Notes on Central Florida

I spent last week on vacation in the exurbs of Orlando (well, really Kissimmee) with my partner’s extended family. Since theme parks are, well, really not my thing, I spent a decent amount of time thinking about the planning and urbanist implications of an area that I found frankly fairly miserable from a built environment perspective. I don’t so much have an overarching argument here as a series of notes on a few things I found interesting.

Pod-based building

We were based at a resort called the Vacation Village at Parkway, off the arterial Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway (US 192) west of downtown Kissimmee. In many ways, the sprawling urban form along that road is typical of suburban land use across the country, though perhaps in an exaggerated form. Developments occur in pods, completely disconnected from one another along property lines. Take, for example, this pathetic excuse for a pedestrian crossing from “our” resort to the strip mall and resort next door:

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Mind you, one has to traverse this after crossing four lanes and a median of road without a crosswalk of any sort.

The area in which our resort was located is also cut off from its surroundings in a more profound way. It shares a triangle of land with several other developments; the sides of the triangle are defined by I-4 on the west, Bonnet Creek on the east, and 192 on the south. But grid connections–and ways to exit–exist ONLY on the southern side, to 192.

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That turns what could be an easy stroll over to the as-the-crow-flies-neighboring Gaylord Palms into a 1.8-mile odyssey along high-speed arterials:

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such that Google Maps literally cannot calculate walking directions between the two. This area of Kissimmee is to the south of most of the major Orlando-area attractions, so this kind of thing also lengthens the (many) car trips taken between resorts and said attractions, resulting in even more congestion in an already congested region. It’s just thoughtless–and the result of a zoning regime that emphasizes massive parking lots and setback at the expense of all else, including common sense.

Latent demand for car-free vacations

Despite a built environment that seems to invite, or even mandate, car use at every opportunity, it’s clear to me that there is a latent demand for car-free travel from tourists that could be better met. Transit service in this part of Kissimmee is not completely hopeless, but it’s far from perfect. You can catch a bus to Lynx’s Kissimmee hub four times an hour from the corner of Irlo Bronson and Celebration Boulevard, and they’re even nicely spaced much of the time.  The bus stops are nice too:

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But service on one of the lines stops by 10 PM.

There’s also a whole network of resort-contracted shuttles that ferry people to and from theme parks, shopping, and entertainment. The vaguely vintage-styled coaches of Disney’s Magical Express, connecting their resorts to the airport, were ubiquitous on the highways, for example. Vacation Village provides shuttles to theme parks, as well as more local destinations.

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At the same time, the entire built environment–from single-use zoning to massive setbacks to street and grid geometry–basically mandates car use for the vast majority of trips. I’ve spent more of my life in sprawly suburbia than I really would like, but I got a sense for a latent demand for less autocentricity here more than anywhere else.

Celebration is…Weird

Vacation Village is basically across the street from Disney’s much-debated attempt at New Urbanism. Celebration occupies a bizarre place on all kinds of spectra: more small town than suburb, more private than public, kind of an independent governmental entity but not entirely. I didn’t spend much time there (really just one lunch that was mostly spoiled by rain), but it’s…weird. The built environment blows most of the rest of Central Florida out of the water just by dint of having been thought through even a little bit, but the materials used in the construction of the buildings doesn’t really seem much better than your typical suburb; I saw a lot of sagging gutters and cheap-looking vinyl siding. The main street, such as it is, is touristy but reasonably nice; parking is tucked behind the buildings per standard New Urbanist practice, but it’s still abundant and free. Though not a grid, the street geometry makes more sense than most suburbs. A couple of things jumped out at me, though. This is the main drag carrying cars into Celebration, creatively named Celebration Avenue:

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The speed limit drops to 25 mph as soon as you enter the residential part of Celebration–which is nice–but it struck me that despite a nice, wide ROW Celebration Avenue still has very wide travel lanes (much wider than one would expect for a 25 mph speed limit), and no provision for bike lanes.

The other thing that struck me about Celebration? It has zero transit.

Oh, sure, Lynx’s #56 circles through the much more suburb-y single-use commercial section ever half an hour:

But that’s, like, really far from the commercial and residential parts of Celebration:

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Celebration is better than other suburbs, sure, but it’s hard for me to accept the word “urbanist” anywhere in proximity to an area that entirely lacks transit service. I suspect the omission is intentional; simply because of the quality of design, Celebration is extremely expensive, and places like that tend not to welcome transit. Do better.

Toll Roads

I don’t want to comment on this too much without reading up more on the background of transportation planning in Central Florida, but the prevalence of toll roads was a common topic of discussion among the extended family. Certainly, it’s annoying that Florida’s extensive toll road network doesn’t accept the EZPass technology common in other parts of the country; outsiders get fleeced by paying higher tolls, in cash. The tolls didn’t seem especially high but the frequency of booths seems potentially counterproductive. I do wonder if a willingness to toll the roads has led to overbuilding of the network, since they may be less of a drag on gas tax revenues and the general fund.

The Great Sucking Sound

We had an enjoyable side trip to Lake Wales, FL, where my grandfather grew up and my great-grandparents and a great-aunt are buried. It’s a very pretty area made famous by the Bok Tower Gardens, but it’s also a struggling agricultural region whose citrus industry–Florida’s Natural is headquartered in Lake Wales–is not exactly at its peak of glory. Consequentially, downtown Lake Wales is struggling to a certain extent. As elsewhere in the country, that struggle is exacerbated by sprawl, particularly the sucking of retail out to low-rent districts on suburban arterials. 6-lane US 27 is the main north-south artery along the Lake Wales Ridge, and it’s characterized by on-and-off clusters of commercial development that become more consistent as one drives north, approaching the Orlando metro. Just outside of Lake Wales, however, the Eagle Ridge Mall stands virtually alone, isolated among cow pastures and citrus groves.

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It’s precisely this kind of thing that kills the functional downtowns smaller towns like Lake Wales need to survive in 2016. And the mall’s 20-year history is full of sinkholes and bankruptcies, so it’s not like the competition is going anyone any favors. The mall’s struggles are likely due to its odd, middle-of-nowhere location (I suspect it was placed so as to draw from both Lake Wales and nearby Winter Haven, but it seems to be doing neither). It’s the kind of sloppy economic development and land use policy that has landed so many places like Lake Wales in trouble.

They Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot

More than anything else, this is the overwhelming experience of Central Florida:

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Just out the back door of our building at the resort. 

That’s a high-rise looming out of a wetlands, which is cynically preserved to be pretty at right. Just beyond the fence, there’s a short drop to very muddy and wet land; the entire building must be built on a slab of concrete or else it would sink into the muck. It’s hard to go anywhere in the area without thinking of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.”  Florida’s selling point is, to a large extent, its spectacular natural environment; but its growth as a tourist and retirement destination has been largely premised on the destruction of that environment. I’m hardly the first to point out that paradox, and as someone with training in archaeology, I recognize that destruction is sometimes inevitable. But my overwhelming takeaway from this trip is that there’s a lot of opportunity to just correct things that are sloppy, should political and public will exist. Or, you know, maybe the whole state will just slide into the ocean. That’s always a possibility.

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A Walk in the Neighborhood and Urban Albany

It’s drop-dead gorgeous out today, and Wednesday is my day off of classes, so it was time for a walk around the neighborhood. Since the sun is out (finally) I figured now would be a good time to showcase Albany a little bit and comment on some of the (positive and negative) aspects of urban design, planning, and urbanism in the downtown area. All pictures are taken within a mile of my apartment.

Tree budding, Hudson Ave. just east of Lark

Tree budding, Hudson Ave. just east of Lark

One of the the surprising things about Albany is that some of the monumental architecture can make it feel like a much bigger city than it really is (~97,000 people, down from a high of 135,000). Here the towers of the Empire State Plaza–the larger one, the Corning Tower, is 42 stories, and the Agency Buildings are about 20 stories shorter–pop up over the mid-rise apartment buildings occupying the valuable real estate adjacent to Washington Park as we look east down Hudson Avenue. The towers are cleverly tucked into the slope down to the Hudson so that their full height isn’t apparent, but they do put the low-rise Center Square neighborhood into perspective.

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Olmstedian (though not designed by Olmsted himself) Washington Park is one of the true joys of living in downtown Albany. Here, the sun shines over the lake that is one of the park’s central features, and over the odd-duck Lake House (now mainly used as a theater), one of a very few Spanish Revival-styled buildings in the area.

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Who says modern builders can’t imitate historic styles? I don’t usually walk on the block of Madison between New Scotland and Robin, so while scooting by on the bus I’ve never actually noticed that this townhouse is a relatively recent fake:

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Albany has several other infill projects that are well-done imitations of historic styles; it’s something that the city does well. If that offers hope, turning the corner offers despair:

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This was really the point of my walk today. The Park South Urban Renewal Plan–yes, we still use that phrase here in Albany–driven by Albany Medical Center has (just since I moved here less than two years ago!) wiped out two whole blocks of homes to put up a new mixed-use development (but mainly just parking). Just months ago, this view would have looked like this:

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The plans certainly aren’t the worst, but they’re certainly not the most urban-feeling plans either. What makes the project–the beneficiary of state tax credits–particularly outrageous is that the enormous, 800-1000 car garage (the exact size seems to keep changing) you can see under construction in the picture above is completely unnecessary.

More garage, in case you weren't convinced enough of the scale.

More garage, in case you weren’t convinced enough of the scale.

Somehow, a single daffodil survives between concrete, construction materials, and insulation material that's been left out. It's almost TOO #$@#$ poetic.

Somehow, a single daffodil survives between concrete, construction materials, and insulation material that’s been left out. It’s almost TOO #$@#$ poetic.

 

No seriously, it's really huge.

No seriously, it’s really huge.

What was here before clearance? Nothing particularly special, a few low-rise middle-class homes:

Looking west on Dana about halfway between New Scotland and Robin

Looking west on Dana about halfway between New Scotland and Robin

The Park South neighborhood has been in a rut for a while; many of the houses, including the ones that have survived the renewal project, are in poor shape, and this was never an upper-class neighborhood to begin with. That being said, AMC owns much of the real estate in the area and has been patiently awaiting its opportunity at redevelopment. And major institutions, for-profit or not, that hold on to large swaths of land for a promise of future development over long periods of time are virtually never good stewards; if you haven’t read my early post on Chicago’s The Valley neighborhood, go do so. Granted, it’s an extreme example, but it’s illustrative of the dangers of long-term planning for megablock development.

We’ll close the tour with a picture of something more hopeful, a new mixed-use building (retail on the first floor and apartments above) on the corner of Lark, Delaware, and Madison.

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I could’ve gone with two or three more stories of apartments on top, but it’s certainly nothing to sniff at…and there’s no added parking! (the building will share with the condoized historic police station next door on Madison)

Amazing how many issues come up on a brief (1.5 miles total) stroll around the neighborhood sometimes.

Searching for a Good Albany-Area Amtrak Station Site

Albany has a train station problem.

Surprising, maybe, considering the beautiful and (by train station standards) more or less brand new (opened 2002) Albany-Rensselaer station, which typically ranks 9th or 10th out of all Amtrak stations in annual ridership. But true nonetheless.

A few days ago I got into a brief Twitter discussion with the illustrious Cap’n Transit about the state of the Albany train station:

This is, of course, an entirely theoretical discussion. Amtrak and CDTA, which owns the station, are heavily invested in the current Albany-Rensselaer station, and moving it at this point would be a waste of relatively recently spent infrastructure dollars.  In Albany, of course, politics plays into everything; the Rensselaer station is, to a large extent, one of the many fruits of that notorious porkmaster, former State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. It is, however, exceptionally difficult to get to by any mode other than driving, despite being only a mile and a half from downtown Albany (if you don’t believe me, just read the comments on this Times-Union blog post). CDTA buses arrive only four times an hour at most, and rather than coming into the station as originally planned they stop on the street outside, in a completely non-intuitive location. Walking what should be a decent distance to downtown Albany or the Empire State Plaza requires crossing the Hudson on the concrete hellscape of the Dunn Memorial Bridge, itself a monument to highway plans that would have done irreparable damage to Albany had they gone through fully.

So the location of Albany’s train station, not to put too fine of a point on it, sucks. The question of moving it may be entirely theoretical at this point, but it’s an interesting question nonetheless. If I were given significant power to physically reshape the Capital Region (like, say, Nelson Rockefeller in the ’60s), where would I put the crown jewel of the region’s non-automobile transportation system?

Albany, of course, once had the downtown station that the Cap’n and I both wish could still exist. The building, in fact, still exists, and it is quite stately:

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

Abandoned as a railroad building in 1968, Union Station has seen use as a bank headquarters, and after sitting empty for a while is now being converted into something called “the SUNY College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering’s Smart Cities Technology Innovation Center, or SCiTI.” Once upon a time, New York Central trains (Delaware & Hudson was the other major tenant) reached Union Station from Rensselaer via the Maiden Lane Bridge, like so:

Today (well, as of 1968), the Maiden Lane Bridge is gone, and the area behind the Union Station building, which once held coach yards and two levels of platforms, looks like this:

The approach to the old Union Station, like the rest of the Albany waterfront, has been entirely amputated by I-787, with the only remaining rails, the old D&H Colonie Main, relocated to the middle of the freeway, completely inaccessible from the street. The old platform canopy now shades (a little) a parking garage.

The issue with a downtown station, then, is that not only is the old site unavailable, but so are any other potential sites along the waterfront–that is, any site close to downtown Albany.  So, where CAN one put a station in Albany proper?

One possibility is near the  much dreamed-upon Central Warehouse (proposals for reuse have included an aquarium. Yes, an aquarium), just west of the Livingston Avenue Bridge across the Hudson, on the northern fringes of Albany. The station could occupy the site currently used by the burnt-out hulk, or the short straightaway a little to the west between Broadway and Pearl. The site looks like this:

This wouldn’t move the station very far, of course, but it would get it across the Hudson and into an area with better transit service. The area around the Central Warehouse is seeing a limited revival as part of a brewery neighborhood, but is clearly in need of significant revitalization that a train station could bring. That being said, it’s still pretty far from downtown (about 7/1oths of a mile), and there are a few engineering challenges: platforms couldn’t be very long because of the curves, and it’s not at all clear that the necessary four tracks could be squeezed into the existing right-of-way.

The truth is, though, if we’re looking for a station location that will attract the most ridership, downtown Albany may not offer the most potential in any case. The 2012 ACS numbers show only around 1,100 people living in the census tract that covers Downtown, and while the city has been doing a good job of trying to attract high-end residential conversions to the area, that process had been going very slowly. When I get off my bus coming home from school in the evenings (in Center Square, a little up the hill), I’m always surprised to see that I’m one of the last 2 or 3 people on the bus; non-commute demand to downtown is just exceptionally weak. The truth is that most Albany transportation demand resides uptown, in the dense neighborhoods along Central Avenue, and the more suburbanized areas near the uptown SUNY campus.

Is there, then, a fringe station location that might have something to offer? The idea of a station in suburban Albany is not new; one existed in the large suburb of Colonie for a number of years in the ’60s and ’70s (I can’t seem to find a source for an exact opening date), closing in 1979.  Technically called Schenectady-Colonie, since due to cost-cutting measures it replaced the downtown Schenectady station, this little stop sat about halfway down the passenger main between Albany and Schenectady, very much in the middle of suburban nothingness:

Needless to say, the Schenectady-Colonie station was a ridership disaster from the beginning. (click on the linked article–come for the vintage-1979 Turboliner picture, stay for the speed and trip-time promises that are remarkably similar to today’s!) After hemorrhaging riders for years, the Schenectady-Colonie station closed for good when enough government money became available to build the existent Schenectady station, which sits on the remains of the one that was torn down under Penn Central, and is now slated for replacement itself. In any case, the Schenectady-Colonie station building still exists; the building in this picture is clearly the same one visible at center if you zoom in the map above far enough.  Of course, no station will ever be built there again; it has zero access to public transit, is in the middle of nowhere, and sits smack dab in the center of a long tangent that allows trains to exercise their full 110-mph speed.

So is there a single location for an Albany-area station that I think might be better than the current one? Given the paucity of options, I’m not sure that anything short of a total rebuilding of the Albany waterfront that brings trains back and eliminates I-787 (something I’m for, by the way) can really do the job to full satisfaction. There is one site, though, that might, to some extent, bring benefits greater than the current setup. If it were up to me, I would put Albany’s intercity train station in the empty triangle of land described by Central Avenue, the tracks, and the borders of the Railroad Avenue industrial district, just across the city boundary in Colonie:

This site has room for four tracks, is adjacent to Central Avenue, the area’s main drag, with its BRT-lite BusPlus service (as well as local service), and offers potential for development. It’s also not far from the UAlbany campus, which is a major ridership generator. It’s also just past the top of the slow, curvy climb out of the Hudson Valley, and thus stopping there won’t cost trains as much time as slowing in the middle of the sprint from or to Schenectady. The site is also a brownfield, formerly home to a National Lead plant that was shut down by the state courts in 1984 for polluting; amazingly enough given its proximity to homes, the plant was found to have been using depleted uranium and other radioactive materials in its work, and so the site has for the last 30 years been under the stewardship of first the federal Department of Energy and then the Army Corps of Engineers. With its rather notorious history, the prospect of redeveloping the National Lead site as housing is probably unappealing. But the site is transit-accessible, central, and offers the prospect of being the lever that can bring the Central Ave. corridor in Colonie into a more urban future. If magically the prospect of moving the Albany train station becomes realistic, this location has my vote.