What makes a downtown cool?
Last week, Orlando city leaders announced plans to launch a yearlong initiative to make downtown Orlando a cool place to live, work and play. Certain cities across the country - Austin, Portland and Seattle - seem to have that cool vibe, so why not Orlando?
Before moving to Orlando, I lived in Huntsville, Alabama. For the geographically challenged, Huntsville is in northern Alabama, less than an hour's drive from the Tennessee line.
For years, Huntsville had a downtown problem. Too few shops. Too few parking spaces. Too few pedestrians during the day. Too few people staying downtown after a hockey game or a concert.
Since I left in 2010, Huntsville has taken dramatic steps to liven up its downtown with farmers markets, free concerts, more dining options and millions of dollars in improvements to its courthouse square. There's even a sidewalk mini-golf course planned for June and talk of operating a mobile bar in a Winnebago.
While Huntsville probably wouldn't be considered "cool" by most outsiders, at least their city leaders recognized that something had to be done and did it.
For Orlando city leaders to take an active approach is a step in the right direction. But they need to look beyond just cool. Downtown Orlando needs to be vibrant, fun, safe, affordable, unique and, most of all, a destination for all.
Here's my 7 ways to improve downtown Orlando:
1. Start telling the 'other' story of Orlando
Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, Sea World and the dozens of other attractions in the region are what bring millions of tourists to Central Florida every year. But what about the other side of Orlando that's way from the tourist spots? Whenever my friends and family visit, I take them to Lake Eola, Thornton Park and the Amway Center. I'm proud of where I live and all that Orlando has to offer, and yet I hardly see much promotion for downtown.
2. Think outside of Lake Eola
We get it: Lake Eola is a beautiful park with pretty swans and a fountain that lights up. It's so popular that it seems every weekend there's another beer festival, walk for a cure or puppy event around the park. But downtown has a large footprint, and event organizers and city leaders should try to utilize the entire area. If more people are drawn to others parts of downtown, it will boost foot traffic and show off to festivalgoers that there's more to Orlando than Lake Eola.
3. There's an amphitheater. USE IT
I know I just said to get away from Lake Eola, but there's an exception: the Walt Disney Amphitheater. If you don't know music venue, it's the aqua-colored bandshell on the shores of Lake Eola. But besides during the Christmas season, have you ever seen a concert there? And could you tell me when the next concert will take place? I don't understand how that bandshell isn't the scene for weekly concerts. Some cities would kill for a permanent structure with seating, and yet the one in Orlando isn't used for regularly scheduled events.
4. Parking is a priority
Walking doesn't bother me. I'll park two miles away just to save $5. But I'm the exception. Parking is a major issue for a lot of people visiting downtown. City leaders along with restaurant and bar owners should work together to simplify the parking situation. Better signage could do wonders for those who aren't downtown regulars. It can be a challenge finding a spot on a busy Saturday night. In addition to the garages, parking meters ought to take debit and credit cards. Almost no one under 30 carries cash, and even fewer carry change.
5. SunRail must operate past 10 p.m. and on the weekends
It's debatable if SunRail will change the landscape of commuting in Central Florida. But it certainly won't change how people get to and from downtown Orlando at night.
As of now, the trains are scheduled to stop around 9 p.m. on weekdays. How is anyone supposed to get off work, get to a train station, stop downtown, eat dinner and then make it back to the station before the last train? And forget about using the train for just about any event at the Amway Center or the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing, unless you want to leave at intermission. The train also won't run on weekends, so a night out with friends on a Saturday or a Sunday funday at Wall Street Plaza is out of the question.
6. Create a community
For almost two years, I lived near Lake Eola Park in an apartment on Livingston Street. Now my wife and I live in College Park. It's a three-mile difference, but they seem worlds apart. While living downtown, I can't recall feeling like we were ever involved in the community. In College Park, it's hard not to meet your neighbors at the College Park Jazzfest or the Dancing on the Drive Street Party event.
Downtown Orlando - as a whole, and not just Eola Heights, Delany Park or Thornton Park - needs localized, community-planned events geared toward the residents of downtown. That's in addition to more local shops, businesses, eateries, bars with outdoor seating and arts-based ventures.
7. A downtown for all
Downtown isn't for Magic fans. It isn't for college students, government workers or patrons of the University Club. It's a centrally located place that Central Floridians - moms, dads, kids, grandparents and college students - should be able to enjoy. There should be restaurants to take grandma. Art galleries for hipsters. Sports bars for Orlando Solar Bears Predators fans. Trying to cater to one group of people won't work to improve downtown because no one group of people will turn downtown into a vibrant place to live, work and play. It's the gathering of all people that will transform downtown into a destination and a success.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun