Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Opening our Bayfront to Pedestrians, Cyclists, and family Activities on Weekends

The Case for Waterfront Access. Pensacola’s greatest natural asset is our beautiful waterfront, particularly our downtown waterfront. We need to capitalize on this asset to improve our quality of life for those who live here and to help recruit new jobs to our city.

Unfortunately, many of us have limited opportunities to be close to our waterfront. Indeed Bayfront Parkway, which affords passing motorists vistas of our bay, also acts as an effective barrier to access. Therefore, I propose that we create a program that will close Bayfront Parkway to cars on the weekends to open our waterfront for the enjoyment of all.

Other models. Many cities around the country have similar programs. In Cambridge, MA, they have closed Memorial Drive, one of the most major thoroughfares right along Boston’s Charles River, on Sundays from April to November since 1975. This is an extremely popular event, bringing almost 6000 people on a good day to a 1.5 mile stretch.

In Cambridge, they use simple metal gates like those used for parades to block access to the roads and in some places just orange cones. Typically one will see ice cream vendors, roller blade rentals, and other related businesses set up. Many people come out for a jog or bike ride with the family (little kids do great on their bikes on a wide roadway). Additionally, fitness centers like the YMCA have programs in adjacent parks, people picnic, and even belly dancers have been seen practicing.

An event like this could prove to attract a range of people to downtown on the weekend and would help make Pensacola recreation-friendly.

How to move toward a family friendly bayfront. When Bayfront Parkway was closed in the aftermath of Ivan, there was a constant parade of people using this scenic route for recreation. I would like for the City Council to request that staff do further research on my proposal to close Bayfront Parkway on weekends for bicycling, rollerblading, jogging and walking.

We could close either all of Bayfront—say from Chase to Palafox—or close the south lanes of Bayfront from Chase to Alcaniz. I believe the latter proposal would get less resistance, especially from downtown businesses and restaurants. Indeed, if done right, this would help bring customers to their businesses.

The role of the City. The CRA has been advocating “enlivening public spaces” downtown, and I think that is an important part of revitalizing our downtown. However, we need to be clear on the role of the government versus the private sector. The city has control over certain tools, like road closure. The city should work closely with private groups to see how the city can use its tools to facilitate events. However, the city should not be in the role of providing entertainment.

The costs. I understand that there will be costs. The FDOT has regulations for closing roads, and I am optimistic that we can work with them to create a program that is safe and affordable. Roads are closed all the time for construction without huge barriers or being manned, even for extended periods. And Bayfront Parkway is frequently closed for special events in the historic Seville area.

Funding. While closing off a portion of Bayfront Parkway would entail some costs, it should be relatively small. Still we should scrutinize any new programs and costs and look for funding sources other than tax dollars. To fund this road closure, I propose that we shift money from some of the existing CRA programs which, if they are deemed beneficial by the private sector, could be taken over by private sector groups (*see below). These funds would cover the costs of the proposed road closure on Bayfront Parkway.

In addition we should seek private sector support (perhaps banners of sponsors on the light posts) for this program. These banners could be used to enliven the Bayfront just as we use those on Palafox to promote community events.

What's next. I presented a version of this information to council at our committee meeting this week. I let them know that I would like to bring it up at our next meeting, and Sam Hall has asked for it to be on the agenda for the Neighborhood Services committee. I would appreciate hearing your comments about this between now and then (and after) so we can work together to make this the vibrant city we all want it to be.

*The city should play either a supporting role (road closures, etc) or a catalytic role in enlivening our downtown. Last New Year's Eve the city successfully created the Pelican Drop. The success of that program should lead the private sector to sponsor the activity again next New Year's Eve, though the city will continue in a support role (closing Palafox, etc).
We need to review all of our programs to determine the city's role. For instance, the private Evenings in Olde Seville program has been going on for many years. While it is wildly popular, each year they struggle to raise sufficient funding for this summer music program. When the city sponsors a similar music program on the same night, it undermines the efforts of the private group. Why would a donor use their limited funds to pay for something the city is already doing? The city should carefully review the music program to see if it was successful, and, if so, we should step back to a supporting role, allowing the private sector to vote with their dollars if the program improves the quality of life downtown.