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Floridians May be Forced to Adapt to ’New Urbanism’

Wed August 03, 2005 - Southeast Edition

DESTIN, FL (AP) Robert Sheriff’s 15-mi. commute to work takes him 45 minutes — on a good day.

When hotel guests ask the front-desk clerk when the stop-and-go-traffic on the beach town’s one main road lets up, he tells them: it doesn’t.

And if they want to go walking? Well, with its sky-high condos and cars whizzing by on the highway that is the city’s main drag, Destin really isn’t a walking sort of town.

“The traffic is so bad, we’d end up with people getting hit all the time,” said Sheriff.

In a state growing by approximately 1,000 people each day, Destin is one of many cities dealing with backed up roads, sprawling development and lengthening commutes. With the crowding expected only to worsen, an unlikely collection of planners, environmentalists and lawmakers agree that Floridians will have to adjust their expectations of how they’ll live.

Whether it’s the single-family home with a yard or the leisurely evenings with time to spend with family and friends: one American dream has got to go, they said.

In what planners anticipate will be a growing trend, Destin has become the first city to apply for a state program aimed at luring people out of their cars and onto sidewalks and public transportation. That program, combined with money from this year’s multibillion-dollar growth legislation, could transform the beachside town into a pedestrian’s paradise.

Planners envision a future for the city in which families stroll along the harbor, walk to dinner and take a trolley around town. Workers like Sheriff, who are increasingly being forced out by skyrocketing housing prices, would live in affordable apartments downtown and forego their long commute for a quick trolley ride.

That would require building sidewalks, crosswalks, trolley routes and subsidized apartments that would cost upwards of $125 million, but City Manager Greg Kisela believes the system could be in place within a decade — and with the new kinds of traffic, the crowding on the city’s main highway could be eased, he said.

It’s an idyllic picture long advocated by environmentalists and now adopted by planners and leading lawmakers as they take on the future of Florida’s cities — but skeptics, including long-established locals, said it’s unrealistic to think Floridians would give up their cars.

“People won’t use public transportation,” said Destin-area resident Joan Bailey. “They’re not going to plan their schedule around a bus.”

Those who agree with Bailey predict that Floridians will choose to spend even longer in their vehicles rather than give them up. As housing prices rise, many will move further away from their jobs to find a spacious home they can afford. With more road crowding and farther to travel, these commuters will spend longer on the road and less time with their families.

It’s an unfortunate but ultimately realistic scenario, said Eric Draper, a member of the Florida Transportation 2025 Planning Committee. And it closely matches what has already been happening around the state, he said.

“There’s just not evidence that people are moving out of cars and onto mass transportation,” said Draper, also director of conservation for the environmental group Audubon of Florida.

One way or the other, residents will have to make concessions. Maintaining Floridians’ current quality of life would cost more than the state will spend, Gov. Jeb Bush said during this year’s legislative session.

“As Florida begins to look more like Miami, becomes more urbanized, the levels of service for citizens is going to change. That’s just the way it is,” he said. “More populated cities have more congested roads.

“Over time, some communities will shift to a greater percentage of … public transportation,” he said.

Last month, Bush signed into law a plan to spend more than $8 billion over the next decade for roads, schools and water supplies in growing communities. It’s a substantial sum, but it’s only a fraction of the estimated $35 billion it would cost to alleviate problems with crowding.

Even if the state found the needed funds, there is still the question of space.

“In a quarter century, there simply will not be all the space for all the roads needed,” said Martin Guttenplan, of the Florida Department of Transportation.

Meanwhile, rising housing prices mean that single-family homes could become a luxury of the wealthy. As a developer and key advocate of the new growth law, Senate President Tom Lee has seen some changes firsthand.

“The days are rapidly vanishing where affordable housing is going to be single-family, detached housing with a white picket fence and a two-car garage. It’s going to become more and more high-density urban and rental,” Lee said earlier this year.

In Destin, where the cost of homes rose by 38.5 percent last year, cheaper housing is now needed for both white- and blue-collar workers, said Kisela.

“We’ve got professionals, doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers that can’t find affordable accommodations,” he said.

Supporters of the new growth law argue that financial incentives for urban development built into the measure will lead cities to build up rather than out, all while drawing new residents to downtown apartments. But others believe those rewards aren’t enough to change past patterns.

“I don’t think this bill has really dealt with the sprawl issue,” said Maria Abadal-Cahill, who helped draft the Department of Community Affairs’ original version of the new law. “The infrastructure [money] could be spent anywhere.”

Abadal-Cahill, who recently left the agency to start a planning firm, said the issue boils down to a question of money.

“The market is driving growth out [from cities] because land values are cheaper and infrastructure costs are cheaper,” she said.

With those incentives for developers and most of this year’s $1.5 billion in growth money earmarked for roads, it’s unlikely that Florida sprawl will slow, argued Draper, who painted a dismal picture of the future Florida — one more like a claustrophobic science fiction movie than a Carl Hiassen novel.

“People crowded in close together, not very many parks, competition for space, lots of high-rise buildings, constant construction, congested streets, competition for places to put cars, high prices on land and buildings,” he said. “The little house with the front yard and the backyard is going to be a thing of the past. Most people will live in condominiums and apartment complexes.”

And by 2030, when the state is expected to become the third most populous in the nation, an additional 12.5 percent of Florida’s total land will have been eaten up by development if sprawl continues at its current rate, Draper said.

But others said that the movement toward more vibrant and dense urban centers has evolved from an environmentalist cause to a legitimately likely future. And they said it also will affect lifestyles in the suburbs, which will increasingly be designed so that residents can walk to school or to stores.

Followers of this “new urbanism” movement said that, faced with worsening crowding, Floridians will eventually have no choice but to follow the example of residents of cities like New York and Boston — ditching their cars for their daily commutes and moving into downtown apartments.

“This is not going to happen over night,” said Kisela. “It’s going to take 10, 15, 20 years to change people’s habits.”

But even in its first years, Destin’s public transportation system will attract converts like Sheriff, the hotel clerk, who said he would be thrilled with a trolley system for the most pragmatic of reasons.

“It would save me time — and gas,” he said.

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