Florida's primary election is only days away. Yet in my neighborhood of College Park, the talk of the town is hardly about the positions of those vying to be the Sunshine State's next governor. In fact, the main debate wafting through our streets these days is about a matter that is decidedly not statewide, proving, once again former Congressman Tip O'Neill's dictum that "all politics is local."
The fundamental controversy, at least on the surface, concerns our main thoroughfare, Edgewater Drive. A few months ago, the street was "re-striped," that is, changed from a four-lane byway to three lanes (one in each direction and a center turn lane) through most of College Park's "downtown" core. The move immediately altered the traffic flow and driving patterns of the 20,000-plus cars a day that traverse the one-mile stretch between Lake Street and Par Avenue and, some argue, the economic life of the district as well.
Indeed, within a short time, several merchants began to complain of an immediate and verifiable downturn in their businesses. Chief among those who deplore the new striping is Kevin Gabriel, who has owned Gabriel's Sub Shop since 1958. Gabriel believes that the inability of customers to make a safe left-hand turn into his parking lot has taken a heavy toll on his bottom line.
Phyllis Tuell of Stuart Jewelry, a neighborhood fixture since 1946, has also seen her business suffer. So Tuell initiated a petition drive to undo the changes. She hopes to convince Orlando's transportation chief, Dan Gallagher, that the re-striping has been a failure. She plans to deliver several thousand signatures to the city this fall.
What's important to remember is that the re-striping of Edgewater was not dictated by City Hall in the first place. In fact, it was a well-publicized, grassroots effort spearheaded by the community's own residents and businesses. It's a victory for the College Park Neighborhood Association and the College Park Merchants and Professional Association, both of whom have been working with the city for years to beautify Edgewater Drive, improve its commercial environment, increase its pedestrian-friendliness, slow down traffic, and make parking and bicycling safer.
The fact that changes College Park residents asked for, and eventually got, don't work points to a more troubling possibility: The needs of the neighborhood's 11,000-plus residents may, in fact, not be the same as those of its 500-plus businesses. Workable solutions for one group may not benefit the other, as was the norm in years past.
And that raises the question of whether or not the entire "mom and pop" store concept, which has served College Park for generations, is still viable. Many don't think so. Gabriel, for one, feels that residents no longer support neighborhood stores and shops. And he's ready to push major changes in the way College Park looks and feels to make sure businesses remain healthy.
Gabriel and other change-minded merchants, like Marty Cummins, owner of Chapters Bookstore Cafe on West Smith Street, have actually begun a new merchants association to push a new agenda. In their view the "old guard" merchants association is timid and maintains a vision of College Park that is mired in the past.
Their "new" College Park would include taller buildings, more professional office space, "downtown" residences, and an increased number of festivals and events.
Others aren't quite as ready to toss aside today's College Park. Bill Jennings, president of the neighborhood association, says the changes on Edgewater Drive are a work in progress and still need tweaking -- including better access to Gabriel's Subs.
Tom Jaeger, president of the "old" merchants association, also supports the new Edgewater Drive, and thinks people should be patient while an independent agency hired by the city collects data on traffic speeds and accident rates.
For its part, the city has consistently maintained that it has no vested interest in the re-striping, other than listening to the voice of the people. The question of whose voice will be the loudest remains to be seen.
And so, while College Park neighbors and shop owners await the city's decision concerning this traffic dilemma, it seems certain that the arguments about the neighborhood's future will continue to be passionate and contentious -- and that they will last way beyond next Tuesday's election. Primary? What primary?