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City Life

Sarasota works on walkability

Published May 21, 2005

This week my husband had some things to do in Sarasota, so I went with him to see how the downtown, which is being completely set on its ear, is progressing.

The last time we were there, Whole Foods, the upscale organic supermarket seduced into downtown to spur residential development, had been open for a few weeks, and the downtown seemed to be a mass of cleared building sites and ongoing construction. Six months later, right on Main Street, a splashy blue glass building for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune looks nearly finished, at least the exterior. As does a space-age bus terminal across from Whole Foods. Otherwise downtown seems like one big construction site.

At lunch at Epicure, which was hopping even at 2 p.m., I sat at a sidewalk table to make a cell phone call and could barely hear over the noise from the construction of a condo tower diagonally across the street.

Walking up Main Street, I had to duck into one of those block-long makeshift street tunnels to protect pedestrians from falling debris, ubiquitous in places like New York where something is always being built or repaired, but unusual here. I saw at least one more major project that was well on its way, I'm not sure where. The vista was fairly dizzying.

The last time I was in downtown Sarasota, I had felt a sense of loss for the old downtown of low key one- and two-story buildings. I had imagined they were all taken up by shops that were chic or artful or interestingly funky. But I was seeing things from inside a car. This time, walking up and down Main Street, I saw that in reality a minority of the stores fit that description. Much of the retail looked fairly dull and dated. I was stunned to see a pawn shop right there in downtown Sarasota.

We went into a few intriguing shops and, with the exception of the Sarasota News and Books, were the only customers.

So it was clear to me why the city felt it was crucial not to wait for change but to push it through fast.

In 2001, the Sarasota City Commission adopted the Downtown Master Plan 2020, developed with input from new urbanism guru Andres Duany.

An important component of the plan is to make Sarasota walkable.

I picked up a a copy o f SRQB>, greater Sarasota's city magazine; it has a cover line asking the question: "Can downtown be a walkable urban center?"

The answer is: It has to be.

"The reason you want the downtown walkable is because it's not going to work any other way," commissioner Jon Thaxton is quoted as saying.

They realize that walkability doesn't just happen. The city has changed zoning and imposed rules to make it happen. Sidewalks will be 12 feet wide, and new buildings must be fronted with awnings, arcades or galleries. This smart move is really a no-brainer. This week on shady streets walking was pleasant; crossing the street in the sun was unbearable. And this is only May . New residential projects must also be mixed use, with retail or restaurants on street level, so that people have interesting places to walk past and to walk to, as destinations.

Intersections will be made more crossable via "pedestrian sleeves," a new term for me, that alert drivers to slow down and watch for pedestrians. Curb cuts will be eliminated - something we could desperately use in Tampa.

Sarasota has butted heads with the state Department of Transportation, as has Tampa. The DOT controls some streets in urban neighborhoods. In downtown Tampa, condo builders' plans for balconies and sidewalk tables were stopped short by the DOT.

In SRQ, Billy Wetherington, a Sarasota bicycle and pedestrian advocate, says, "They call themselves the Florida Department of Transportation, but they're really the department of highways and bridges, and their focus is on cars, not on transportation."

I like that quote. I also like that Sarasota has a glossy city magazine that addresses issues rather than just hyping the place, which is how I would describe the Tampa Bay mags.

There are ways to get around the DOT dilemma, and both cities are working at it.

Will the new Sarasota work as a walkable city?

Dunno. But I did notice something promising: When we were waiting at the curb to cross a street, cars stopped.

Sandra Thompson, a Tampa writer, can be reached at City Life appears on Saturday.

[Last modified May 21, 2005, 01:02:05]

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