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An unreal sense of place



What would you do with $215,000?

A new house? His 'n' her Hummers? Save for retirement? How about hiring a bunch of people to tell you what you want to hear? Sounds crazy, but that's just what the city of Orlando did.

The story involves two consultants, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and Nelessen Associates. And Mayor Glenda Hood's need for someone -- anyone -- with professional "planning" credentials to reassure her, and you, that building a humongous performing arts center downtown is the greatest, most popular use for $300 million the people of Orlando could ever imagine.

And that $215-large? If you're an Orlando taxpayer, that's your money. It pays for these "studies" of questions with politically preordained answers. It gives the appearance of impartial professionalism to the whims of an imperial government. It develops in your mind a "sense of place." Think of it as a virtual democracy machine.

"We're ready to move to a new level," intoned Hood as she introduced ULI's presentation to a standing-room crowd of local big wigs at City Hall last Friday.

The new level, of course, was a $40 million increase in the estimate for the mythical arts center, a decent idea that Hood is gold-plating faster than a Pentagon bureaucrat. ULI is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works like an urban planner's roundtable. The city contracted with the organization to study the need for an arts complex.

Such a study could be valuable if the 10 planners were set loose to discover on their own the city's needs and desires.

But the ULI group started from Hood's assumption that the city needs a downtown performing arts complex. The mayor's office also collected the materials, directed tours and arranged 62 personal interviews used by the panel in completing its study. And during their speeches, several ULI members noted their friendships with city staff, who have served on other ULI panels. Clearly, everyone was on the same page.

ULI's considered recommendation? Orlando needs a performing arts center. Plus apartments and townhouses, office buildings, hotels, a 12-screen movie theater and retail shopping, stretching east from Church Street Station to the arts complex, which would be built across from City Hall. Adding a community arts center, high school, and related facilities would boost the estimated price from $260 to $300 million. Only in this way will Orlando be able to "create a real sense of place" downtown, said ULI Chairman Charles J. Kendrick Jr.

Discussion of how the city would pay for its "real sense of place" was brief. Where the bulk of funding would come from was never explained, although the panel promised to have a better grip on these details by the time it has completed its report -- in July, perhaps. Or August. Still, ULI panelist Jim Cloar assured the project is "well within the capacity of the local community." One has to wonder whether ULI panelists interviewed officials from the United Way and United Arts, which encountered fund-raising problems, or were made privy to the ongoing campaign to convince Orange County voters to approve a penny hike in the property tax to pay for other capital improvements.

The cost of this collection of wisdom: $90,000.

The other $125,000 is going to a New Jersey consulting firm to survey the "visual preferences" of Orlando residents. Nelessen Associates already has completed such a survey on the former Naval Training Center, which determined -- believe it or not -- that development there must blend into the surrounding neighborhoods, and that people prefer shade trees to palm trees.

The city was impressed enough by that discovery to continue the survey, through which Nelessen expects to gather responses from residents who can view 240 pictures of Orlando's streets, sidewalks and other design features through mid-June. Naturally, the mayor's advisory committees recommended which pictures would be included in the survey.

Nelessen plans only to gather about 1,000 surveys, confident "just by the luck of the draw" that the results will be reliable. Asked whether this is a scientific approach, Melissa Saunders, a partner with the firm, says, "We've never once claimed or pretended this is a scientific survey." What is the point? The city will "try to incorporate as much of what we know to be valid preferences into city design standards," says Hood spokesman Joe Mittiga.

Having invested $215,000 for the two consultants, "You hope to be able to get real results," Mittiga says. "We're confident we'll get real results that will make Orlando a better place to live."

No matter what it costs.