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Block party



Like many new homeowners, Beverly Norberg was hoping for the best when she and her husband bought their South College Park home in 1994. It didn't take her long to realize that the best her neighborhood offered wasn't very good. Vagrants wandered into her backyard asking for spare change. Bicycles were stolen from her neighbors' garages. Prostitutes often serviced their johns in cars parked nearby. Cops chased a couple of guys in ski masks from her street. Norberg's Honda Civic was stolen, and the thieves called her for a month afterward, harassing her into buying it back. This wasn't supposed to be happening in one of Orlando's premier neighborhoods, within eyesight of the T.D. Waterhouse Centre. But it was.

Then in March 1999, after years of wrangling with city leaders, Norberg's street and four others connected to West Colonial Drive were permanently barricaded. Access was available to Seminole, Putnam, Cordova, Hayden and Ellwood streets only from the north. City leaders quickly hailed the closures a success. Orlando police reported a 30 percent reduction in crime.

"People have opposed this from the beginning," says Norberg. "They said the barricades were not going to slow down anybody. Well, they have slowed down people. Burglars want something quick and easy. They don't want to work."

Several blocks northwest of Norberg's house lives another South College Park resident, Edward Hoffman. He is as unhappy with the closures as Norberg is thrilled. Hoffman's complaint isn't the increased traffic on Westmoreland Drive, where he owns a duplex. He objects to the "elitist, separatist" mentality of College Park residents who, he says, apparently want to wall off sections of downtown neighborhoods.

"This is a city," Hoffman says. "I cannot stress that enough. It is not a suburb. `If` people want to live on a quiet cul-de-sac, they should go live in the suburbs. Not in the city."

It's the issue that is arguably the most divisive in the city: closing off streets that have been open to the public for decades. Street closures not only pit neighbor against neighbor and communities against each other, but they raise questions about preferential treatment, unfair implementation and a citizen's right to have access to publicly funded projects. The fundamental question is whether residents of a subdivision should really be able to tell the rest of the city that it can no longer drive through one of its streets. Robert Dixon, who fought unsuccessfully to prevent a street closure in his Wadeview Park neighborhood, says, "`These are` public streets funded by the taxpayers of Orlando. They have no entitlement to get their streets closed."

It also leads to what can best be described as street-closure envy. Residents of such neighborhoods as Rock Lake and Parramore are keenly aware that the city has blocked streets in the neighborhoods north of them -- the five in South College Park as well as five in the affluent Spring Lake neighborhood, where many old-money Orlando residents live.

What's more, there are 46 petitions asking the city's traffic engineering bureau for some type of traffic-calming measures. Some of the petitions could easily wind up as street closures. How can city leaders turn them away when they have already closed 14 city streets?

Ironically, most council members are on record saying they don't like street closures. Neither do the city's police, fire, sewer, planning and traffic departments. The U.S. Post Office has written at least one letter to the city opposing the College Park closures.

Closures also break the cardinal rule of new urbanism, the trend most cities have followed toward pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly neighborhoods. Begun in the mid-1980s as an answer to suburban sprawl -- and championed locally in projects from Celebration to the Naval Training Center redevelopment -- new urbanism calls for such planning choices as mixing residential, office and retail; preserving wilderness areas; and constructing buildings that open onto streets instead of onto parking lots. The idea is to get people to mix in an inviting environment, one where street closures aren't warranted.

"It's just anathema to the notion of good street planning and new urbanism," Robert Dunphy, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, says of blocking off streets. "If the people designing new communities would design them right in the first place, you wouldn't have to come back and do expensive and painful retrofitting."

In Orlando, the problem isn't bad planning of new enclaves. All of the city's 14 closures are in older neighborhoods. Rather, 11 of the closures can be traced directly to pressure that neighborhood associations have applied to city commissioners.

Neighborhood associations are usually associated with democracy at its most basic function. Groups of neighbors band together to have a strong voice at City Hall or to form crime-watch programs. Or they'll conduct neighborhood clean-up drives or offer assistance to elderly residents.

But with their strength in numbers, neighborhood groups have the ability to trump the rights of the individual. "Neighborhoods have become empowered," says District 1 Commissioner Don Ammerman. "This is a reaction to what we've done to help them get that way. Neighbors no longer see it as a public street. They see it as, 'Commissioner, get `traffic` off my street. Get if off of mine and put it somewhere else.'"

Neighborhood associations aren't used to being in the role of the bully. If you talk to the presidents of the organizations, they'll say they have no desire to be elitist and, in a perfect world, would rather keep their streets open. "This is not an effort to say we're better than anyone else," says Kathy Lightcap, former president of the College Park Neighborhood Association who was instrumental in obtaining the College Park closures. "We're grass-roots neighbors who have nothing to do with politics."

But people who attend neighborhood association meetings are more likely to vote. So commissioners are more likely to fall in line with what they want. After all, aren't council members supposed to represent the will of the people?

Not always. Not when the rights of the minority, or even the majority, are violated. (What if each time a neighborhood wanted to close a street, it was put to a vote of the entire city population?) Hartwell Conklin, a South College Park resident who opposed closing streets in his neighborhood, told commissioners at a May 7 council meeting, "If you allow these special-interest groups to dilute your influence, you're leaving yourself wide open to not carrying through with your responsibilities and relegating them to nonelected officials."

They're also leaving themselves open to a lot of bad blood between their constituents. Take the case of the closing of Crystal Lake Drive in the Wadeview Park neighborhood. Wadeview Park is in Ammerman's district, about a mile south of downtown on Orange Avenue. It is bordered by Orange on the west, Ferncreek on the east, Kaley Avenue on the north and Michigan Avenue on the south.

Residents were concerned because many motorists were using Crystal Lake Drive, which has no sidewalks, as a cut-through to fast-food restaurants on Orange Avenue. Traffic counts in 1995 tallied 3,663 cars passing in a single day. (An acceptable number is closer to 1,500.) The Wadeview Park Neighborhood Association, which formed a traffic committee, successfully lobbied commissioners to temporarily close Crystal Lake in November 1995.

Residents of adjacent streets were furious. And vindictive. Matt Hasty, a Wadeview Park resident, wrote the mayor a letter saying he retaliated against members of the traffic committee for their participation in the Crystal Lake closure. "Already, at every chance I get, I drive past these houses late at night house sounding my horn in protest. Or I walk my dog to the store past these houses and get every dog on the street barking up a storm. This is actually pretty easy for me to do as I get off of work at 3 a.m."

Crystal Lake remained closed for five years. In that time, the city overhauled the intersection of Michigan and Orange, installing additional left-hand turn lanes and right-turn lanes. Last year the neighborhood association returned and asked the City Council to close Crystal Lake permanently. They feared a return to the old days of high traffic volume; they had become accustomed to the daily count of a mere 322 cars. But opponents, who showed up en masse at the council meeting, said it was time for Crystal Lake to take its share of traffic. Proponents of the closure asked, "What traffic?" Studies of adjacent streets showed volume had decreased on them as well.

Opponents of the closure accused the neighborhood association and the city of all kinds of chicanery: false promises, polling errors, skewed traffic counts. They asked that Crystal Lake be opened and new traffic counts taken -- especially in light of the improvements at Orange and Michigan.

"I am willing to concede the need for permanent closure if the temporary barricades are removed and new studies are allowed and a true neighborhood-wide plan for traffic-calming is conceived and undertaken," Ayme Smith told commissioners. But council members voted 7-0 for permanent closure.

So, a year later, is everybody willing to forgive and forget? Nope. Many opponents are still angry because they feel Crystal Lake's property values have escalated while theirs have plateaued or dropped. "`Street closure` is always under the guise of traffic control," says Dixon, who lives one block north of Crystal Lake. "That's what irks me the most. But it's more about the self-interest of people whose streets are closed. It's more about being selfish than compassion for the neighborhood."

The city has a traffic-management plan that outlines steps for neighborhoods to take if they want to curtail traffic problems. Adopted in 1993, the plan is clear that street closings are a last-ditch measure. Other options such as traffic circles, speed bumps and diverter islands must be tried first, according to the plan. Then the city will attempt a test closure and study the impact. If a closed street dumps more than 400 cars on an adjacent street, then it can't be closed.

But neighborhoods can circumvent the plan by appealing directly to Mayor Glenda Hood or their commissioner instead of to Harry Campbell, the transportation engineer. The Spring Lake neighborhood was the best example of this tactic. The neighborhood, which sits northwest of Orange Blossom Trail and West Colonial, is known for its influential residents. Paul Mears Jr. and Paul Mears Sr., of Mears Transportation, own homes there, as does Ralph Veerman of CNL Corporate Properties, who often speaks at City Council meetings in favor of issues important to the mayor.

Spring Lake already had three of its streets closed as part of an annexation agreement with the city. It has four speed bumps on Spring Lake Drive, the main artery through the neighborhood. But the neighborhood wanted two additional closures; one to stop traffic from OBT and one at Texas Avenue to inhibit shoppers of the Magic Mall, a West Colonial flea market, from entering the neighborhood.

Spring Lake's city commissioner, Vicki Vargo, argues that it makes sense to close off some Spring Lake streets because the neighborhood, which is bordered on the north by the Orlando Country Club, is not part of the city's street grid pattern. But that doesn't explain why the neighborhood was allowed to circumvent the city's traffic plan and work directly with Vargo's office.

Especially since there's no evidence that closing streets actually reduces crime. After Spring Lake walled off three streets in the early 1990s, such crimes in the neighborhood as grand theft and vehicle break-ins actually increased, according to figures compiled by Dorinda Howe, an OPD crime-prevention specialist. Howe warned against drawing too many conclusions from her report, but she added that installing a 10-foot wall with razor wire and a guarded entrance still won't ensure the safety of a community.

Her findings in Spring Lake are consistent with a February story in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel that reported that even gated communities aren't foolproof. Statistically speaking, they are only slightly safer than ungated communities and provide residents with nothing more than a false sense of security. Among the reasons: gated communities look attractive to burglars and have fewer passersby to witness a crime.

So why did South College Park report such a drastic decrease in crime after its barricades went up? The cement barriers probably helped serve as a slight deterrent to outsiders. But a better answer is that the city installed more street lighting and neighbors were trained how to react to suspected criminal activity. "We're much more aware," Norberg says. "We'll dial 911. We don't wait and watch. We call right away. That probably helped, too."

Adds Hoffman: "The crime rate has gone down, but I don't think it's because we closed the stupid streets. There's too many ways in and out of this neighborhood."

Even so, commissioners will find a strong desire from neighborhoods asking that their streets be closed off. A blockaded avenue is simply too appealing to residents unabashed in their zeal to wall themselves in.

"I wish I could block the `five` streets all the way to Kaley," says Foster Algier, a Wadeview Park resident who helped close Crystal Lake. "College Park has a walled subdivision. Why can't we? We'd like to keep other people out."

Read A commissioner's flip-flop on closure.


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