Lessons from Disney World

By Timothy Hullihan

Disney World offers 2 lessons to city planners that are searching for ways to revitalize a downtown, or declining commercial corridor. Lesson #1: No matter how great a destination, if nobody lives there its sense of place is ephemeral, and, therefore, not the correct foundation for a community, small town or neighborhood. Lesson #2: It is a dynamic pedestrian environment. Its enjoyable sense of place, albeit temporary, is derived from its pedestrian scale and pace. The fun begins when you get out of your car, and it ends when you get back in it.

Starry-eyed politicians, fall for the Lesson #1 trap all the time, while ignoring the long-term fiscal burdens of building and maintaining the infrastructure necessary to support a drive-to economy. Rather than advocating for Disney-quality pedestrian environments where people actually live, work, and play, and infrastructure costs are low, they approve destination after destination that are often short-lived economic vortexes that suck the life out of less novel destinations of the recent past. Collectively, they turn their communities into transient places with very few remnants of a communal past, or hope for a communal future.

Lesson #2 is obvious to anyone who visits Disney World, but a takeaway advocacy for pedestrian oriented communities is much more difficult to obtain. Most community planning regulations are numerically based, rather than form based, so development proposals that check all the empirical boxes for minimum parking and landscaping, and promise “jobs and tax revenues” (by the way, all projects, horrible or brilliant, create jobs and tax revenues), get approved while the potential to form community gathering places that are walkable from adjacent neighborhoods are neither proposed nor encouraged.

The Village of North Palm Beach, Florida recently considered 2 different projects that show why these lessons are important. Both projects should have been influenced by a recently completed village master plan prepared by Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, and a team of consultants that rank among our nation’s top retail planners, economists, urban planners, and architects.  But, the master plan is not yet supported by a zoning in progress ordinance, or a form based development code. The council’s votes on these two projects demonstrate why learning lessons 1 and 2 is so critical.

The first project was a proposal that would continue 45-years of car-centric planning on its main commercial corridor, U.S. Highway One. The master plan showed how 5 different pedestrian-oriented neighborhood gathering places could be formed along U.S. One to revitalize it from its stale car-dominate appearance and feel. The presently vacant land upon which the project, and its 1970s planning principles, is proposed is also featured prominently in the master plan as the place to create North Palm Beach’s signature project for a walkable future – a town center formed around a public green. Residents wrote letters and emails, and attended public meetings to voice their belief in the master plan, and disfavor for continuing the old-thinking that created the challenges on U.S One in the first place. The project was turned down by the local planning agency twice. Planning staff recommended denial. But, by a 3-2 vote, residents and staff were overruled, and the existing urban pattern (building + parking lot = project) the master plan explained as destructive, was allowed to continue onto the last piece of vacant land in the heart of the declining corridor. Jobs and tax revenues!!

The second project is a rebuild of a 50-plus year old country club, also on the U.S. One Corridor. It is present humble form, it is still the place that many residents grew up with. For decades children have ridden their bikes there to swim or have a golf lesson, and families have walked there for meals. Every longtime resident shares fond memories of its glorious past. But, it is out of date. It needs to be repaired, and renewed. During approximately a half dozen community meetings, a clear consensus was formed – the new club needs to be refreshed, but maintained as a community gathering place. However, a series of mistakes are making that an unlikely result.

First, an architect that specializes in private clubs was hired. In spite of an impressive club resume, from day one there has been a clear disconnect between the architect’s desire to create a “resort” (see Lesson #1 about destinations), and the community’s desire for a new clubhouse with the same level of humility.

Second, a restaurateur with 4 or 5-star aspirations was hired to shore-up the architect’s goal to transition the club into a high-end destination that few people in the community want. The restaurateur’s fraudulent resume was recently exposed in a lawsuit, and the residents cheered. This revelation would surely be the end of the 4-star restaurant that would price out 95% of the community that once gathered there. But no, in spite of several large question marks, the restaurateur’s contract was not canceled at a recent meeting.

Third, even though the village master plan presents very clearly the types of projects that will help revive the U.S. One Corridor (and the country club is not one of them), there is a growing level of discussion and innuendo that is close to shaping a misguided consensus that the country club project is the new anchor for the U.S. One Corridor’s revitalization. Again, the master plan shows how to revive the U.S. One, and the country club, unless it becomes a walkable community gathering place, is not part of its recommendations.

So, to summarize, a walkable town center was voted down in favor of another 1970s car-centric development, and an existing walkable community gathering place is being redesigned into a 4-star drive-to destination that will disconnect it from the community that will no longer be able to afford using it.

Disney World is also an expensive place to visit, but families go there in droves because of the pedestrian oriented form of its layout and architecture. Maybe Disney’s Lesson #3 is that people loss their minds, and spend more money than they can afford when they enter charming, pedestrian places. Regardless of the number of lessons Disney can teach us, the North Palm Beach Village Council needs to take a trip there, or to any of a number of places like Asheville, North Carolina, that have revived themselves through form-based planning guidelines before it makes too many mistakes to recover from.

Timothy Hullihan is an architect in North Palm Beach, Florida

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