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About 60 people packed into The Yard on Mass on Thursday night to talk about what is needed in Downtown West, the areas north of Lake Hunter all the way to Memorial Boulevard and between Florida Avenue and Brunnell Parkway.
Top priorities expressed by attendees included better access to Bonnet Springs Park for walkers and bicyclists, more bus stops, better sidewalks, improved street lighting and a grocery store.
“We need to figure out a way to really put our best foot forward as a community in these key spots,” said Blake Drury, director of planning and urban design for GAI Consultants, the firm hired by the city to develop an action plan for Downtown West.
Lakeland’s Community Redevelopment Agency is trying to breathe new life into an area that has been plagued by blight for decades. City leaders are hoping the plan developed by GAI will lead to partnerships with developers to build new homes, apartments and businesses. Another goal is to guide development of infrastructure connecting the area to downtown with improved transit, sidewalks and bike paths.
“What sort of new development or inflow development from a residential perspective might be right?” Drury, a Lakeland native, asked the audience. “What kind of daily-needs commercial are you missing that you need — close to home to make to make a fuller and broader community so that we can go from surviving to thriving?”
Drury said he and his firm have conducted interviews and analyzed maps and data in the market to determine the community’s needs.
“We can give you professional perspective. We can give you ideas that we’ve seen work in lots of places around Florida, around the country, but at the end of the day, you all as folks who live and work or play in the community are the ones that really know best.”
He said the consultants are concentrating on three factors:
- Improving connectivity for everyone, including better sidewalks, increased streetlights and bike lanes, and added shade trees
- Increasing and improving the residential base through increased density
- Nurturing the neighborhoods
“In other places, it might be that we need better code enforcement because there’s a corner of the neighborhood where it’s getting a little trashy that isn’t consistent with everything else,” Drury said. “In some parts, it might be, ‘Hey, how do we get maybe a different kind of residential in here that matches the stuff that’s going on in the neighborhood?’”
An online “story map” created by the consultants and the city of Lakeland shows an aerial view of Downtown West comparing a 1994 view and a current view using an interactive photo slider:
Six large posters – two each on each topic — were place outside and people could place stickers on the items they felt were most important and also leave post-it notes with comments.
More than a dozen people marked on one poster that they felt the new Bonnet Springs Park needs better access, particularly for walkers and bikers. One person commented that there needs to be a stoplight at Quincy Street and Kathleen Road and nearby access to the park.
As far as roads, sidewalks and bike lanes, seven people marked that there needed to be more bus stops and shelters, while six people wanted improved street lighting and sidewalks.
Drury pointed to a photograph of what used to be a brick road and sidewalk that once crossed U.S. Highway 98 before it was widened and became George Jenkins Boulevard.
“It’s not stopped anybody – you can still see the path there. But what it says is, you know, maybe this isn’t as dignified as it probably should be. Or it’s not safe and comfortable,” Drury said. “There is this pattern that persists, where there’s some good stuff and then there’s some stuff that is a little tattered and so we need to think about how to work with that.”
Also 17 people felt a grocery store was important in six of the seven Downtown West neighborhoods: North Lake Wire, Lake Wire, Downtown, Lake Beulah, Westgate Central Avenue and George Jenkins Boulevard.
As far as what kinds of housing people wanted to see, the majority wanted apartment buildings or mixed-use apartment buildings with shops. Only three people wanted to see tiny homes for affordable housing built in either the Crescent Heights or George Jenkins Boulevard areas.
The housing issue was one Drury addressed. While property values are increasing in a few areas, there are about 150 homes or lots that have sat vacant for a decade or more. Those properties have either stagnated in value or decreased.
“You can see the effect that this persistent vacancy has within the neighborhood,” Drury said. “We have to figure out a way to free up those lots to actually build something on them. That is a positive part.”
Terry Coney, a Lakeland native, U.S. Air Force veteran and president of the NAACP Lakeland Branch, said he wants to see restaurants like Chili’s or Applebees, along with gas stations and drug stores, open in the Downtown West area.
“They need to bring a developer or somebody that comes in and develops a futuristic picture of that area,” Coney said. He added that many of the vacant lots Drury discussed are actually owned by the city of Lakeland under the Community Redevelopment Agency – or CRA. “You’ll see sign after sign that says, ‘Property of the CRA.’ It’s not that they have to talk to individual owners and figure out what they’re going to do with the properties – the city owns all that.”
David Bunch, a local Realtor who helped to develop Bonnet Spring Park, said that while this is not the neighborhood in which he lives, he is adamantly opposed to gentrifying the area. (The Oxford English Dictionary defines gentrification as “the process whereby the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses, typically displacing current inhabitants in the process.”)
Instead, Bunch said he wants to see Downtown West spruced up and made nice for the residents who are there.
“The rest of the story is fix the neighborhoods while you’re connecting them. One hundred fifty vacant lots – that’s a failed neighborhood,” Bunch said. “The park is a starter – now you can do it. The stars are aligned. North Lake Wire is an easy fix to finish it out as a subdivision.”
One new development going in is a deal that Bunch worked on: Prospect Lake Wire, a mixed-use apartment building and shops on the old Florida Tile property at Kathleen Road and George Jenkins Boulevard. Funding from that property will pay for the continued upkeep of Bonnet Springs Park.
“They fixed a brownfield,” said Natalie Oldenkamp, Realtor and a new member of Lakeland’s Historic Preservation Board. “It’s time consuming and expensive.”
But she and Drury noted that it will bring permanent residents to the area who will want to shop and play.
One woman, a 54-year-old Kathleen High School graduate who lives in the Downtown West neighborhood and who did not want to be identified, said the plans concern her. She said that while the city was asking for input, she believes city leaders will simply do what they want similar to Morehead in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
City officials used an eminent domain law to take the homes of the historically Black neighborhood, paying residents pennies on the dollar for the homes many of their grandparents had built. They were torn down to build the entertainment-convention complex now called the RP Funding Center.
She grew up in Lakeland and lives in a home her mother built in the 1970s on West Myrtle Street between Texas and Ohio avenues. She said it is a quiet neighborhood of professionals, although she knows that nearby, there is drug dealing and prostitution.
“What I don’t want to see is them tearing people’s homes down – I don’t care how they pretty it up,” she said. “African Americans know when they see stuff like this, they’re going to move us out of our homes. I wish they’d just tell the truth.”
She said once that’s done and new homes and apartments are built, her Black neighbors won’t be able to afford to live there any more, adding that what buildings like Mirrorton and NoBay charge in rent far exceed the mortgage she pays.
Thursday’s session was the first of two planned workshops. A second one is planned for springtime after a vision has been developed, and the Downtown West action plan is due for release at the end of summer.
Valerie Ferrel, manager of Lakeland’s Community Redevelopment Agency, said this is an ongoing project and she welcomes community input. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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