The Key West Mystique

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Key West sidewalks

Key West sidewalks and cruise ships: This time, the island wins

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

03/16/2022

My dad was a political junkie who frequently calmed my rattled nerves with this: Humans tolerate wild shifts to the edges for just so long before they come back to center. We need strident hardliners at the edges to move us forward. Without them, he said, we’d get stuck and never move.

Me: Yeah, but…

Dad: No buts. Study your history.

These days, what with Florida’s legislature and its governor acting uncomfortably like the Sons of Jacob in the Divine Republic of Gilead (look it up if it sounds unfamiliar) and a potential Third World War playing out on real-time media, I hope Dad’s take on political history holds true. He never downplayed the traumas of the transitions as the pendulum swung back to center. He was a World War II vet; he wasn’t naive. But he remained confident of the eventual resolution.

So, while vigilance is in order and scared witless a fairly routine response, most nights I can put aside the specters of a too-vivid imagination because, well, because Key West.

All we have to do is look at what happened over the past two years with Key West sidewalks and cruise ships.

Two years ago, almost to the date, Key West locked itself down, isolated for about three months by a roadblock at the mainland border, and began a reasonably neighborly conversation about what the island might look like “after Covid.” There’s even a Facebook Group, Re-imagining Key West, created April 11, 2020, which, with its 2,600 members, has coordinated solid community discussions among the edgy hardliners and a decent number of middle-territory folks.

Compromise #1: Key West sidewalks

One of the first challenges for local businesses was accommodating the new Covid capacity rules and the demand for outdoor seating. Since most of our restaurants have limited space, they figured spilling onto the sidewalks with tables, chairs and outdoor service made sense. Especially since there weren’t exactly a lot of people walking the streets around that time.

Good idea. Until, of course, the roadblock came down and the escapees from points mainland arrived and we were again cheek-by-jowl. Everyone with an opinion got in the act, arguing back and forth about parklets and parking spaces, widths of sidewalks and fee structures. By September 2021, I was writing things like this: “What I really hate are tables and chairs that turn sidewalks into restaurant and bar extensions, leaving me no choice but to walk into the street.” There was ranting aplenty, but you get the picture.

Earlier this year, after months of study moving at governmental glacier speed, Key West sidewalks got a reasonable, sustainable new ordinance. By no means did all us “oh-so-awares” get everything we’d demanded. I still think the fees are way too low and I wish the city had chosen parklets over parking, but the new rules do the one thing they needed to do: Keep the sidewalks clear for people to walk.

It’s working, by the way. One of the prime offenders of blocking pedestrians has reconfigured already to a noticeable improvement for pedestrians and customers. Thank you.

Compromise #2: Key West cruise ships

If sidewalks and parking weren’t enough to keep us busy during lock down, along came the cruise ship referendums. Three local initiative referendums designed to limit the size and number of cruise ships and disembarking passengers passed with sweeping majorities in November 2020. On June 30, 2021, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed surreptitious legislation that stripped Key West of its home rule control over cruise ships, overturning voters’ decisions on the referendums.

Key West sidewalks

There followed months of protests and social media arguing, with hardliners demanding the city ignore the state, implement the bans and welcome lawsuits to the contrary — and that any failure to do so meant public officials were on the take and in cahoots with Pier B and the state. None of that boded well.

While folks at the edges were tuning up their ire, others were working a reasonable, if not satisfying, compromise. As of this week, the city rolled out the initial resolution that brings two of the three piers closer to compliance with the referendums. The compromise was supported, albeit with reservations, by Safer Cleaner Ships, the referendums’ organizer.

We’re a long way from done. The city’s resolution will need final wording, additional readings and implementation and oversight details. There remains a heavy lift with the state-and-private-controlled Pier B. But, still. I’ll take two out of three when the alternative is none.

Dad’s right, of course. Eventually we swing to center. But, wow, getting there? Not for the faint of heart.

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Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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