Melbourne City Council votes to rename Airport Boulevard

A final ordinance on the renaming will be held July 9

Melbourne City Council members want to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by renaming Airport Boulevard to Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.

MELBOURNE, Fla. – After 32 years of emotional debate, the Melbourne City Council stands at the brink of renaming Airport Boulevard for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — and ending one of America's longest-running street-naming debates.

Tuesday night, council members voted 6-1 to approve first reading of an Airport Boulevard road renaming ordinance. 

About 500 attendees packed the meeting at a large venue: the Wakefield Ballroom at Hilton Melbourne Rialto Place. The vote triggered cheers and a standing ovation from the standing-room-only crowd, which was packed with King naming supporters.

A second, final ordinance reading on renaming Airport Boulevard will occur July 9.

Council members sat on a stage facing the audience, with a line of television and video cameras to their left. City officials set up portable speakers and 450 chairs in the ballroom — and another 40 to 50 people stood along walls. The meeting started at 6:30 p.m., and the King vote did not occur until about 10:30.

Mayor Kathy Meehan cast the lone no vote, citing a petition drive opposing the Airport Boulevard name change that generated 138 signatures. She said she wanted to honor King, but she said the name change would negatively impact Airport Boulevard businesses.

As of December 2017, there were at least 955 streets named for King across America, said Derek Alderman, a University of Tennessee geography professor. He is past president of the American Association of Geographers, and he has spent years researching the politics of naming streets for King.

"Melbourne is considered one of the longest-running street-naming debates within the country," Alderman said.

"There can sometimes be a perception that as we move away from the date of King's assassination, and he becomes more and more regarded as a national-international icon, that the naming of streets would get easier," Alderman said.

"But in fact, not just Melbourne, but Kansas City (Missouri) and other cities are mired down in debate on exactly how to do this; which street to name, what impact will the street have, the political process, what rules were followed – all these things continue to be very relevant in 2019," he said.

"It’s been a continuing trend. It remains a highly contested part of the American landscape," he said.

In January, the Kansas City Council voted to rename The Paseo, a 10-mile-long boulevard, in honor of King. But the topic will return to the voters: A referendum petition drive will place the road renaming on the November ballot.

Architect George Kessler modeled The Paseo after Paseo De La Reforma, a Mexico City boulevard, more than a century ago.

Melbourne's King street-naming debate dates to July 14, 1987. That's when Rev. Carol Williams asked council members to rename University Boulevard for the slain civil rights leader.

The City Council unanimously denied the request the following month.