What's Working In Cities: Baldwin Park, Orlando

Bruce Stephenson has long embraced the concept of the traditional pre-sprawl neighborhood, where cars are mainly parked and parks are mainly the centerpieces of a self-contained pedestrian lifestyle.

But it took a hurricane named Charlie to propel the Rollins College professor from his suburban Winter Park nest back to the future at Orlando's Baldwin Park, where tradition and innovation converge in a new urban community carved from the carcass of an abandoned naval training station.

“I was adamant to get in,” says Stephenson, who specializes in environmental planning and the history of New Urbanism.

When Charlie blew three trees into his home in the summer of 2004, Stephenson sought refuge in Baldwin Park, an 1,100-acre village in the process of being rewoven into the fabric of a central Florida community impacted by the closing of the Orlando Naval Training Center, three miles from downtown Orlando.

It is a place with narrow streets, postage stamp yards, front porches, back alleys and public green spaces galore. The local Publix and other mixed retail has been placed in the center of the village, a short stroll from most anywhere in Baldwin Park.

Getting there is half the fun, says Stephenson, who, with his 17-year-old daughter, has made a ritual of a daily four-minute walk to the grocery store.

“We kind of pretend we’re European,” he chuckles.

It’s a lifestyle familiar to those who live in Old World neighborhoods across the Atlantic, and one that permeated American culture early in the 20th Century, before automobiles dominated the landscape and before post-war development sent the population sprawling to the suburbs.

“You knew you were in a sprawl area when it took a gallon of gas to get a gallon of milk,” says Charles Pattison, longtime president of 1000 Friends of Florida, an organization that promotes smart growth and conservation-minded development.

New Urbanism, which took root in the Florida Panhandle in 1981 with the birth of Seaside, America’s first full-fledged New Urbanist town, has gained traction in the Sunshine State where market research is trending away from car-centric suburban golf communities.

Changing demographics, $4-a-gallon gas and a fledgling generation with urbane sensibilities is driving a new-found passion for smaller square footage, less yard upkeep, more open space and efficient use of energy -- personal and otherwise, says Pattison.

Some 600 projects across the nation, small and large, have since embraced the New Urban principles espoused by husband-and-wife town planners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, two of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Many already exist or are planned in Florida.

In addition to Seaside, the most internationally recognized New Urban town, there is Haile Plantation, outside Gainesville, and  Celebration, the town that Disney built as a working version of Main Street U.S.A.

“We call Baldwin Park a Celebration with a real location,” says Stephenson, who believes downtown St. Petersburg, with its 1920s street grid, baseball stadium, bayfront environment and bike-and-pedestrian friendly Pinellas Trail, is ripe for a New Urban makeover.

“That’s where all the Gen Y’s are going to go. They want an urban lifestyle,” he says.

Stephenson, who authored Visions of Eden: Environmentalism, Urban Planning and City Building in St. Petersburg, Florida, 1900-1995, is intimately acquainted with the historic backdrop that represents both missed opportunities and renewed potential for the city’s resurrection as a New Urban center.

“The grid system in St. Pete is all interconnected; there’s no dead ends. There’s a logical transition from downtown St. Pete to Snell Isle. There’s the bayfront, the historic district. There’s a lot to look at from the ground.” 

Downtown Tampa, he says, lacks the key pedestrian elements essential to the Traditional Neighborhood Design principles of new urban developments.

“It is such a different experience, walking in downtown Tampa, which is like Atlanta in 1985,” says Stephenson. “There’s too much concrete and it’s designed for the movement of automobiles.”

While St. Petersburg’s historic footprint lends itself to redevelopment as a new urban center, it will take vision, planning and the civic will to make it happen.

Transformation Takes A Leader

The transformation of Orlando’s old naval training center into a thriving urban village was facilitated by improving on the models of its New Urban predecessors, and also by the vision and flexibility of former Orlando city planner Rick Bernhardt.

“He really made this happen,” says Stephenson.

Bernhardt, who now directs planning for the city of Nashville, was willing to tweak zoning codes to allow tighter setbacks, narrower streets, back alleys and other components critical to New Urban design.
 
“We were like everybody else at that point where we had one zoning code that fit all developments,” Bernhardt says. “We had to make it very clear that “urban mixed use” wasn’t a South Florida DRI that had a pod development everywhere.”

The city planner also fully appreciated the role of configuring traffic flow, eschewing cul de sacs and embracing the open street grid that already existed on the naval base --  keeping all the connections in and out of Baldwin Park open and resisting the suburban notion of a tree system, with branches feeding cars into a few select main thoroughfares.

“Some of the developers at the time were saying we could run a six-lane highway,” he says. “We didn’t even want any four-lane roads.”
 
The result, Bernhardt says, has been a very efficient distribution of traffic. There is no gridlock and no speeding in Baldwin Park. The open grid allows people plenty of options to get where they want to go.

By the dawn of the 21st Century, construction had begun on some 3,000 homes, condos and apartments; 1.5 million square feet of office space and 350,000 square feet of retail.

The community, now about 95 percent complete, consists of a pedestrian-oriented village center and residences tucked around lakes, wetlands and a large park. There are wildlife corridors and a bike trail with bridges over highways that ultimately will extend 24 miles to Wekiva Springs State Park.

SunRail: Key To New Urban Living

Soon there will be access to mass transit -- another key component of new urban living -- with the construction of SunRail, a train system that will use existing freight tracks to ferry commuters through four Central Florida counties, parallel to the gridlock on Interstate 4. The first 31-mile leg is expected to be up and running within the next two years, with stations in downtown Orlando and adjacent Winter Park.

“If we can ever get our system linked to the airport -- Orlando has one of the biggest in the country -- and take the train downtown, that’s the key to synergy between the airport and the city,” Stephenson says.

Meanwhile, places like Baldwin Park will continue to serve as models for developers, city planners and visionaries in search of a simpler, pedestrian-scale lifestyle.

“Baldwin Park was able to take Celebration and improve on it -- especially the storm water system and the park system. And it uses Haile Plantation as a model for a river protection area. They have 25-foot lots at Haile. That was an excellent model. It’s so unique, given that it’s surrounded by typical golf course communities.”

Even so, Baldwin Park isn’t perfect, Stephenson says. “Some civic elements are missing.”

“There’s a nice restaurant to hang out in, but not a place to go hang out and read a book. An ambiance of thought is missing. I’d love to have a public library.”

Right now, the closest library is on Colonial Drive, a highway with one of the highest pedestrian death rates in the nation.

“No one in their right mind would walk there,” he says. And that’s what new urban living is all about.

“To me, it comes down to having a lifestyle where you can walk to get your basic needs,” says Stephenson. “That’s the very definition of sustainability.”

Jan Hollingsworth lives in Valrico and has been writing about environmental and growth issues since the mid-1990s. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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