It's where north meets south and it's the conduit from downtown to the beaches. Now there is a $38 million plan under way to revitalize Central Avenue and attract more businesses, residents and tourists to the 8-mile street that was once the city's main artery.
While the diverse stores, businesses and homes give Central Avenue an eclectic character that attracts people, it also lacks continuity. The east side has downtown, the popular 600 Arts Block, shops, restaurants and hip apartments in the Grand Central and Edge districts. It has energy, it's pedestrian friendly, it makes for a nice afternoon out.
The west side, not so much. There are pockets, of course, of cool stores and yummy restaurants. But the overall look isn't nearly as inviting to pedestrians or new businesses.
The city wants to change that and already has $5.8 million in its coffers to do so. The rest of the money will come from impact fees, county funding, transit funding and other sources. A Bus Rapid Transit system carries the biggest price tag of any part of the plan: $25 million.
"We are at the beginning of the boom," said council member Karl Nurse at a recent community meeting about the Central Avenue plan. He pointed to more than a dozen residential projects in or near downtown in some state of development. "If you are going to catch a wave, this is the time," he said.
Council member Leslie Curran, who owns a frame and art gallery on Central, suggested a plan to revitalize the whole street about three years ago.
Then the city started Conversations on Central, a series of meetings in different areas where residents, activists and business owners could talk about what they would like to see in their geographic area.
The Central Avenue Revitalization Plan, CARP for short, was approved by the council in September. It calls for more medians to narrow wide sections of the street, landscaping, overhead canopies, bike racks, wider sidewalks, benches, brick crosswalks, new traffic lights and street lights. Investors and developers will be attracted by increased allowable density, reduced setbacks, allowances for taller building heights and more mixed-use options. There are about 135 city blocks of available land between First Avenue N and First Avenue S along the Central Avenue corridor.
So could the west side ever look like the east side?
"It could evolve into that over time," said Dave Goodwin, the city's planning and economic development coordinator. "It's not going to mirror it but it's going to be more attractive. You've got to create an environment for investment."
The plan isn't just about boosting the west side. The overall street will get a new look. Common signs and flags from one end of the street to the other will tie it all together. One possible slogan is "Central Ave. Connects."
CARP stresses each area should maintain its own character while the entire street is sewn together a little more.
Monica Abbott, a community activist from the Park Central area at the west end of the avenue, has concerns and hopes. She worries some of the transit routes won't extend all the way to her end of Central Avenue and hates that the long empty Parkview Hotel at 7401 Central is a distracting eyesore.
But she is hopeful.
"Just adding some landscaping, old fashioned acorn lighting (and) public art would improve this westernmost portion of Central," she said. Abbott pointed to several new businesses such as Griffin Bookbinding and the Gypsy Queen furniture and antique store that have already boosted the area's look.
Lea Ann Barlas has owned property and a spa in the swath of Central between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and 16th Street known as the Edge. As president of the district's business association she's glad CARP will create more signs and visual road blocks that slow motorists and draw pedestrians.
"Once the district gets its identity then you'll have the people coming regularly. The 600 block has its identity, Grand Central has its identity, each section can be better identified. Although we're a mixed area we're cohesive," Barlas said.
Kevin McBride, owner of McB's Men's Clothing Broker at 1045 Central, is also pleased the city is investing time and money to boost the street's image. But the plan doesn't address one of his major concerns: the homeless people who hang around and drive business away.
"With all the health services, the Greyhound bus station, halfway houses (nearby) it's a tough, tough issue," said McBride, who moved from California and started his business four years ago. Solving the homeless problem is a much bigger issue, he acknowledged, but he thinks more could be done to deter people from loitering on Central.
Goodwin said the city's police officers work steadily with the homeless, but the revitalization will draw more people and businesses and that will help indirectly.
"You feel more comfortable when there's life and activity," he said. "You increase the density and that draws more people."
Katherine Snow Smith can be contacted at [email protected] or (727) 893-8785.