FWB hears plan to reroute downtown streets

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“Tonight is a huge night for the city of Fort Walton Beach,” City Manager Michael Beedie told the council Nov. 14. “The city hired the Matrix Design Group in January to create our master plan. It was something that has been needed for the past 30 years, and it was brought about by construction of the new Brooks Bridge.”

TONY JUDNICH @Tonyjnwfdn

FORT WALTON BEACH — The city’s main downtown road, the Miracle Strip Parkway/U.S. Highway 98, is giving too much space to the car and needs to give some back to the pedestrian.

That was one of the top points that landscape architect Ian Anderson shared with the Fort Walton Beach City Council during a recent presentation on the city’s downtown master plan. Anderson works for the Matrix Design Group, which has an office in Niceville and is creating the plan.

The main focus of the plan, which continues to progress, is easing traffic congestion downtown.

“Tonight is a huge night for the city of Fort Walton Beach,” City Manager Michael Beedie told the council Nov. 14. “The city hired the Matrix Design Group in January to create our master plan. It was something that has been needed for the past 30 years, and it was brought about by construction of the new Brooks Bridge.”

The Florida Department of Transportation continues to study the exact placement of the new bridge. Construction might start in 2022. 

Potential realignment

Matrix representatives state in the master plan documents that high levels of commuter traffic along U.S. 98 downtown create “a disconnected environment unfriendly to destination retail, entertainment and high-density residential redevelopment.”

They also note that during peak periods, U.S. 98, Perry Avenue, Eglin Parkway and other collector roads experience congestion and delays at all major intersections. Among other problems, such congestion makes it tougher for pedestrians to cross U.S. 98 downtown, they said.

During his presentation to the council, Anderson presented six possible scenarios to move heavy traffic away from U.S. 98 in the heart of downtown.

The council later unanimously approved moving forward with a scenario that calls for shifting the entire alignment of U.S. 98 out of the historic downtown area. In that conceptual alternative, the two-way U.S. 98 would extend along Perry Avenue and an area north of First Street, then down Eglin Parkway to where it meets U.S. 98 Strip by De’ France Indoor Fleamarket Antiques and Collectibles.

Also, the existing Miracle Strip, downtown part of U.S. 98 would be reduced to a two-lane collector road with much more on-street parking. The collector road would merge with the portion of U.S. 98 that leads to the Brooks Bridge.

In addition, the number of traffic lights on the affected roads could be reduced and spacing between remaining lights could be increased, according to the master plan.

Such changes would require the FDOT’s approval.

Anderson said one of the city’s top requirements now will be to have the Okaloosa-Walton Transportation Planning Organization adopt the council-approved traffic alternative into both its five-year transportation work program and long-range transportation plan. City officials plan to talk with the TPO about both of those efforts within the next few months, Beedie said.

Clogged artery

On an average day, U.S. 98 downtown sees 32,000 to 51,000 vehicles, with 51,000 vehicles on the Brooks Bridge segment of the road, according to information in the master plan.

Among other problems, “This results in almost 20,000 daily vehicles utilizing the north/south turning movement at Perry Avenue, causing extensive stacking at the Hwy. 98 and Perry Avenue intersection,” Matrix representatives stated in the plan.

They also noted that limited right of way in the downtown prevents the area’s narrow sidewalks/multi-use paths from sufficiently supporting bicycles and other non-motorized modes of transportation. And limited setbacks along the storefronts result “in a sidewalk only suitable for the walking public.”

Anderson told the council that it’s tough to put even a sandwich board, let alone outdoor café seating, on narrow portions of the sidewalks.

He said if the council-approved traffic alternative gets implemented, the Miracle Strip could go back to being “Main Street USA,” with wider sidewalks and more parking spots.

The extra space also would allow room for more landscaping, trash cans and lighting, and possibly even a marketplace with multiple tenants under one roof, Anderson said.

He said one of downtown FWB’s main attributes is its authenticity.

“It’s not big box” but is “mom and pop,” Anderson said. “One of the things we’re trying to do is to extend the linger factor.”

Councilman David Schmidt said while he likes the idea of moving heavy traffic away from U.S. 98, “we’re fortunate to have a lot of traffic coming here.”

In response to questions from Councilwoman Diane Keller, Anderson said the master plan’s ultimate goal is to build a thriving downtown for perpetuity.

Christa Machado, president of the Downtown FWB Organization, thanked officials for entertaining the idea of enhancing downtown.

“I’m looking forward to the council working with staff to protect the mom-and-pop nature of downtown,” she said.

And Ted Corcoran, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, said he looks forward to seeing the council-approved traffic alternative become a reality, possibly in the next decade or so.

Last January, the council approved paying the Matrix Design Firm $100,000 to begin work on the overall master plan, which will include recommendations and strategies for the next 5, 10 and 20 years.

While focusing on the transportation network downtown, the firm also worked on an economic analysis of the area, an evaluation of existing zoning and land uses, the creation of a branding and marketing strategy, and other tasks.

On Nov. 14, the council approved paying $120,000 to the company so it can complete various parts of the master plan. The final product is expected to be completed by Sept. 30, 2018, which is the last day of the current fiscal year.

FWB officials are using city Community Redevelopment Agency money to pay for all of the firm’s work.

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