Venice: A Town With A Plan

If you can’t quite put your finger on what gives Venice its innate sense of beauty, order, community and connectedness; you might be surprised to learn it was all planned that way from day one—back in the 1920’s.  Even now the most forward-thinking urban planners—hoping to leave their mark on the field the way John Nolen did—visit Venice to study one of his greatest successes.  What Nolen—America’s pre-eminent city planner of his day—accomplished in his 1925 plan for the City of Venice is still considered a paragon of modern planning.  Curiously enough, while today’s New Urbanism movement offers post-modern solutions to the problems created by suburban sprawl after World War II, Nolen’s visionary plan for Venice seemed to anticipate the problem long before it could even be imagined.

After working on a variety of city, town and neighborhood plans throughout Florida—including plans for Clearwater, Sarasota, and West Palm Beach—Nolen found in Venice “an opportunity better…than any other in Florida to apply the most advanced and practical ideas of regional planning.”  His success was such that people from around the country jumped at the chance to live in Florida’s magnificent new “City on the Gulf”—so called because Venice is one of the few municipalities on the Gulf Coast that occupies a coastal area with no barrier island separating the city from its nearby beaches.

As recently as the mid 1920’s, Venice was little more than a deserted stretch of pristine coastline bumping up to dense woods and farm land.  Yet another of Florida’s ubiquitous land booms quickly put an end to that as thousands of buyers swarmed the area hoping to secure their place in the Florida sun.   Although booms typically undercut any notion of thoughtful city planning, Nolen was nevertheless commissioned to do just that.  Originally known as “Horse and Chaise” its newest incarnation would be called Venice, after the famed northern Italian city built on a system of canals and waterways in much the same way as this new Venice would be.  It would have a central business area, outlying farms, open green spaces and a wide variety of housing choices.  More significantly, it would be a social laboratory where people from all walks of life would live together in neighborhoods where carefully planned grids of streets, wide tree-lined boulevards, broad hemicycles (wide semi-circular streets) and diagonal avenues would embrace every lifestyle and manner of housing.

The town’s Apartment District is a fine example.  Bounded by Granada Avenue, Harbor Drive, Armada Road and Park Boulevard, the district provided plenty of multi-family housing and illustrated both Nolen’s and his corporate patron’s commitment to diversity. Nolen planned Venice for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), a labor union looking to capitalize on the land boom. The BLE, however, was also in for the long term and envisioned Venice as a regional hub for agriculture and light industry; a place “where the ordinary man could have a chance to get all that the rich have ever been able to get out of Florida.”

Like its Italian namesake, downtown Venice was built in the Renaissance style; its various neighborhoods threaded together not only by a common architectural style that features tile roofs, stucco exteriors, covered porches and loggias, but also by a vast system of parks and greenways.  “Nature led the way,” Nolen wrote; and his plan merely followed her directions.

Nolen didn’t simply design what we know today as historic downtown Venice and leave the rest to chance.  His influence touches the furthest reaches of East Venice Avenue, which was then something of a remote hinterland.  He obviously anticipated significant growth and laid out more grids and hemicycles to make sure future development would harmonize with the downtown.

Although it has grown as Nolen knew it would, downtown Venice has retained its small-town appeal while still offering an incredible blend of housing, cultural and recreational opportunities.  Its neighborhoods are connected by a system of some 27 parks; and the newer Venetian Waterway Park enables pedestrians to encircle the entire island on foot.  With its two- and three-story buildings—most housing retail stores, restaurants and boutiques—Venice Avenue is built on an intimate scale with wide pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and shaded arcades, all of which open to the obligatory village green.  Centennial Park, as it is known, is the site of a farmers market every Saturday and its gazebo hosts free weekly concerts.  Just off the green is the highly acclaimed Venice Little Theater, one of the largest and most acclaimed community theatres in the United States.

Away from downtown Venice, newer master-planned communities have filled in much of the grid that Nolen set aside for future growth. Just off Center Road, four excellent golfing communities come together in a concentrated area that offers the dedicated duffer a quadruple dose of nirvana—or agony, depending on your game.  These include Plantation Golf & Country Club, Venice Golf & Country Club, Jacaranda West Golf & Country Club and Pelican Pointe Golf & Country Club.

The beaches of Venice are as pristine as Nolen found them, with Venice Beach within walking distance of downtown and Caspersen Beach—a bike ride away—claiming the sobriquet of “Sharks’ Tooth Capital of the World.”  Just north of Caspersen is Brohard Paw Park, one of the precious few beaches in Florida where Fido is not only welcomed, but rules.

Now that another boom has come and gone, Venice remains as desirable as it ever was; with the best values on the widest variety of housing opportunities sweetening its timeless appeal.

  • User Gravatar TOM MALONEY
    May 4th, 2009

    This Connecticut “baby-boomer” agrees that Mr. Nolan surely had a keen vision when laying out the plans for Venice. My dad lived happily in Sarasota for the last 15 years of his life. I started discovering Venice on my frequent trips South to visit dad begining in the early ’90’s. It is now my hope to find a new home there in Venice in the next few years. I am drawn to the friendly atmosphere and beautiful climate. I’m hooked on Venice!

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