MARCO ISLAND — Marco Island could reap financial rewards by implementing improvements to the Midtown commercial district to make it more pedestrian and bicyclist-friendly.
On Friday, the city’s Planning Board listened to ideas from Dan Burden, a nationally-recognized redevelopment expert, who took board members, city staff members and residents on a walking tour of the area. Burden is executive director and co-founder of the Walkable and Liveable Communities Institute, a non-profit based in Washington State. He has done extensive redevelopment work around the United States, Canada and throughout Florida; and recently worked with the City of Bonita Springs.
Burden praised what Marco Island has already done by utilizing more bike paths and sidewalks but said there is room for improvement.
“It’s your mother-load,” Burden said of the Midtown District. “It’s waiting to come to life.”
Marco Island has been looking for ideas for the Midtown District since the Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) was established, noted city planner Kris Van Lengen, who arranged Burden’s visit. The city amended an ordinance to rezone the area a few months ago in order encourage development and bolster economic growth. Burden’s audit was an opportunity to show community leaders how the Midtown area could be improved.
“We want to make sure we have the standards for really healthy redevelopment,” Van Lengen added.
Burden’s visit cost the city $1,500, which is half of the redeveloper’s regular fee.
Communities have gotten away from what Burden called “city-making” in favor of suburban neighborhoods, where homes and businesses are spread out and cars are essential to get around. His research proves that creating more urban neighborhoods is beneficial. Urban neighborhoods have more commercial density, which can increase a community’s tax base and job opportunities; and are more walkable, which reduces traffic congestion and offers health benefits for residents. In addition, when communities create a gathering place, residents feel more connected to one another.
“This is the direction the U.S. is taking,” Burden told Planning Board members, adding that redevelopment can utilize public-private partnerships.
They key however, according to Burden, is for Marco Island to determine the character of buildings. He noted that the city must create a vision for appealing facades and guidelines for developers to follow.
“Starting with Midtown is a very crucial step.”
Burden began his tour at Veteran’s Park, explaining how it could become even more of a showpiece for the city with widened walking paths. The park, which hosts the city’s Farmer’s Market during tourist season, has already become a social gathering place for residents and visitors.
“People will come to the Farmer’s Market even if they don’t really need an extra bell pepper,” commented Van Lengen.
From the park, Burden took the group to the intersection of Bald Eagle Drive and Elkcam Circle to show the group how intersections can encourage more pedestrian traffic. He also noted that ‘round-a-bouts’ improve traffic flow and reduce crashes for autos and pedestrians.
At the Marco Island Midtown Shopping Center, Burden explained how off-street parking could be utilized to make the area an entirely pedestrian-friendly gathering place and a hub for Island life. He also explained the concept of ‘liner buildings’ which could be built in a chosen façade and located in front of existing buildings to make a more appealing street front. Planning Board member Bob Brown later expressed concerns about ‘hiding’ already established buildings, but Burden later countered that if shoppers find an area appealing, they’ll visit many surrounding stores.
Burden’s biggest concern came when the group stopped at the intersection of North Collier Boulevard and Bald Eagle, which he called ‘lethal’ to pedestrians because crosswalk are set back from the intersection, which means drivers have a reduced chance of seeing walkers as they are making a turn.
During a post- tour session with Burden, Planning Board members seemed inspired by the possibilities of redevelopment, but there were concerns. Existing setbacks for construction would have to be revised, and construction of an additional parking deck could be required if the Island decided to pursue off-street parking.
Member Marv Needles also voiced concern that Marco Island’s founders wanted to create a suburban oasis.
“We are responsible for our futures,” Burden countered. “And if we have a vision for something better, we work towards it.”
Although some board members and residents worried about the current economy, both Van Lengen and Burden said that now is the time to start planning ahead. In fact, Burden noted, improving the city’s walkability may be essential to its survival.
“If another town builds a more walkable city, and they have an attractive beach, they’ll go there,” Burden said.
The planning board agreed to have Burden come up with some potential designs of how the Midtown District could be improved, although a cost estimate for redevelopment is premature.
“You won’t be the first city to do it,” Burden said of walkable redevelopment. “But you don’t want to be the last.”