What Sarasota Can Learn from Portland

Bill Fulton of the California Planning & Development Report recently returned from a trip to Portland, Oregon – the planners’ nirvana, he calls it – and wrote a post detailing six lessons he learned there that can be applied anywhere. In response, I’m pulling quotes from his post and considering how those lessons might be applied here in Sarasota, Florida.

1) Identify your raw material and use it to your advantage

Although it’s only a half-million people, Portland has a huge downtown core, a large industrial area now being revitalized (the Pearl District) and all kinds of civic endowments from the wealth-building years as a timber capital – such as, for example, a park seemingly every three blocks in the downtown. The lesson here is not to try to create buildings or neighborhoods like Portland’s, but to understand what your raw material is and use it to your best advantage.”

Like Fulton says, the lesson here is not to imitate Portland, but to follow its example. What is Sarasota’s raw material? There are some industrial buildings, mostly one-story, along Central and other streets just northof downtown. How might those be repurposed, revitalized? Are there unused buildings related to Sarasota’s agricultural past that could help better define the local urban fabric?

Downtown itself offers some great raw material. It’s compact (roughly four-by-twenty short blocks) and well-defined, features some interesting and eclectic architecture, is bisected by the two primary north-south roads (a blessing and a curse), and connects to the bayfront. Several neighborhoods, including Southside Village and Laurel Park, either could or do support mixed-use mini-Main Streets.

This isn’t quite what Fulton meant by raw material, but Sarasota has some outstanding climatological and geographical attributes. Yes, Florida summers are hot and humid. But even on the hottest day of the year walking or bicycling under cover of shade is pleasant. And for seven months or so the weather is SoCal perfect. Meaning that Sarasota has the rare potential to support active street life 365 days a year. The coastlines, whether bay or oceanfront, are gorgeous. So is the lush native flora. And then there are the various rivers, creeks, and waterways…shouldn’t they be better integrated into the built environment? Could places like the Venice Canals (CA not IT) work here?

A big advantage Sarasota has as far as raw material goes is space, both open and potential. It is not a heavily built-up city, and much of what has been built is undeniably disposable. That may sound like a backhanded compliment, which I suppose it is, but it means that Sarasota has a degree of freedom when it comes to imagining its future-self that many cities must envy.

Sarasota also has a valuable resource in its people. A disproportionate number of wealthy retirees with time, money, and experience have made Sarasota their home. Instead of carping NIMBYs, they should be leaders. They have much to offer. As do the also disproportionate number of working poor. Labor is not in short supply here.

2) Don’t be afraid to just build stuff

“Since my last visit seven years ago, Portland has built the aerial tramway from the South Waterfront (the flats just to the south of downtown) to the Oregon Health Sciences University campus on Marquam Hill. No other city in the United States except New York has ever even tried to build such a tram, and the Portland project was plagued by secretiveness, political controversy, 1,000% cost overruns, and neighborhood opposition. In the end, they built it anyway – and it is now the key to keeping the city’s largest employer in Portland and an anchor for a series of condo and office towers in the South Waterfront area (also proof that they’re not afraid to build stuff). Sometimes you just have to build stuff and see what happens.”

This one comes with a caveat: don’t be afraid to just build stuff as long as the stuff is being built to improve the city as a whole. Don’t just build stuff because developers want to. Or because tourists might like it. Or snowbirds. Sarasota’s experience with “just build stuff” hasn’t been as positive as Portland’s, primarily because most of what Portland builds is intended to improve the experience of actually living there. Sarasota tries to please many masters, rarely the best strategy.

Sarasota has nearly infinite opportunities to just build stuff. Apartments above shops on Main Street. Mixed-use neighborhood anchors at many different intersections along US 41 and SR 301. A college district. Trams on 41/301. Bike paths. An esplanade. A pier. Cohousing and eco villages. A revitalized North Trail. A fully-realized and integrated downtown. Innovative examples of sustainable development. But instead we end up with the Renaissance condo towers, Golden Gate Point, 1350 Main Street, Lakewood Ranch sprawl, gated communities like The Oaks: built stuff that is out of scale, out of touch, out of reach, and out of control. No wonder the no-growth movement is so vocal here.

Past mistakes, however, shouldn’t prevent future successes. Sometimes things don’t work out. Buildings aren’t permanent, and neither are streets, neighborhoods, nor even cities. Sarasota shouldn’t be afraid to just build stuff, but it should do everything it can to make sure that stuff is getting built for the right reasons. “Because I can,” might work in rural settings. Not so in the city. A city is fundamentally more concerned with we than me.

3) Never stop thinking about the actual walking experience

“If you look carefully at both Downtown Portland and the celebrated Pearl District, you’ll realize that, although both are built on small grids, we are not talking about the typical New Urbanist wet dream of four-story neoclassical boulevards. For every two or three handsome ’20s downtown midrise, there’s at least one mid-century modernist monstrosity.

“But, partly because of the 200-foot blocks, even these behemoths have created totally walkable places. The Pearl District might have a one-story electrical company adjacent to a three-story converted warehouse adjacent to a 15-story condo tower – yet all have a great feel at the street level. Even if you have longer blocks in your town, you have to think about how to break them up – and never, ever overlook what it’s like simply to walk down the street.”

Walkability is something Sarasota can, and should, pay far more attention to. Sidewalks appear and disappear from block to block (sometimes mid-block) and are typically too narrow and poorly maintained. Foliage frequently impedes the walker’s path from the sides and from above. Many crosswalks are unmarked. Places like Portland, Cambridge, San Francisco, New York, and Seattle are great places to walk because the pedestrian is considered, valued, and built for there.

With more than a third of its population over the age of 65, Sarasota County is the oldest large county in the country. Walkability (and bikability) becomes increasingly important as one ages; it prevents isolation, promotes physical fitness, and helps aging drivers step out from behind the wheel. Perhaps the biggest sin Sarasota commits in limiting its walkability is a lack of shade. Every sidewalk, citywide, should pass beneath tree canopy to protect pedestrians (old and young alike) from sun and rain; such cover would make the city walkable 365 days a year.

Of course, providing great sidewalks and shade cover doesn’t accomplish much if there’s little of interest on the street itself. Sarasota has built for the auto, as the miles of strip malls and street-side parking lots attest. Buildings need to engage the street, the sidewalk, the passerby on foot. Consolidation is also critical. Much of Sarasota is too spread out to be covered on foot. The linear miles of retail and offices along the few main roads should be reorganized into clusters around which suburban sprawl could reconfigure itself. No resident should need a car to accomplish daily tasks, and a city should inspire its residents to step out and enjoy it as often as possible.

4) Keep reinforcing the connection between development and transportation

“In Portland, the new transit stuff reinforces the development pattern, even when (as with the tram) it seems like a pipe dream. This week, Tri-Met will open a new light-rail line to Union Station, which is located in a semi-industrial area rich with redevelopment possibilities. An even more dramatic example is the Portland Streetcar, which connects a variety of dense activity centers in downtown Portland, including Portland State University, the Pearl District, downtown, and the South Waterfront (where it connects with the aerial tram).”

Development and transportation decisions are inextricably linked. Don’t believe me? Drive around Sarasota and take note of available transportation options. Beyond downtown, where residents can walk and bike to most of their needs, an auto is necessary. Buses are infrequent and their routes don’t exactly blanket the city. There’s no tram or streetcar, no light rail. Developers who build outside the downtown core are making a transportation decision for prospective tenants/buyers: you must own a car (or two) in order to live/work here.

Roads for cars and development for cars dominate Sarasota’s landscape because the city is young and its shapers came of age during the postwar suburban/auto boom. It’s what they knew, so it’s what they built. Unfortunately, autosprawl doesn’t work for a relatively elderly population. Really, it doesn’t work for anyone, but older folks and young children are especially affected, since they either can’t drive or (often) shouldn’t drive.

If development decisions are tied to transportation options, everything starts to change. And change, people, is not always bad. More transportation options means more personal freedom of movement. It means owning a car becomes a choice, not a requirement. It means that development is likely to be more compact and support a mix of uses, encouraging community-building and affording residents of all income levels easier access to retail and services.

5) Keep strengthening the informal aspects of city life

“Here’s just one example: You have never seen anything like Portland’s food carts. They line up by the dozen in parking lots, facing the sidewalk, creating an instant streetside food court of amazing and inexpensive culinary choices. This is not urban planning, exactly – or, at least, they’re not about building higher density and more public transit. Rather, the food carts – like lots of other things you see in Portland – strengthen what you might call the Jane Jacobs side of the planning equation – all the quirky, interesting, and sometimes even necessary little human-scale things that make up urban life.

“And, by the way, that’s one of the things that seems to underlie Portland’s success: there are so many people in town who love urban life and want to make it work in a mid-sized city. So add “urban” to the list of things they’re not afraid of. Again, it’s not necessarily a matter of putting food carts in your downtown parking lots, but finding something small and quirky and fun that’s distinct to your town and making it work.”

“Urban” is a hot-button word around these parts. To some it denotes the missing ingredient that prevents Sarasota from being an interesting and vibrant city. To others it signals the death of everything good that has defined Sarasota for generations. To me, “urban” refers more to the built environment, while “urbane” refers more to the collective mindset of a place.

An urban environment is more densely built than a suburban environment, to be sure. But “urbanization” doesn’t mean turning Sarasota into a mini-Manhattan. There is enormous space between suburban sprawl and ultra high-density. A more urban Sarasota would be more physically connected, more compact, more walkable than in its current form. Its urban metabolism would increase, supporting a deeper and more diverse economy, which would in turn encourage graduates of local colleges to stay, attract an educated workforce from elsewhere, and provide more opportunities for under-educated and unskilled residents to improve their situation. A more urban Sarasota would have more going on, it would be more dynamic, more stimulating.

A more “urbane” Sarasota is something entirely different. When Alexis de Toqueville toured the United States in the 1830s he was surprised to find books and newspapers and other evidence of learning and urbanity in remote frontier towns. He noted that while the built environment of city and settlement contrasted mightily, their respective residents were often interchangeable. Over time, as settlers fresh from the cities procreated and generations grew in relative isolation, urbanity diminished.

Sarasota has something of this feel, aided of course by its own form of isolation, situated as it is several hundred miles down the Florida peninsula. Sarasota has little regular interaction with other cities in its region, such as Tampa, and is a long way from any major cities of national or global significance. Proximity encourages interaction, a diversity of interactions stimulate, stimulation inspires creativity. Creativity, if valued for its own sake, can facilitate connection and strengthen community; if commodified it can catalyze gentrification and displacement.

Take Bristol, England. Local graffiti artist Banksy has been creatively expressing his concerns for years. Gradually, as word got out, people started coming to Bristol just to see his work adorning walls and overpasses. Now businesses are trying to change local law so that his work won’t get painted over by the city. Banksy’s art critiques British culture and government policy; one could argue that it is democracy given visual form, much like the murals of Philadelphia or Orgosolo, Sardinia or Guadalajara. Banksy gives the city of Bristol a new identity to rally behind as well as a growing economic engine. This is informal urbanity at its finest, like the food carts of Portland.

The point is, yes, a more urban Sarasota – if urbanization is gradual and kept in-scale – would be an improvement. The old days are gone whether you like it or not. Sarasota is no longer a quiet fishing village or a quaint out-of-the-way tourist destination. It’s a fledgling city, and it needs to start behaving like one. Which is why urbanity is so important. Portland survives its mistakes and flourishes with its successes because it isn’t afraid to be a city, to be urban. Its citizens, when taken as a whole, cultivate their urbanity. It’s cool to read, to be informed, to be engaged, to discuss, to experiment, to care about what happens at home and in the larger world, to be part of the solution.

6) Don’t hold out for perfection

“Don’t ever forget that most of the Portland metro area is just like anywhere else. There are freeways and subdivisions and confusing arterials and big malls and stupid little strip centers. But part of the message is that you don’t have to transform your whole city – only those parts of your city that are ripe for the transforming. There is no better advertisement for creating more walkable cities than … well, than creating just one walkable neighborhood in your town.”

Deny impossibility. Don’t get caught up in all the reasons something can’t get done. So much of Portland shouldn’t have been able to happen, from the Pearl District to Fareless Square to the MAX to the aerial tram. The thing is, if you take one small action and you do it really, really well, it will inspire others. One great small park is better than a mediocre large one, in part because it can inspire other great small parks.

Sarasota has made many big plans for sweeping change, from the Downtown Master Plan to Bayfront Connectivity to countless others. None of have come to pass. But Sarasota also built Island Park and Payne Park, two of the better medium-sized urban parks I’ve encountered. Southside Village, while homogeneous, is an excellent neighborhood-scale urban center. Burns Square, despite its current state, has shown that small-scale mixed-use can work beautifully here. And in the Rosemary District Sarasota has an opportunity to create a really special place, though gentrification is a serious concern.

Having perjured itself as “Paradise” (there’s no such thing) to speculators and tourists for decades, Sarasota needs to come to terms with both its strengths (which are numerous) and its weaknesses (ditto). It needs to follow the lead of cities like Portland without copying them. If it utilizes its raw material fearlessly, builds for all citizens and not just for the wealthy or vocal few, integrates development and transportation, nurtures the creativity and expressiveness of authentic informal urbanity, and puts more emphasis on why things can and should get done than in why they can’t or won’t, and if it recognizes that it is in fact a city and must start to behave like one, Sarasota has a chance to be one hell of a fine place to live. Like Portland, only different.

This entry was posted in Josh Grigsby, Rants, Response Pieces, Sarasota. Bookmark the permalink.

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