Concrete solution

As Orlando matures from sleepy, semi-rural town to suburban regional center, the changes often pit the desires and lifestyles of the "old guard" against the need to confront concerns that come with living in a modern metropolis. The eruption over the city's plan to pave a mile or two of sidewalk in Audubon Park is the latest example of how the gardening gloves can come off in anger when citizens are asked to embrace the evolving nature of the city.

Directing most of their vitriol against pro-sidewalk Commissioner Patty Sheehan are the folks who've been living here for generations and see no need to change the dynamics of their lazy subtropical neighborhoods. For some of them, in fact, it's still the 1950s. One-car families, in no particular hurry to get anywhere, still generously share brick roadways with barefoot boys on their way to the fishing hole. Yard work is an avocation, and one's quarter-acre of sod is constitutionally protected turf.

On the other side of the contest are the émigrés who moved to town over the past 20 years, swelling the city's population by 35 percent. Many hail from bigger cities and don't see the imposition of sidewalks as an affront to their personal freedom. They also have been vocal in their desire to protect their families from the traffic scofflaws who rocket through their neighborhood streets, heedless of the speed limits and unmindful of the kids who play outdoors.

In fact, the issue was a major part of last year's mayoral campaign, with challenger Bruce Gordy insisting the city needed at least 60 miles of new sidewalks. Although Gordy lost, Mayor Glenda Hood was wise enough to realize that sidewalks are a major concern. In the first budget of her third term, she boosted the city's sidewalk construction budget twelvefold, to $3 million. The plan is for 14-18 miles of new sidewalks this year, mostly near schools.

Opponents make the following arguments: Sidewalks will lower their property values; cause an increase in crime; invite strangers to lurk near their bedroom windows; tempt teen-agers to litter their property; and, most importantly, cause them to lose some of their carefully manicured lawns, cultivated flower beds and stately old trees to the city's desire to pave a 5-foot swath between their homes and the curb. They deny that children will be any safer and only see sidewalks as an assault on their real estate and their preferred way of being neighbors.

As a veteran of that same debate, I can assure these folks that none of the dire consequences they predict have, in fact, occurred on my College Park block since the city installed a sidewalk there this past spring. On the contrary, the new sidewalk -- one we actually petitioned the city to pave for years but had trouble getting because the budget was so small -- has produced only positive results.

Before our sidewalk was put in, we were perpetually afraid of letting our kids play in front of the house. Walking up and down our street was a dangerous trek -- especially for the elderly. The lack of any buffer between traffic and the yard kept neighbors from lingering. There was always the need to stay alert.

Today, out in front of my house, my kids are playing noisily with their friends -- on the sidewalk. They ride their bikes, ply their scooters and Rollerblades and, yes, even sell lemonade from their makeshift stands. From my window, I can usually see them and even when out of view or earshot, I feel they are safe. The street is still there, but they're near it -- not in it.

During the evening, my wife and I sit on our porch and watch as people stroll by with baby carriages, or joggers make their way beneath the oak canopy. Our elderly neighbors venture out more, and we walk to the corner for minor errands more often as well. Our neighbors linger, our property values continue to rise, we've attracted no criminals or peeping toms, and there is absolutely no doubt that all our kids are a million times safer than they were at this time last year.

In addition, the city made sure to protect every large tree, talked with every neighbor who wanted some minor variance, did the work quickly, competently and for free, and planted the only grass that seems to be thriving in my shady and otherwise fading lawn.

We now have a meandering cement ribbon on our side of the street connecting the properties of dozens of people. Because of a few hundred yards of cement, we are a safer, happier and saner neighborhood. So put the gloves back on, and let the garden party begin!

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