Heavy pockets don’t necessarily make for good neighbors

gilchrist & one way sign copyBY MARCY SHORTUSE – I just read an article submitted to the Interwebs universe by The Cultural Landscape Foundation, an article written about Gilchrist Avenue, with no author named but photo credit given to an island resident. It’s a humdinger.

I will start by saying the article is well written, and in all honesty it’s not a bad read (minus some punctuation issues). If I were an outsider and interested in city planning, architecture and landscape design, I would have scoured it voraciously. Throughout the article the words “intended to” and “was working on a plan” popped up enough to alert the senses of most cynical minds, but the majority of the information is pretty factual.

Except it isn’t. It revisits the artificially inflated glory of the “emerald jewel” of Boca Grande, that tried and true common area where we all gather and sing songs such as “Get Off My Island Now” and “Close the Barn Doors, For I Am Here and No More Shall Pass.”

We’ve been down this road – or Avenue, if you will – many, many times. Carl Rest Parker worked for the Olmstead Brothers. Their firm designed a lot of neat, fancy stuff. Their intended plan for landscaping layout did help, in part, to create a concept for our Historic District. Parker was on leave from the firm when he first came to the island and made suggestions regarding Gilchrist. His suggestions included “a generous boulevard lined with trees leading to a beachfront pavilion.”

Hey, wait a minute. Somebody stole our beachfront pavilion, too! And our emerald jewel!

Called “The Parker Plan” at one point, it included coconut palms and hibiscus. Yet the one to plant the last hibiscus bushes on the median was Mama Dear, and she and her garden club friends hauled buckets of water in Mama’s old station wagon to make sure those plants stayed alive. So while Parker may have thought that was a great idea, Mama Dear made it happen. And when some of those old palm trees were dying in the 1970s, it was Nat Italiano and others who planted more. Trees are funny like that – if they die, you can usually find some more to plant.

Reading down from that it says, “Louise duPont Crowninshield built a cottage on Gilchrist near First Street, and her brother, Henry duPont, soon built one nearby. This began what was to become known as the ‘Cottage Colony.’”

Many of the homes on Gilchrist are cottages, that’s true. Some are not. Maybe if we were to adhere to past principle and the “vision” of our founders, we should boldly cast those out who have built mansions on that meager soil.

To take that a step further, one of the photos posted with the article (one that we do not possess in the Beacon archives) clearly shows palm trees on both sides of the road … both on the “grassy midway,” as it is referred to, and along the easement next to the homes … all the way down the street. What happened to those trees? They must have gone the way of our beachfront pavilion. You know, the one you could get to from the “promenade.”

Here’s another point. In one part of the article it describes the fact that Second Street, now known as Banyan Street, was lined with banyans, while Fifth Street was lined with casuarinas. That banyan part may still be true, but those casuarinas on Fifth were yanked out a while ago. There was parking there, too, but eventually someone decided we didn’t need more room for people from out of town to come and park their cars, so a curb was put around that median, and now we have some new “lovely” trees there.

They succeeded in that parking battle. So be it.

Yes, this is all material you’ve heard before if you’re paying even the slightest bit of attention to this controversy. It is troublesome to continue to read misleading information and have to defend it with the truth, but that’s not what really got my goat.

What angered me was the last subhead, called “how to help.” It says, “The Lee County, Florida Board of County Commissioners will vote on the proposed Department of Transportation parking plan in the fall of 2016. The voice of a wider constituency will influence this vote. Contact members and ask them to vote ‘NO’ on the DOT plan and encourage these elected officials to restore the median parkway as a commons, as it was envisioned by Parker and Olmstead, Jr.”

Then it lists the name, phone number and email address of our commissioners. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled because, after all, no one’s opinion means more to them than that of someone who lives in New Hampshire. And more correspondence regarding Gilchrist is always welcome.

I will explain what fuels my ire regarding this subject, preceded by my reiteration of the fact that many Gilchrist residents who are on the opposite side of the fence are very good people. I like them a lot. May we all stay well and live for a long time on this earth, that we may continue to debate and relate on many topics.

But here’s the deal. Just recently I went through the excruciating process of buying a home. It’s beautiful, I love it, all members of my herd of children have space to move about freely, and my husband is obsessively planting his forest in our backyard.

The reason I was very hesitant to purchase the home in the first place, though, was the road.

Appleton Boulevard is its name, even though only the first 50 feet or so off Gasparilla Road are any sort of boulevard. It is one of the four east/west main roads in South Gulf Cove, and it is well used. The posted speed limit is 45 mph, but I would say one out of three cars that passes by is going at least 55 or more. So I live on a highway, of sorts.

Here’s the rub: I KNEW it was a busy road before I purchased it. That fact almost stopped me from purchasing it. But I did so anyway, because it was in my price range (sort of), and it’s a very nice house. I also know that everything in my life won’t be perfect all the time, and I won’t be throwing caltrops in the road to deter speeders … at least not in the very near future.

Ironically, I now sit in my bedroom perch and watch the cars go by. The house we lived in prior to this one was on a street that was very remote, so it was a culture shock, but I was born and raised in a town where cattle and hog trucks went by all the time, and a train came through every 15 minutes … so I am oddly lulled by it. I am an adaptable creature, it seems.

The moral of the story is this: You knew when you bought your home on Gilchrist that there were people who used the median for parking. Boca Grande has never in the past been a town of stark regulation, so why are we trying to use Carl Rest Parker’s vision, or the Olmstead brothers’ vision, or William Lyman Phillips’ vision for that matter, of what it should look like to dictate how we live our lives?

Gilchrist has always been “landscaped” by the residents in a hodgepodge of bushes, bent coconut palms and good intentions. No more, no less.

The livelihood of our churches may very well depend on this matter. The livelihood of our shops comes into play as well, and the existence of our popular community gatherings like the Strawberry Festival and the Tarpon Festival is at stake as well.

It’s not a joke. It’s not funny. If Lee County DOT has an appropriate plan for some nice landscaping and a bit of parking on Gilchrist, I implore those against it to reconsider it.

Compromise has been presented more than once, and in a very fair manner. There have been several meetings in the past few weeks with the Gilchrist Neighborhood Association, churches and others who have a dog in this fight. On multiple occasions, compromises were offered to the GNA, and multiple times those compromises were shot down. They stand at giving 22 parking spaces in front of the Methodist and Episcopal churches, none for the Baptist Church, and parking only for Sunday church services.

They have even asked if there was a possibility that the churches would valet park on streets as far away as Wheeler Road.

Does that make sense to anyone?

What the GNA did was to respond with the Waldrop plan, or versions thereof, which includes parallel parking on the south side of First Street, blocks away from the churches, which would inevitably take out the old-growth trees there. They can argue it, but there’s no other way to put parallel parking on that street … unless you’re only going to create four or five new spaces.

Why would we do that, when we already have a space (and yes, it is green almost year-round) where a few times a week some cars can park? Particularly considering the average age of a Boca Grande resident?

I travel Gilchrist every weekday morning and again almost every afternoon. When I do so, I am checking to see how many cars are parked there if there are no church activities going on. Other than an occasional never-ending procession of cement trucks taking up an entire lane of traffic, I see maybe five or six cars there. That is not a problem. But then again, neither is a group of people going to church and eating an odd pancake.

I’m not doing this to be contrary, I swear. I’m not writing this to create controversy. I’m writing this because someone needs to represent the rest of the island. This problem is getting old. Really, really old. It’s dumb. It’s tired. And telling people how deep your pockets are, and that you’re just getting started with your battle … well, that just isn’t very neighborly at all. All it does is continue this debate on and on, because let’s face facts. If you’re a commissioner getting loaded down with cash prior to you making a decision, what is the real impetus there to make a decision?

Let’s make a compromise on both sides and move on.

And if you don’t like what I’m writing, send me a letter for publication so you can tell your neighbors on this island how you feel … not some retired architect in Connecticut.