BEACON PHOTO/JEFF SHEPHERD STREET SCENE — This view of the block of West Voorhis Avenue between Florida and Clara avenues shows the historic Wright Building at left on the corner. Next to it is the Washington Theater, DeLand’s movie theater for Black residents during the days of segregation. The theater is now owned by a church. Also at the intersection is 140-year-old Greater Union First Baptist Church, the Dr. Noble “Thin Man” Watts Amphitheater and the African American Museum of the Arts.

DeLand residents got their first look at early plans for fixing up a section of West Voorhis Avenue with funds from the Downtown DeLand Community Redevelopment Agency. 

Residents were not quite wowed — especially after learning the city planned only for a streetscape on one block, between Clara and Florida avenues. Most in the audience assumed the project would extend from Woodland Boulevard to Clara Avenue.

A diverse crowd of residents urged the city to use this opportunity to highlight long-ignored Black history that is integral to DeLand’s history.

The West Voorhis Avenue streetscaping project was the option selected by DeLandites in a survey last year about how the city should allocate $600,000 in the CRA’s reserve fund. By law, to keep the money in the CRA reserve, it had to be allocated for a CRA project. 

The early design plans confused some DeLandites. The CRA can use its funds only to fix up areas of Downtown DeLand included in the designated CRA district. Just two blocks of West Voorhis Avenue fall within those boundaries: from South Woodland Boulevard to the intersection of West Voorhis and South Clara avenues.

“I’m stunned in a way that we’re only talking about one block,” longtime DeLandite Al Bouie said at the Feb. 8 public meeting. “I’m thinking that the City of DeLand wanted to tie all of this into the city center. I’m not so sure if one block isolated is going to tie all of it together.”

Fixing up just one block and not the connecting blocks may not help the neighborhood much, West Voorhis Avenue resident Michelle Purdy said. 

She was among residents who were happy to have their voice heard by the city, but underwhelmed by the project’s early plans.

Another was Frank Damico, another resident of West Voorhis Avenue, who told stories of countless traffic accidents and near-misses on the street.

“I don’t see this thing working unless you first address a major problem, which is the speed on West Voorhis,” he said. “It’s gotta stop; you’ve gotta address it.”

Having lived on West Voorhis Avenue for years, Damico said he has witnessed too many “near-misses” to count, many involving children who were nearly hit by speeding cars.

Slowing down traffic on the street was a key focus of the plans drawn up by DeLand-based design firm CPH. The engineering firm’s four proposals all included narrowing the 40-foot-wide road to two 10-foot-wide lanes, which should encourage cars to slow down.

Options include adding a slight bend to the road, forcing drivers to pay closer attention, or placing trees and wider sidewalks along the street. 

Narrowing roads, DeLand Public Services Director Chad Gamble said, is another way — aside from speed limits — to force drivers to go slower.

Beyond traffic concerns, many of the meeting’s attendees saw the streetscaping project as an opportunity to shine a light on some of the city’s too-long-ignored history. 

Bouie is a member of Greater Union First Baptist Church, which has graced the intersection of West Voorhis and South Clara avenues for 140 years. He was among proponents for using the project as an opportunity to highlight the city’s Black history. In addition to the church, Bouie noted, the neighborhood is also home to the Dr. Noble “Thin Man” Watts Amphitheater, the African American Museum of the Arts and the J.W. Wright Building, which is undergoing renovation.

While these historic blocks of West Voorhis Avenue are technically included within the the CRA’s boundaries, they have not received the same attention — or CRA funds — as other parts of Downtown DeLand. 

Time is of the essence for this project, said Joyce Cusack, 80, a DeLand icon who has served on the Volusia County Council and in the Florida Legislature. 

“I certainly don’t want to see us wait any longer,” Cusack said.

How about bond financing? 

Attorney Frank Schnidman is a recent DeLand transplant with experience working with community redevelopment agencies. He shared some of his potential ideas with city and CPH staff Feb. 8.

One option he urged the city to consider is widening the bounds of the community redevelopment agency. Schnidman and other residents expressed concern that fixing up one or two blocks of a street may not mean much if the rest of the street lies in disrepair. 

Expanding the boundaries of the CRA would approvals from the CRA board itself, the DeLand City Commission and the Volusia County Council.

Another option, Schnidman suggested, would be to sell a bond that could be repaid using CRA revenues over the redevelopment district’s remaining 14 years of life. 

That way, Schnidman said, a full plan could be formed to not only improve Voorhis Avenue but to further connect it to the rest of Downtown DeLand.

Above all, Schnidman wanted the city to keep the “theme” of the redevelopment plan in mind. That theme, he said, should capture the rich history of DeLand’s Black community. 

“The history no one has really celebrated,” Schnidman said, “that no one teaches the community about, creates tourism.”

 

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here