Analysis: Getting to the city of the future

Hit the defrost

Five Points is dominated today by the roundabout the city completed about 18 months ago. Photo by Norman Schimmel

Mike Taylor worked as a planner with the City of Sarasota for more than 30 years. Wednesday night, June 13, he went before the city’s Planning Board to introduce what he said would be the most important topic of his entire career.

He put up a very old picture of Five Points, when it was the site of just one farmhouse before the turn of the 20th century. And he read from the city’s first “mobility” plan in 1925, saying, “The center of [traffic] congestion is Five Points.” In a quarter-century, one bucolic spot became the bottleneck it remains today.

Taylor’s topic was “mobility.” The city has embarked on a “mobility study” that could influence what the city will look like into the next century, much as the 1925 city plan brought us to where we are today. Five Points and all.

Little evolutions

Raise your hand if you remember traffic lights at Five Points. Raise your other hand if you waited for the light to change at 2 a.m. Honestly, do you prefer the roundabout?

Previous City Commissions saw such roundabouts as a salvation from gridlock, and aggressively pursued them. The two on Charles Ringling Boulevard are only the latest pair.

The Alta Vista Neighborhood lobbied for one at Shade and Novus, a tiny speed-bump of a roundabout. There was grousing all around — in the neighborhood, by the local merchants and confused drivers; complaints, complaints, complaints. But drivers adapted, time is saved, lives are saved and progress is made.

The “mobility study” is roundabouts writ large, not just one road feature, but big-picture stuff, next-century stuff. Because if the city doesn’t look ahead, we’ll still be living with a 1925 plan created when a Model A with a self-starter was the cat’s meow.

‘Visualize Fruitville’

Taylor wants lots of people to kick around this “mobility study.” It’s huge. It’s sidewalks. It’s bus-rapid-transit. It’s bike lanes. It’s finance. It’s land use. It’s streetcars. It’s the future of how we get around and where we want to go, all wrapped up in one single, simple plan.

Taylor offered an example of how roads evolve. “Visualize Fruitville [Road] from its [eastern] end to the bay,” he said. “The land-use changes; the right of way changes. The road’s characteristics change.”

If you drive Fruitville Road from Sarasota Bay to its end at Verna Road, you will see enormous changes in land use along the way. Cow pastures became lots with mansions and golf courses as one activity chased another – land use and traffic. The old rickety Fruitville Road has become a robust and renewed traffic artery. But can the residents walk to a grocery store?

In the new century, can the cow-pasture-to-mansion residents survive?

The one plan to rule them all

“Mobility” is about to become the linchpin for all city planning. “In the end, the mobility plan will update the comprehensive plan and serve as a technical manual for engineers and inform other regulator documents,” says Taylor. “Land use really hasn’t changed since the 1960s. Zoning followed the roads. Now we can’t build more roads; it’s too expensive. We need a paradigm shift in our thinking.”

Taylor wasn’t looking for decisions from the Planning Board. His job was education, because many of the consequences of “mobility” will be handled by the Planning Board in the future.

“This is a regional issue,” he said. “Next week we’ll meet with Sarasota County to tell them what we’re doing. Hopefully, we’ll all be on the same page.”

With that, Taylor turned to representatives of Tindale-Oliver and Associates, planning and engineering consultants from Tampa. They brought a bewildering set of options and concepts to the table.

Development rules, for example, could be modified to encourage building in one area and discourage it in others, said consultant Damian Miller. He suggested a downtown circulator – either a streetcar or a rubber-tired trolley; one would go from the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall to Selby Gardens via downtown; a second option would go from Marina Jack on the bayfront to the eastern end of Main Street (where the old train station used to stand – an icon of mobility from another era).

“It takes a long time for people to get used to [circulators],” he said. “Downtown now has free and ample parking. People tend to use transit less when parking is available.”

Planning Board Member Vlad Svekis asked, “How many cars will be electric in 50 years? Google’s autonomous [self-driving] car is now legal in Nevada. Can you do mobility analysis in this kind of environment?”

“We’re not looking at emerging technologies,” said Miller. “We’re looking at demographic shifts and how they consider mobility. Retiring baby boomers and young people are more prone to use transit.”

Consultant Michael English said, “You’ve made a decision to cluster your cultural facilities downtown. Damian’s efforts at mobility is a growth-management strategy, to get people out of their cars, to encourage development where you want it. Once you get away from downtown, it’s a lovely low-density city.”

Planning Board Member Susan Chapman suggested a “circulator” might be more useful if it went from downtown north along U.S. 41 to serve the university and museum communities.

English said, “We need to do more study and research.”

The consultants also touched on financing mechanisms, including a “multi-modal fee.” The city now participates with the county to levy impact fees for transportation; the money is used to build roads.

Miller suggested dialing back road construction and increasing funds for other “mobility systems,” including better sidewalks and bicycle lanes, a downtown circulator and various other means. He said Pasco County adopted the multi-modal fee last year, using it to encourage development in certain areas and discourage it in others. “In rural areas, the fee was pretty high, but [the county] cut in about half the fees for the urban zone,” he said. “It creates incentives to have the kind of development where you want it.”

Sarasota city commissioners will get “the briefing” on July 16. Then the mobility show will hit the road for neighborhood visits as well as city-wide briefings.

“I’ve been in the city over 30 years,” said Taylor. “Nothing in my opinion is more vital to the future of this city than this topic. I’ll make it my mission to make sure people are informed.”