Within the next few months, if city commissioners approve, Fort Lauderdale residents will have the option of receiving and paying their bills for city services online. The savings in postage and personnel will be used to purchase shade trees for residents who use the online pay system, or be placed elsewhere around the city.
That’s one proposed outcome of a new plan, called Vision Plan 2035, offering residents’ views of what the city should become.
Many who spoke up said they wanted “more walkability and bikeability, getting out of the car and into more public transit and other alternatives,” according to Susy Torriente, the assistant city manager who is overseeing the Vision Plan.
Shade trees are an important part of the budding plan – intended to encourage people to get out and walk or bike. Residents who opt to use online billing will be first in line to get them if they choose.
“There are ways to get things done,” said City Manager Lee Feldman, who envisions a tree canopy all around the city. “We can come up with solutions without increasing the budget.”
Commissioners will get a look at the Vision Plan’s survey results during today’s (Feb. 19) meeting at 1:30 p.m. at City Hall.
The full plan is to be presented to the commission for its consideration on April 16.
This isn’t the first time community members have been involved in the city’s long-range planning. In the 1980s, such plans were drawn up in advance of development of the Riverwalk complex and the Museum of Discovery and Science.
Today’s long-range planning effort began as a citizens’ initiative in 2008 led by a local discussion group headed by former Mayor Robert Dressler. Dressler, who served as mayor from 1982-1986, runs The Fort Lauderdale Forum.
In the spring of 2009, a proposal to create a new plan was presented to the city commission, which appointed an eleven-member “Visioning Committee.”
“Called ‘Our City, Our Vision,’ the process aims to determine what our citizens want Fort Lauderdale to be in 2035, and a specific goal has been to reach out to citizens not normally involved in city government,” Dressler wrote in a recent article for CityView Newsmagazine.
In early 2011, the commission hired the Philadelphia-based planning firm Wallace, Roberts and Todd to complete the first phase of the project – public outreach. The firm was paid $55,000.
The commission had approved another $250,000 for the contractor to complete the remaining two phases, but after Feldman was hired a few months later he decided to save money and take the planning in-house. Feldman’s budget for the remaining work is $42,000.
Both Feldman and Torriente have extensive experience with long range city planning. The city’s planning department also contributed.
VISION PROVIDES FRAMEWORK
Through a variety of methods, residents and city staff discussed the challenges and opportunities the city will face in coming years and came up with a framework for what residents would like to see happen.
From there, it is up to the city to develop innovative projects and funding, such as online bill paying to pay for shade trees. Another project that fits under the Vision Plan’s transportation component is already underway – linking rapid transit with trolleys and the WAVE streetcar to help lessen the number of cars on the roadways.
The Visioning Committee conducted a survey that collected more than 1,500 comments that amount to a “wish list” from residents across the city.
For the plan to work correctly, Feldman said, every city project should fall within the vision.
“If they don’t, I will recommend to the commission that they are contrary to the vision,” he said.
The survey was conducted using one-on-one interviews, town hall meetings and local summit groups.
“This allowed as many people to participate as possible,” said Torriente.
A recent Downtown Walkability study for downtown Fort Lauderdale, paid for by the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority and others, offers specifics for how to encourage people to get out of their cars.
For example, the study noted that people need a reason or destination to walk to, using a safe, comfortable and interesting route. To provide those elements, the report suggested that walking routes be lined with shade trees rather than palms, and that roads be narrower, which can be accomplished by a low-cost method of new striping that narrows lanes and slows down cars.
“The Vision Plan is an aspirational message for 2035 not necessarily linked to one project or one thing,” Feldman said. The study with its specific suggestions fits into the Vision Plan nicely and is an example of where project ideas can come from, he added.
The city’s five-year strategic plan outlines specific projects within that time period and the city’s annual plan dictates when the project will be done and how it is funded.
PLAN INTRODUCTION MET WITH NAYSAYERS
The Vision Plan has had detractors. According to Vision Committee chairman Randall Vitale, an executive with Gibraltar Private Bank and Trust, complaints surfaced when the city hired consultants to do the work.
“It was felt that they were out-of-town consultants who didn’t know the community,” Vitale said.
There were also objections about the cost, but those dissipated after the project was brought in house.
City resident Dennis Ulmer attended the most recent Vision Committee meeting last week and said that while he supports the Vision Plan, the committee needs to better consider how global warming will affect city projects, such as putting utilities underground.
Even Feldman said the plan is not without pitfalls.
“The plan could get so aspirational that it’s not achievable,” Feldman said.
PLAN TIMING IS STRATEGIC
Supporters say the strength of the Visioning Plan is that it sets a destination for the city – a roadmap to the future.
Feldman said the Vision Plan would not become another public document that sits on a shelf. Instead, he says he will measure city performance against what is in the plan.
“We’ll be talking about ‘this is our vision, this is where we are, let’s develop priorities for next year’s budget.’”
And the timing is right. Feldman said that building permits for 3,800 housing units in the downtown area have been requested and are currently under review.
“People are coming back to the city,” he said. “And these condos and multi-family units will be above [ground floor] retail businesses.”
Some buildings in that mixed development will have retail, with parking above and residential on top of that, he said. Others will have retail, with parking, office space and finally residential on top.
“With increased density, we’re going to see increased retail, mass transit working better and walkability is vital,” Feldman said.
The timing is also strategic because city staff is beginning to think about the 2014 budget. If all goes as Feldman hopes, that new budget could be structured under the Vision Plan.
Ann Henson Feltgen can be reached at email@example.com