A streetscape on West Voorhis Avenue is seen by many as the public-works project that could trigger redevelopment of the two block stretch between Woodland Boulevard and Clara Avenue.
But the streetscape — chosen by community members as the best use of reserve funds in the Downtown DeLand Community Redevelopment Agency budget — has struggled to get off the ground.
A first glimpse of plans for the street created by the CPH engineering firm left community members underwhelmed, and disappointed that only one block was planned for improvement.
Then, the price tag shot from $500,000 or $600,000 to $2.8 million.
At its most recent meeting with CPH and community members, the Downtown DeLand Community Redevelopment Agency board held off on making a decision. Instead, they sent the engineers back to the drawing board again.
CRA members also called for more community meetings, to get a better grasp of how residents think the streetscape should look and what it should accomplish.
In the meantime, other seeds are being sown. A plan for a Black Heritage Trail that would go through the neighborhood is beginning to take shape. The Wright Building at the corner of Voorhis and Clara avenues is being renovated. And a Black history mural has been painted at the corner of Voorhis and Florida avenues. There’s been talk of creating a historic district in the neighborhood.
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Not much now
There’s not much now along West Voorhis Avenue in the two blocks from South Woodland Boulevard to South Clara Avenue, where the City of DeLand is planning its streetscape.
While the historical landmarks like the J.W. Wright Building and the nearly 150-year-old Greater Union First Baptist Church are typically talked about — and for good reason — there’s not much else.
The stretch of road so close to bustling Downtown DeLand is home to residential units, churches and vacant lots and buildings. It’s evident that the area hasn’t gotten the same love that the Downtown strip has over the years.
If you ask long time DeLandite and Greater Union member Al Bouie, expanding Downtown DeLand to include West Voorhis will only make the city stronger.
“It’s a gateway into the African American community and the contributions the African American community has made to DeLand and West Volusia,” he told The Beacon.
DeLand’s Black history is rich, but it has been long overlooked when it comes to official city boundaries and projects.
Much of the Spring Hill neighborhood, while seemingly a part of DeLand, is not technically in the city’s boundaries. And while Downtown DeLand’s southern boundary seems to be Howry Avenue, the city’s own maps of Downtown DeLand extend to Voorhis Avenue.
By better connecting Voorhis to the rest of Downtown DeLand, Bouie said, all of Downtown DeLand can only improve.
“If we have an invitation for local residents to access this area, entrepreneurs will see that,” he said. “It’s an opportunity waiting to happen.”
While Bouie wasn’t completely on board with how large the price tag for the streetscape project has grown, he hopes the city will see that it needs to spend money to make money.
“It’s an investment, but the city will benefit,” Bouie said.
Encompassing two blocks, from South Woodland Boulevard to Clara Avenue, the improvements shown off at a Nov. 7 meeting included a traffic circle, a raised intersection, wider sidewalks and historical markers.
But those additions increased the cost. That’s partially because of the rising cost of materials, and just about everything else.
“We’ve seen increases between 40 and 50 percent over the last year,” Kurt Luman of CPH engineering told the CRA.
Even ardent supporters of sprucing up West Voorhis Avenue urged the city to reconsider the proposed costly project and remember what is most important about the area.
DeLand business owner and historic preservationist Mark Shuttleworth summed up the goals for the streetscape.
“The idea was to slow traffic east and west on Voorhis, to provide a safer intersection at Florida Avenue, to have safer pedestrian and bicycle improvements, to make the streetscape attractive for economic development such as retail, restaurant or office space, and lastly but importantly is to foster historic appreciation for the traditional African American community business area that was here from the 1880s until the 1960s or ’70s,” Shuttleworth said. “I’m asking, does this streetscape meet these objectives? I don’t think it does.”
He said spending money on decorative road improvements while failing to adequately accommodate bikes and pedestrians missed the mark.
Recognizing that costs may not come down and community involvement might not increase from the 15-20 residents and stakeholders who have attended the West Voorhis Avenue meetings so far, Mayor Bob Apgar said the City Commission — which he is no longer a part of after retiring and being replaced as mayor — may have to just follow its gut and make a decision.
“At some point, I think we’re getting to the point where we need to make some kind of decision on what we’re going to do, because I’m not sure that costs will come down and it’ll get better,” Apgar said. “I think in that process it needs to be made clear that if you want some sort of streetscape and improvements to this area, we need to come to some conclusion on it.”