The Human Touch

By staff May 1, 2007

There is something to be said for benign neglect, especially when it saves a charming small city from the exploitative over-development that has troubled so many similar towns in recent years.

Venice, like Sarasota, was launched in the heady 1920s as a tropical vacation paradise. Urban plans were commissioned by both cities, and construction of hotels and housing was begun in support of ambitious and fanciful national sales campaigns designed to bring tourists and residents to the area on the new rail lines that connected dreary Northern and Midwestern centers to the exotic wonders of Florida.

In the spirit of the times, nothing but the best was specified, including development guidelines by John Nolen, the leading city planner of the day, which detailed pedestrian-friendly streets and mixed-use neighborhoods with both grand mansions and seaside cottages, side by side with upscale hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns. Streets were laid out, urban grids and infrastructure were permitted, some business and residential construction was begun, paradise was in sight.

The boom was on.

The boom, of course, was tragically brief, terminated by the collapse of the stock market and the banking system in the wake of the Great Depression. As a result, both cities were frozen in time, becoming virtual ghost towns until World War II began to bring development back in the forms of military air fields and training bases.

Sarasota began to come back to life as young veterans and their families settled there, requiring roads, homes, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure. Venice, however, continued to sleep, fortuitously avoiding the strip-mall sprawl and insensitive residential construction that soon began to rob Sarasota of its character, despite the efforts of the so-called Sarasota School of Architecture to develop a distinctive contemporary architectural identity.

The graceful radial plan Nolen devised for Venice, by which the urban center opens up like a flower, with its roots in U.S. 41 and its petals extended toward the beaches, remained unblemished by the “improvements” being imposed on Sarasota, where the accessible and human-scale bayfront—also envisioned by Nolen—began to disappear.

West Venice Avenue is the spine or stem of this plan, flanked on either side by low-rise buildings containing shops and restaurants, and gradually giving way to suburban residential streets as the avenue leads toward the beach. After the modest commercial density of the first few blocks, the street, with its landscaped median, flanks a park and provides space for institutional buildings, such as the post office, a church and the municipal bandstand.

Farther along, overhanging trees create a picturesque setting for some of the city’s most imposing houses, a few of them clearly survivors of the original spurt of activity and influx of wealth that made the city plan feasible. Spanish-style homes are surrounded by superb mature landscaping, but there is little sense that the meticulous maintenance seen everywhere is artificially imposed. Scattered among the relatively egalitarian mix of residential architectural styles are charming hotels and motels, postcard-perfect evocations of the 1950s.

As this ceremonial thoroughfare proceeds, residential streets branch off on either side. Take note: These are real residential streets with real connectivity, not the stifling and ubiquitous cul-de-sacs that plague our towns at present. These streets and their sidewalks are actually used by people to go somewhere. What a concept! The scale is human, the urban fabric friendly, the street life a real outdoor living room.

In fact, everywhere in Venice, there are signs of life: pedestrians, people on bicycles, cars stopped in driveways while the occupants pile out to chat with neighbors. West Venice Avenue itself is a pedestrian paradise without recourse to the often deadly pedestrian mall solution, an ostensibly sensitive solution to gridlock in which vehicular traffic is banned. Alas, street life gradually loses energy in these situations, and the center dies as its heart is starved of the oxygen of real life.

Parallel to Venice Avenue, Tampa Avenue is shorter and properly somewhat less ceremonial, its buildings graceful survivors of the boom years, transformed hotels and apartment blocks now home to a retirement center and a line of charming shops around Venice Little Theatre. Built up on only one side, the avenue faces the city park and is well within earshot of the bandstand and other community activities, including outdoor art shows.

On the opposite side of Venice Avenue, Harbor Drive leads through relaxed neighborhoods of attractive homes, blessedly bereft of mega-mansions, toward the municipal golf course, public beaches, and the superb—and enormously popular—fishing pier. The only regrettable exception has been the permitting of beach front high-rises, most notably those which sadly degrade the pedestrian experience on the streets leading to the Venice Jetty.

Urbanism, be it the “new” or the “old,” is just a code word for “planning.” However, it is often misused by both its proponents and those who dislike it, each camp ironically supposing that it will be used to stifle unruly initiative and bring a kind of Orwellian Ministry of Truth oversight to development. Of course, modern cities need some intense retail sites, some high-rise residential buildings, and some (alas!) big-box retailers. But these can and should be positioned on the outskirts, away from the human-scale town center, just as Venice has done by its use of the U.S. 41 by-pass and the positioning of high-rises along the Intracoastal Waterway and away from the traditional pedestrian center.

Can’t we all get along? Can’t we simply agree that the purpose of a city plan is to improve the life of all its inhabitants while cultivating a healthy business atmosphere? We have tried the Levittown approach; we have built lifeless gated communities; we have experimented with unbridled development. Enough, already.

Venice, perhaps because it has been left alone to mature within its superb original plan, has become a relaxed, attractive and safe city, a place where people of relatively modest means can live in comfort and security. A “place,” not a “development.”

We have John Nolen to thank for the original vision and, ironically, the largely unintentional lack of greedy attention to its potential for its success.

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