solutions come from old ideas
Orlando Sentinel Columnist Mike Lafferty wrote in
his July 30, 2004 column:
A couple of
years ago, DeLand's city commissioners declared Nov. 12 Michael
Arth Day. It was one of those municipal feel-good moments that doesn't
cost the city anything. Commissioners should have given the guy
a medal. Pardon me for gushing, but every town in this county needs
a Michael Arth.
Heck, I would trade three developers, a future first-round draft
pick and an undisclosed amount of cash for one Arth.
(Are you listening, Deltona?)
You need to
see the Garden District in DeLand to understand my uncharacteristic
enthusiasm. Better yet, you need to see photos of the place before
Arth came along. The one- and two-story bungalows and duplexes just
off U.S. Highway 17-92 -- most built in the early 20th century --
were sagging, peeling and dying from years of neglect. It was a
flowerless, hopeless place filled with junked cars, garbage, drugs
and poverty just a few blocks from the site of the county's new,
$45 million courthouse.
This often is
the fate of aging neighborhoods in Florida. Instead of rebuilding,
which is difficult, we leave blight behind and move on to conquer
the next vacant chunk of property, which is easy. Land is stripped
and subdivided; roads are cut and paved; lots are sold and developed.
No vision is
needed, just a good land-use lawyer and a friendly city commission
or county council, none of which are in short supply.
Then along came Arth, a 51-year-old artist and residential designer
who moved from California to DeLand three summers ago and proceeded
to show that liberals (he prefers "progressives") with
Birkenstocks on their feet can also have an entrepreneurial spirit
in their heads.
Arth moved into
a ramshackle house on Hayden Avenue, where crack dealers did business
out front and hookers accommodated johns across the street. Arth
said it was worse than some of the slums he saw while traveling
in India, and that's saying something.
His pregnant wife, Maya, went back to her native Bulgaria. Arth
began to buy up homes, eventually purchasing a couple of dozen.
The homes were gutted, stripped, repaired, caulked and painted.
Out went the garbage and in came the palm trees. Out went the crack
dealers and in came the renters. Maya returned home and gave birth
to Sophie, who now indulges her 2-year-old fantasies in a 65-year-old
backyard playhouse that Arth also restored to its original condition.
Garden District is home to artists, students, families, professionals
and retirees who live behind white picket fences. One building was
converted into a museum where Arth displays his etchings and paintings
as well as old bottles and artifacts unearthed during the renovations.
Next door, a
tearoom with lace tablecloths and flowered wallpaper will soon open
in a building that was once days away from demolition. Nearby, workers
are putting in brick pavers next to one of the last cottages still
needing renovation. Now Arth is pushing for the city to rebuild
South Alabama Avenue, which is next to the redeveloped neighborhood,
to include a wide multi-use trail separated from the road by a tree-lined
median. Arth is pleased with the product of his labors, but he is
In a cluttered
office he talks about his vision of a new kind of community where
houses face not roads but a connected system of paths. People would
get around by foot or bike or Segway scooter while the hated car
uses a road system behind homes. He calls it "the New Pedestrianism"
and has developed conceptual renderings that show how it would work.
Arth has been meeting with property owners and investors, hoping
to cook up a deal in Volusia County where Arth can build his dream
town. He was close a few months ago, but the property owner got
nervous and backed out.
That's no surprise.
This is cutting-edge stuff, even in places far more progressive
than Volusia County. Here, developers who leave a few trees standing,
put in sidewalks and build a nice entrance sign are considered visionaries.
If Arth's task
seems Herculean, that probably is appropriate. He is writing a book
about modern solutions to a dozen Herculean problems ranging from
overpopulation to poverty to energy. Some of his ideas might seem
a little radical. But so did buying a slum and turning it into a
this guy a medal.