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2/17/2010

News

Big plans, no money
Cities all over Central Florida had redevelopment dreams. Then came the recession

 

‘I have a cunning plan.’

Whenever Edmund Blackadder’s unwashed sidekick, Baldrick, uttered those words in the BBC historical comedy series Blackadder, they heralded a plot that was elaborate, transparent and in violation of basic physics. Nevertheless, Baldrick’s plans were often adopted in desperation. And they occasionally worked, though not as anticipated.

Likewise, for just about every city facing financial trouble and concurrently aging infrastructure, a plan has emerged: Redevelop downtown!

But ideas keep coming, never more so than when a city needs a jump-start. Problem is, all these plans cost money – lots and lots of money, which is the very thing in short supply. And partnerships with private for-profit firms have a way of vanishing when a flagging economy leaves little profit to be had.

Much ink has been spilled on Orlando’s redevelopment saga, from the first oversold hopes to the PR spinning of the recession-driven retreat, keeping up glitzy appearances as some projects struggle to stay afloat and others tank altogether.

The latest development update lists 28 projects completed, in the works or planned between Orange Blossom Trail and Summerlin Avenue. In October, Mayor Buddy Dyer’s state of downtown address touted $1.6 billion in projects proposed or under construction.

Judging from the latest update, the completed projects include about $50 million in public projects such as the new fire station and OUC expansion, and about $730 million in new private buildings, many of them luxury condos that now sit empty. The biggest thing under construction is the $380 million new Amway Center, funded by city, county and private sources. Some of the proposed projects have cost estimates, but many don’t.

Compared to a glossy promotional brochure for builders written about three years ago, Orlando’s most lavish plans have been humbled. Some gargantuan projects and later phases of current projects have dropped off the radar, and while investment remained steady for many of the more solid deals (especially the already-completed ones), others got scaled back by $10 million or so.

But Dyer’s not fighting a lonely battle. City after city in Central Florida, large and small, has similar ideas. Some are detailed, some are sketchy; some have exact dollar figures, some await economic revival and federal help, but all have dreams.

For years, the hot phrase has been “mixed-use development,” combining residential with shops and offices in a new-old-fashioned urban core, beautifying streets for walking and attracting developers’ big money with a public down payment. As that money has grown scarcer in the recession, those who can – including Orlando – are pinning their hopes for revival on SunRail’s 61-mile commuter line.

But this isn’t about Orlando. It’s about the other guys: a quick look at what nine other cities are doing with their money, your money and our downtowns.

Apopka
Population: 40,000
The plan: A plan and an agency to spruce up one square mile in “the heart of Apopka’s downtown” were established in 1993, according to the city’s website. The improvements include new and fancier sidewalks, especially of brick; putting utilities underground; 253 decorative light fixtures; lots of new landscaping and grants of up to $5,000 to prettify existing facades. Federal and state money were combined in 1998 for repaving Main Street, Central Avenue, Fourth Street and Fifth Street and for new traffic lights and improvements to intersections and crosswalks.
The money: Most of the improvements have been paid for with $3.6 million in federal community development block grants. A tax increment financing district was established in 1993, which pledges the higher tax income expected from a redeveloped area to pay for the improvements that attracted new development. The 30-year district encompasses the area that the redevelopment agency oversees, according to Edward Bass, city finance director.
The status: Nearly three miles of sidewalks went down in 1998, along with underground utilities and 72 trees and shrubs. More than two miles of new sidewalk came in 2001, with more underground utilities and 50 palm trees. But the city’s website is silent on the intervening nine years, saying only that there are “future plans” for putting Park Avenue and Main Street utilities underground.

Kissimmee
Population: 62,000
The plan: A major renovation of Lakefront Park is underway, adding trails, more greenery, playgrounds, a boat launch and similar amenities to the park itself, while Lakeshore Boulevard becomes a pedestrian walkway. Nearby streets are being paved with brick. The lakefront development came out of five years of community hearings, followed by formal design and city commission approval, says Dan Loubier, Kissimmee parks and recreation director.

The “primary spine” of Vine Street and U.S. Highway 192 has run down in the last couple of decades, and in 2004 Kissimmee turned to urban-density, pedestrian-friendly development to spruce it up.

“The city doesn’t look at building anything itself,” says Bob Wright, director of development services for Kissimmee. What’s really “expected to happen” to drive redevelopment is public transit, involving public agencies and Disney. That will require help from the feds, especially for SunRail.

City planners hope a newly bustling transit hub will entice developers to move in over the next five years, attracting 65,000 residents and 42,000 jobs, according to the plan. That’s the number of jobs and people that the area held in 2000.

The money: The city is covering the Lakefront Park project cost, Wright says. Loubier says the lakefront project is expected to cost about $28 million altogether, with $10 million spent or committed so far. The money’s coming from city bonds, sales and gas taxes, and recreation impact fees.

As for Vine Street, so far the city has only paid about $300,000 for studies and staff work time, Wright says. For the actual redevelopment projects a TIF district is anticipated.

“Ultimately, both the city and county have committed to funding commuter rail long-term,” he says. That will probably mean special fees and taxes in the next few years, but it hasn’t been settled yet.

The status: “The city is committed to moving forward with the multimillion- dollar renovations to the lakefront despite the downturn in the economy,” Kissimmee’s plan says. Roads, utilities and related infrastructure for the Lakefront Park are under construction, expected to take about 18 months, Loubier says.

A designated redevelopment area is probably coming for Vine Street, Wright says, putting Kissimmee “in good shape to redevelop as the economy changes.”

Lake Mary
Population: 15,000
The plan: The city settled on a plan in 2001 and recently expanded it, aiming to redevelop 73 acres with mixed uses, allowing people to “live, work and play” within walking distance, says John Omana, community development director.

The money: The city’s capital budget provided funds for water, sewer and other basic infrastructure over the last several years, Omana says. There’s no real estimate for specific mixed-use developments – that’s open for developers to propose.

The status: A few commercial buildings went up in the wake of infrastructure improvements, but the big new thing is SunRail. The redevelopment area is being extended east to meet the new station, Omana says.

Longwood
Population: 14,000
The plan: In 2007, the city adopted a “Longwood Design Guidebook” for the area around the proposed SunRail station, says Sheryl Bower, city community development director. The city is largely “built out” and wants to carefully preserve its historic district, but seriously wants high-density, mixed-use development near the train station, Bower says. The city is changing zoning rules to allow that as it expects a flood of new activity from SunRail.

The money: The city has spent about $200,000 on planning, but won’t be developing anything itself except the train station, Bower says. For everything else, financing has yet to be determined.

The status: “We’re still in the planning stages,” Bower says, waiting on SunRail.

Maitland
Population: 15,000
The plan: Maitland adopted a downtown master plan in 1997, but got “very aggressive” in 2002 and added more projects the next year, says Verl Emrick, executive director of the city’s community redevelopment agency. The city did lots of road and water- management work to entice new development along U.S. Highway 17-92 from the Maitland Boulevard overpass to the city limits, and eight or 10 projects along there are now in various stages of planning, he says.

Instead of spending more of its own money on infrastructure, however, Maitland is offering developers breaks on density in exchange for amenities like putting utilities underground.

Most recently, with the announcement of SunRail, the city is offering inducements for developers on each side of the proposed station to build lots of mixed-use space.

The money: The city spent $13 million from revenue bonds on infrastructure, but about $1.3 billion worth of development was approved last year, Emrick says. That’s all developers’ money – but that means it’s at the mercy of the economy, and some of it has already dried up.

The status: The Village at Lake Lily, a $90 million project with 450 residential units plus retail and restaurant space, is now being leased out, Emrick says. It should be done late this year.

Nearly $20 million more – banks, apartments and restaurant space – has been finished in the last couple of years, according to a project outline Emrick provided.

Other mixed-use projects, such as the $61 million Up Town East/Up Town Maitland, are being revised downward. And the biggest of all, the $750-million Maitland Town Center – which would include a new City Hall and public safety complex amid other development on two full blocks – stalled when the proposed developer ran out of money. It had been expected to break ground next year.

“We’re not sure about whether that can ever get off the ground,” Emrick says.

Ocoee
Population: 30,000
The plan: Ocoee started a community redevelopment agency in 2006, but “ramped up” its activities two years ago, according to Russ Wagner, the agency’s administrator. It focuses on the area just north and south of State Road 50, from the west end of town to the end of the East-West Expressway near West Oaks Mall.

“The original plan envisioned a significant level of public and private development designed to eliminate blight and encouraged a more intense redevelopment pattern of growth,” Wagner says. Road and utility upgrades along that corridor have been done. “Our most significant achievement to date was the demolition of the abandoned Colony Plaza Hotel, a major source of blight in the area.”

The money: The redevelopment agency has spent about $1.5 million so far, but expects to spend a lot more on infrastructure to complement developers’ investment in commercial and housing development. “The total amount obviously depends on the market,” Wagner says.

The status: This year the agency’s work is mostly making plans to “better position” the city with developers, such as simplifying the legal process. They’re also looking at various public-private partnerships, especially with Health Central Hospital.

“At this point our efforts are full speed ahead,” he says.

Sanford
Population 50,000
The plan: Redevelopment plans started in 1995 and have five more years to run, according to economic development director Bob Tunis. The biggest piece has been the “streetscape on First Street,” upgrades to appearance and infrastructure all the way through downtown. Similar improvements are planned for two more major streets. Grant and loan programs finance facade improvements and renovation of old buildings.

The money: The streetscape project cost $1.9 million, and infrastructure for the expanded district will probably cost another $2 million, Tunis says. That’s coming from a tax increment financing district. The district used to bring in $1.6 million a year, all fed back into redevelopment, but now that has declined to $1.2 million a year.

The status: The long-term aim of street renovations is to link downtown and the Lake Monroe waterfront, according to the redevelopment agency’s annual report. Design is beginning for a six-block expansion of the redevelopment area around Sanford Avenue. As part of matching arena improvements, the city built a revetment on Lake Monroe in 2008, but all the beach sand washed away and it was replaced with a taller sea wall.

Winter Park
Population: 28,000
The plan: Winter Park doesn’t really have a formal, comprehensive redevelopment plan, but a number of streetscape projects and a new community center add up to something similar, according to Clarissa Howard, city director of communications. A number of those are budgeted for 2010, including a 38,000-square-foot community center. The west and east sides of Morse Boulevard are slated for work, with the west side being repaved and getting underground utilities and landscaping. East Morse Boulevard, linking the proposed SunRail station with the popular downtown boat tour, will get the urban-neighborhood treatment: brick streets, wider sidewalks, underground utilities, more greenery and lighting, and a “centrally located piazza.” Intersections will get signal improvements and landscaping.

The money: The community center is expected to cost the city $9 million, says Peter Moore, assistant director of the Community Redevelopment Agency. The work on Morse Boulevard will use money from the redevelopment agency and the Florida Department of Transportation, according to a list of current projects Howard provided.

The status: All those projects are scheduled for this year, with the community center breaking ground this spring. Continuing programs to redo business facades and renovate houses have already improved 13 businesses and 130 houses.

Winter Springs
Population: 32,000
The plan: Winter Springs has long been a bedroom community for Orlando, but for 11 years it has been trying to escape that through what has become the “town center” project, according to Randy Stevenson, community development director.

A 380-acre area, most of which had been cow pasture and citrus groves, was selected as the site for urban-style mixed-use development, with apartments above offices or stores and more flexible zoning than in other areas. The city built basic infrastructure, seeking to entice private developers.

“We’re trying to provide whatever incentives we can,” Stevenson says.

The money: About $375 million worth of projects are approved or have been planned, but only about $85 million has actually been done, Stevenson says. Meanwhile, the city has spent about $1.8 million on infrastructure, and is obligated to spend about $1.3 million more on a “spine road” and related work.

The status: One developer did “the great majority” of what’s been built so far, but folded in the recession, Stevenson says. Now two other developers own the completed portion. One development, about 80 percent complete, is up for sale; four or five developers have shown interest. Rents are falling in the finished parts, and that is drawing a few new tenants, Stevenson says.

The city has approved construction of about 2,000 residential units and 700,000 square feet of commercial space – but the economic doldrums are forcing that to be revised downward, leaning toward more single-family homes in the same urban style.

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