City squares off against big-city woes: crime, cars

By , Business correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Orlando, shocked to find that the FBI called its 1980 crime rate the sixth highest in the nation, has set up a crime prevention commission.

Traffic problems are leading the city to experiment with shuttle buses and to consider underground garages.

And to control urban sprawl, Orlando is encouraging ''cluster housing'' that would concentrate population instead of spreading it over wide spaces.

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Crime, traffic, and urban sprawl are all part of the area's growing pains over the past five years.

In April 1981 the mayor asked the business community to form a task force to assess the crime problem and make recommendations. Robert J. Whalen, president of Martin Marietta Orlando Aerospace, the largest manufacturing employer in the county, agreed to chair the panel.

After six months, the crime study commission decided to publish a report with recommendations based on trends using available data. The commission itself acknowledged this was a short time in which to study the problem but felt issuing a report right away was the most meaningful approach. The recomendations included:

* Strengthening the Neighborhood Watch and Crimewatch programs and adding more police officers to the crime prevention squad.

* Making the Orlando Police Department more efficient and productive by hiring civilians to do paper work and free more police officers for duty out on the beat. The study found the number of police officers had declined as more were assigned special duty, such as at the airport. Since the report, a new police chief, formerly from Arvada, Colo., has been hired. His specialty: increasing the police productivity by using computers and civilians.

* Streamlining and improving the judicial system. In a controversial recommendation, the crime study said the county should establish a self-supporting work farm for transients. Since then, a tent city that sprang up as a result of overcrowding of the jails has been torn down and more money appropriated for cement walls and bars.

* Establishing a permanent crime prevention commission, supported by the private sector and working with community groups.

Members of this group, lunching with this correspondent, tried to convey the impression crime was not a problem in Orlando. ''Tourists have nothing to fear, '' one of them said. In the meantime, the commission is trying to determine whether the tourism industry is paying its fair share of the police bill.

In late 1980, the mayor began a crackdown on downtown Orlando's vagrants and prostitutes. Since then, he admits, his attempts to rid the town of transients has slowed: There simply isn't the jail space. Now, he says his goal is quick and certain punishment for criminals.

Since the commission's report, the Orlando newspaper, the Sentinel Star, has reported that crime rose only marginally in 1981. Mr. Whelan says he believes there has been a lot of unreported crime, however. He still says the city has a crime problem it must tackle.

And then there's the traffic problem. ''I see a real ground transportation crunch,'' Mayor Bill Frederick says. Once Disney's EPCOT opens in the fall, an additional 30,000 people a day will be traveling on the Interstate highway to Disney World. Furthermore, the development of downtown Orlando's business district will also mean more traffic.

The city has begun a ''meter eater'' program with a shuttle bus to take people downtown from parking lots on the perimeter of the city. Downtown development plans call for underground garages and the closing of some streets to auto traffic. A study is under way to determine whether a monorail between the airport and Disney World would work.

The biggest problem, the mayor admits, is attitudinal. Floridians are resisting the imposition of any new taxes to pay for mass transit. Gov. Bob Graham's proposal for a 1-cent gas tax to fund mass transit is not expected to pass the Legislature during this election year. But the mayor says, ''People must be convinced of the need for new roads.''

From his daily vantage point 1,000 feet over the city, Tom McCloud, the WKIS ''eye in the sky,'' agrees that Orlando will have a traffic problem in the future. But at the moment, he says, its problems are no worse than those of any other city its size. Only in Altamonte Springs, a booming bedroom suburb with a Texas-size shopping mall, is traffic really bad. And this could be remedied by more roads.

Dan Brame, the city's transportation engineer, says Orlando will be computerizing its traffic lights this year with the aid of a $2 million federal grant. But he concedes that by the year 2000 the city will need some new roads.

More money will be needed for upkeep of roads. Currently the county spends $2 million annually on road maintenance. County planner Tracy Watson says it should be spending $19 million. ''The streets should be resurfaced every six years,'' he says, ''and now we are doing it every 16 years.''

Control of growth and development is another problem. Some residents, including Mayor Frederick, are less than enthusiastic over requests by developers for sewer hookups and new roads dredged up from the swamps.

Last year the city developed a growth management plan, as it was required to do under Florida law. Under this blueprint, the city shuns a strict-zoning concept of managing its land. Instead, as the plan notes, it recognizes ''the dynamic and ever-changing qualities of urban growth.''

To control urban sprawl, Orlando is encouraging ''cluster housing,'' or multifamily units that will concentrate population. In its planning for sewage lines, the mayor points out, a bigger ration has been allotted to the downtown area to encourage people to move closer to their offices and community services. At the same time, it has increased sewage connection fees by over 400 percent to make developers pay the actual costs. Developers are rewarded for using innovative water-saving devices.

Whether or not it will work is another matter. Mr. Watson, the county planner , points out that if all the projects on the drawing boards are built, the county will reach its population target for the year 2000 by the year 1990. ''Problems increase geometrically,'' Watson says, ''as the population spurts.''

To meet its growth management plan for the year 2000, the county will have to spend $350 million for new plant and equipment. Now it' spending only $6 million to $10 million a year. ''The only realistic alternative if you want growth,'' Watson says, ''is to manage it and make it pay its own way.''

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