New 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.

Today, Arth's 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 not satisfied.

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 fashionable neighborhood.

Someone give this guy a medal.