On Friday, Feb. 15, Duval Street will be subject to a new trial: the promenade pilot program, closing the 500-700 blocks. The Duval Street Committee that has formed in support of it has coordinated with shop owners and managers on Duval, gaining momentum and support for the pilot.
The pilot proposes the closing of those central blocks of Duval street to automobile traffic from 5 p.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday nights from Feb. 15 to April 27. Restaurants and shops will be permitted to move tables and chairs out onto the sidewalk and street 17 feet from their storefronts (allowing a central lane for emergency vehicles). The vision of the program is to create a pedestrian “Duval Mall” that will encourage lingering foot traffic.
Carl Fischer, who moved to Key West from Denver, opened a restaurant on Duval last year, which ultimately closed. Fischer decided to diagnose why the blocks of central Duval do not have the kind of draw that the “North and South brands” do. He is a driving force behind revitalizing Central Duval, using a means other municipalities have done successfully: a pilot. Fischer cites his native Denver’s 16th Street Mall and Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale as comparisons. Fischer also notes that “each city has its own flavor: Miami Beach is different from Fort Lauderdale, and Key West has its own quirky character, which is something special.”
Fischer is brainstorming ideas for the future, like partnering with non-profits for pet adoption fairs, outdoor films, and farmer’s markets. For now, though, the goal is simply to bring more foot traffic and locals to the blocks, showcasing the shops and restaurants that already exist. Some business owners are enthusiastic supporters of the effort, but not all see eye to eye.
“I’m against it,” said Mark Rossi, owner of the Rick’s complex as well as Sloppy Joe’s, and a business owner on Duval Street for 35 years. “It isn’t what Duval Street is about, and it’s not what Key West is about. Everyone wants to tell us what we should do.” Rossi’s businesses have been subject to code restrictions on signs and outdoor seating in the past. “You just get tired of people telling you how to run your business,” he said. “I have spent my life on Duval Street.”
“Where’s the public restrooms and handicap accessible restrooms?” he asked. “I’m the one paying the freight on the bathrooms down here.”
Lower Duval has historically had its fair share of foot traffic, as well as consistent landmarks — like Sloppy Joe’s — and seemingly less turnover than its central Duval neighbors. Rossi said of store performance: “It’s many different issues, it’s the amount of stores, and what’s going on those blocks.” Rossi also asked: “Who is going to pay to put the barricades up and put the barricades down? The taxpayer will.”
Jack Dingeman, director of operations and co-owner of Mangoes with his father Daniel, is optimistic about the pilot. Mangoes, the corner mainstay at 700 Duval, has recently renovated and rolled out a new menu. Dingeman reflects on the party atmosphere and foot traffic of lower Duval and says, “I’ve always wanted to see more of that personality toward the center of Duval Street — you see more people on the curb having a beer, and the party’s on the sidewalk.”
In a recent visit with his mother, Dingeman describes touring lower Duval on foot. “It’s the energy and the vibe — this is Key West. I like that energy.” He also describes observing interactions between vehicles and tourists, “People honk at the tourists, and tourists yell back.” Closing traffic on weekend nights would allow pedestrians to wander unfettered. He also sees it as being good for locals.
“It would be a safe haven on the weekends, because the locals can go down and enjoy it or avoid it. I think it’s a good quality-of-life boost and economic boost for the community. And we’re thrilled.” He said, “In the 700 block, we refer to it as the heart of Duval Street.”
Mayor Teri Johnston, who voted for the pilot program, is also encouraged. While some store owners bring up disrupting the tradition of “cruising down Duval,” Johnston asks: “Do they stop and buy things?” She cites municipalities like St. Augustine and Nantucket that have popular downtown pedestrian malls. “What we are doing is no more than a special event over these weekends,” Johnston said. “And we don’t have out of town vendors blocking local (storefronts). Here, we have local vendors as the recipients. It’s a great opportunity.”