When John Fiore walked into the Hagen Park Community Center on Aug. 23, he said it was “to see what a waste of tax dollars looks like.”
Fiore, former mayor of Wilton Manors, made his remarks at an open house for the Wilton Drive Lane Elimination Project. The project’s purpose is to improve pedestrian safety by reducing the number of lanes on Wilton Drive. Instead of two lanes in each direction, the street will only have the median and one lane on each side. The outside lanes will be used for landscaping, wider sidewalks and parking.
Fiore, an urban planner for Broward’s Parks and Recreation Division, said he isn’t against improved safety but thinks it could be accomplished for a lot less money and without major changes to the street. “I don’t see the value in this project,” Fiore said. He predicts it will cause traffic jams on Wilton Drive and cause traffic problems for the surrounding neighborhoods when drivers look for alternative routes to avoid those jams.
Other attendees also had problems with the project.
“It looks horrible . . . like a damn parking lot,” said one man looking at the proposed design.
But others, including members of the city commission, view the project more favorably. Father John Joseph Reid sees it as a way to bring about Wilton Drive’s full potential “as a city center…instead of just having a highway with trucks going by.”
Some areas of the street will lose parking spaces and some will gain spaces. The plans presented at Hagen Park include more parking spaces in front of Jaycee Park and the Island City Lofts. But, overall, only six additional spaces will be generated. Early proponents of the lane reduction had hoped for 80 to 100 spaces. Additional crosswalks are also planned for Northeast 9 Avenue and Northeast 11 Avenue.
Proponents of the project have said it will be a benefit to business owners because it will create an atmosphere similar to Las Olas Boulevard. Todd Bowe, former co-owner of Novel Tea, located on Wilton Drive, said the wider sidewalks will definitely help business owners because it would give customers a reason to spend more time in front of storefronts. “It would help immensely. We would hold events and people would go outside and there would just be no place for them to be.”
Although not in the current plans, Commissioner Tom Green said the city is looking at grants to fund additional trees and landscaping. He’s also hoping the Wilton Drive Improvement District, which is funded through additional taxes levied on Wilton Drive property owners, can use some of its money to eventually pay for improvements.
But Humberto Arrieta, project manager for the Florida Department of Transportation, which owns the road and is funding and designing the changes, said that safety is still the main reason for the work being done.
He estimates that construction on the $3.2 million project will begin sometime next summer or early fall and will last about 18 months. Josie Smith-Malave, owner of Bubbles & Pearls on Wilton Drive, said she’s worried about the impact construction will have on her business.
Arrieta said FDOT will do everything possible to minimize the negative impact construction will have. One example he gave was that the work will be done one block at a time. “We’re doing it section by section.”