Finding Your Center

By staff February 1, 2007

Think of it: When you remember your hometown, don’t you picture the city hall and the post office, the school you attended, even the the police station?

Steven Crowell Jr., North Port’s city manager, made this point when we met recently, and he’s hard at work supervising the creation of just such a memorable municipal center for his fast-growing city. North Port is both young, having been incorporated in 1959, and large, currently listed as Florida’s third biggest city by both land mass and growth rate. It’s expected to create a population base of 250,000 in the not-so-distant future.

Such rapid expansion carries with it the threat of rampant sprawl and loss of recognizable municipal identity, a threat that looms in the miles of paved but empty streets found around both new and established neighborhoods and business centers. To counter the problems such sprawl poses for coherent growth, North Port’s officials have set up a growth plan focused on five Activity Centers, each designed to concentrate commercial, industrial and professional space within easy access to the surrounding residential areas.

Most important is activity center No. 2, designated the government services center for the city. This area, at the intersection of two of the principal circulation corridors, Sumter and Price boulevards, already offers substantial commercial space, including a Publix grocery store and the usual neighboring shops, bank and gas station.

On the north side of this area, new schools line Price Blvd., including the high school’s handsome and highly functional performing arts center.

On the south side of Sumter, a new Government City Center has recently taken shape. And a powerful shape it is, adding a monumental new city hall and a refreshingly non-intimidating police headquarters near the previously built fire station and community park center. The master plan for this area calls for a post office and, eventually, for some commercial and residential construction, all joined by pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and landscaping. In short, this is intended to be North Port’s core, the place residents will remember when they think of their hometown.

The land for this essential center was made available by the developer of Heron Creek, which, together with Sabal Trace, another large golf community, provides an essential residental anchor for the area.

Turning south off Sumter Boulevard, one is immediately struck by the way the spacious street layout tells you that you’re in the government zone, leading past a Florida-vernacular style firehouse toward the community activity center, set in park land. Between these, a traffic circle draws your attention to a ceremonial parkway that leads to the imposing new city hall, large but welcoming, flanked on its north side by the smaller mass of the police headquarters, surprisingly graceful in its tropical pavilion architecture.

Mike Rossin, who’s with Schwab, Twitty and Hanser of Palm Beach and is part of the architectural team responsible for the city hall and the police buildng, describes the complex as “South Florida buildings,” coordinated with the previously existing buildings through the use of compatible colors, carefully calibrated mass and placement on the land. 

Whatever its style, North Port City Hall certainly makes a statement: “Citizens, this is the heart of your city.”

If that sounds a bit Big Brotherly, that may be because of the sheer mass of the building. Rising directly from a small plaza facing the terminus of the entry parkway, the golden-hued structure incorporates a covered entry topped by a railed terrace but otherwise rises without substantial interruption to its roof line. It’s definitely serious, clearly the seat of local power.

Its interiors, however, are comfortable and welcoming, human in scale and warm in color. Each floor has a central lobby, around which suites of offices are separated by function, giving each department its own interior “campus,” with rooms and cubicles built around a central core, full of light and air. Windows are generous, providing substantial natural light and fine views. 

The ground floor, in addition to the usual reception area and departments requiring easy public access for such purposes as utility payments, includes the City Commission’s meeting room, with ample theater-style seating and multi-media support. The design of the dais on which commissioners sit during meetings was one of the few glitches found in the building when it began operation in January of this year. Because of its height, the commissioners could not be seen by some of the audience. Not a good thing, all agreed, and it was fixed forthwith. Still, the room seems a bit cold and intimidating—closer to a throne room than might have been intended—in contrast to the casual, friendly style found elsewhere in the building.

Nearby, the police headquarters is almost startling in its apparent informality. Nothing about it screams “security,” nothing says “cops here.” On the contrary, the peaked roof and the overhang of the eaves, the rich colors and playful variations in height and facade seem designed to bring back an old-fashioned, small-town police presence, one in which the cop on the beat was your friend and protector. Inside, however, this is one smart and tough building, equipped with the all the latest tools for effective law enforcement and community security. 

The architects have found ways to conceal such important functions as secure access by police vehicles while giving the public reasonably easy access to the building and its staff, essential if community relations are to be both comfortable and fruitful.

North Port has moved boldly to create something very much like the natural center that most cities develop only after many years. At a time when development puts so much pressure on civic life, this is an essential task.

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