood on Winter Park’s west side that has undergone a revitalization of shops and restaurants in the last two decades.
Cole said that revitalization projects must never turn into gentrification, which often displaces residents of color.
“We have a responsibility to make sure the people who are loyal to those communities are not disadvantaged,” he said. “They were disadvantaged by disinvestment, and to be doubly disadvantaged by being pushed out is a moral catastrophe.”
Last year, 43% of properties bought in the historically Black ZIP code 32805, which includes Parramore and West Lakes, were purchased by investors, leading residents worried for the identities of their neighborhoods.
The tour group headed to Baldwin Park, the mixed-use neighborhood built on a decommissioned naval base and designed by New Urbanist planners. While it boasts a Walkscore of 55 out of 100 (above Orlando’s average score of 41 and Winter Park’s 44), Baldwin Park has even less access to transit such as buses or rail than the rest of Orlando.
On top of that, Baldwin Park is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Orlando, with a median rent of $2,287, according to real estate website Zumper. The site puts Orlando’s median rent at $1,691.
Cole cautioned that “affordability is not just your rent or mortgage payment,” citing that people also need to think about gas for commutes, insurance and other costs associated with where they live.
He said cities facing an affordability crisis should think about adopting codes that allow for more housing options, such as granny flats and smaller lot sizes. “Within urban neighborhoods we should have much more diversity of housing,” he said.
A canal runs through the center of New Broad Street in Baldwin Park, essentially a stormwater drainage ditch that’s been beautified with native plants and architectural flourished. Standing on a bridge over the canal, Cole called it an example of the “thriftiness of New Urbanism.”
“We really can’t afford to think single purpose,” he said. “We can’t spend money on water quality that isn’t also creating a great space.”
He says that, before changing codes or adding developments, cities need to affirm what it is they are striving toward.
“Wall Street operates on a quarter-year return, and our public infrastructure and our mortgage schemes are on a 30-year cycle,” he said. “Great cities are built on a much longer cycle. Sustainability is based on a much longer cycle.”
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