"Cities are often judged by their downtowns -- and a vibrant, thriving downtown area is the cornerstone of a strong, robust region. No one knows that better than Mayor Buddy Dyer. And nowhere is that more true than in Orlando." -- Mayor Buddy Dyer's Downtown Strategic Transition Team 20-Point Strategic Plan, Sept. 25, 2003.
Ultimately, Glenda Hood failed as a mayor. For all of her success in revitalizing east-side neighborhoods -- notably Thornton Park -- her attempts to fix a moribund downtown by replacing bums, bars and tattoo parlors with highfalutin restaurants and theaters never materialized.
So when Buddy Dyer took over, Hood's shortcomings weighed heavily on his mind. He'd fix downtown, he promised. And if he didn't revamp Parramore -- another Hood flop -- we were free to call his term a bust.
But what Dyer didn't bring to that first campaign was a game plan. So he created a task force -- Mayor Buddy Dyer's Downtown Strategic Transition Team -- to develop solutions. (Later, after critics blasted him for excluding Parramore from the DSTT's purview, Dyer created the Mayor's Parramore Task Force, which is a mess unto itself.)
Dyer packed the DSTT with 27 movers and shakers, from attorneys to bar owners, bankers to realtors -- as blue as ribbons get in Orlando. And despite the Parramore flub, a high rate of absenteeism and a noticeable lack of public input, the DSTT turned in its 20-Point Strategic Plan on schedule, Sept. 25.
The recommendations were more ethereal than concrete, and codified just about every big-ticket item the city has bandied about in recent years. A performing arts center, a downtown movie theater, a renovated or rebuilt arena, a minor-league baseball stadium, more condos and retail, a digital media center, a revamped Jaymont-Tavistock block, a downtown conference center, longer drinking hours, more park space and two-way streets were all on the agenda.
Sounds nice. Now comes the job of making it a reality.
In the seven months since the DSTT's report came out, there's been little tangible evidence that the recommendations are doing anything but gathering dust. Sure, Dyer and developer Cameron Kuhn pushed through a Jaymont redevelopment deal -- the city is currently negotiating a final agreement -- but that had been planned for months, and would have happened with or without the DSTT recommendations. Also, the city made Church Street a two-way thoroughfare in November, another DSTT recommendation. Other than that, not a whole lot.
We realize that Rome wasn't built in a day, and it would be unrealistic to expect Dyer to pump downtown Orlando full of life in seven months. Nonetheless, he got the Jaymont block project done at breakneck speed, indicating that when
Dyer wants something done, he can do it.
We're not asking for the moon to see some progress, if only behind the scenes, more than half a year later. Otherwise, one might conclude that the DSTT was another in a long line of pointless studies done in the name of bettering this or that.
So Orlando Weekly decided to see exactly what's going on, and where downtown is headed in the next decade, based on documents and interviews with the mayor, city officials and DSTT members. What follows is the state of downtown revitalization, organized by the DSTT subcommittees that studied the issues. Because in the end, Dyer's success, or lack thereof, will be his legacy. And for better or for worse, the heart of The City Beautiful will be defined for decades by one man and his far-reaching aspirations.
Arts, entertainment and sports
The arts, entertainment and sports subcommittee offered Dyer five goals: Retain the Magic or another NBA team; build a performing arts center; attract more arts, entertainment and sports events downtown; pursue minor-league baseball and build a cinema.
The last fell into the city's lap, when the city inked a "memorandum of understanding" with Kuhn to demolish the long-blighted Jaymont block and build a three-towered complex of condos, retail, restaurants and a theater called "The Plaza on Orange."
Ironically, the DSTT originally didn't want a movie theater on its so-called Main and Main -- Orange Avenue and Church Street -- because not only do movie theaters require large amounts of space, they also bring teenagers who can be messy and loud, which isn't necessarily compatible with the yuppies the city craves. Earlier discussions called for a theater near Church Street Station, which Lou Pearlman and Robert Kling are (slowly) renovating.
The Magic, you may recall, unsuccessfully beseeched the city and Orange County in 2001 to build the team a new arena, claiming the TD Waterhouse Centre wasn't suitable for its needs. But local leaders faced a huge budget crunch, and the Magic's demands -- despite owner Rich DeVos' threat to bolt from Orlando if Hood and county chairman Rich Crotty didn't capitulate -- went nowhere. The Magic made clear, however, that this wasn't a dead issue. Given the monstrosity of last season, DeVos' bargaining power isn't what it would be if his team actually won games.
The arts subcommittee asked the city to begin anew negotiations with the Magic for a new or updated arena -- and struck one not-so-subtle linguistic note: The subcommittee's recommendation sought to "retain the Orlando Magic/NBA's presence," which means that if the Magic's demands are unreasonable, as they were last time around, the city will look for another franchise.
While a new or renovated arena is on the city's agenda, negotiations aren't underway. First, the Magic have to make the public believe they're worthy of a taxpayer handout, and last season certainly didn't help.
The downtown performing arts center is perhaps the most grandiose of the DSTT's recommendations. It's also the most unlikely.
For the better part of her tenure, Hood tried to convince Orlandoans that spending tens of millions of dollars on a world-class performing arts center was a good idea. It wasn't -- Orlando couldn't muster the support needed to sustain such a center -- so it perished.
Dyer, in a recent interview with Orlando Weekly, says he'll resurrect the performing arts center when he feels the timing is better; probably when the planned downtown condos are built and those hip, urbane scenesters who will flock to Orlando demand a top-shelf theater space. That would require that Dyer do what Hood never could: Convince Orlando residents to pay for a multimillion-dollar center that many of them will never use.
"I do think the community needs to be sold on the concept of a performing arts center," Dyer says. He predicts a groundbreaking by the end of his first term.
The DDB addressed the subcommittee's third goal, attracting more events downtown, in an "immediate action steps" staff report prepared in April ahead of a presentation on the DSTT report DDB executive director Frank Billingsley gave to the city council May 3. The report focused on streamlining the permitting process for special events and said the city's economic development office has formed its own task force, which should produce recommendations shortly. Ultimately, Billingsley says the city wants to create a centralized office to coordinate pulling special-events permits. "We're in an event-unfriendly environment," he says.
For Orlando to become a grown-up city, Billingsley adds, that needs to change.
Lastly, there's minor-league baseball, which Dyer has championed since taking office. Interestingly, the DSTT proposed building a new stadium between Tinker Field and downtown."Tinker Field is a very difficult place to expand for a lot of different reasons," says George Stuart, a subcommittee member who serves on the city's civic facilities advisory board. The biggest factor, however, is the newest: A few months after the DSTT adjourned, the NCAA announced that it would expand the football Bowl Championship Series to five games, leaving the Citrus Bowl with a shot at claiming that coveted crown, hosting a national championship game every five years.
But to be eligible, the Citrus Bowl would have to expand by between 7,500 and 10,000 seats, at a cost of $50 million, and that would pretty much eliminate any chance for adjacent Tinker Field to expand for a minor-league baseball team.
More than mere expansion problems, the DSTT views a downtown baseball stadium as an end unto itself. For instance, Billingsley cites the minor-league stadium in Memphis, Tenn., that doubles as residential and office space.
But cobbling together enough land to build the stadium alone could be prohibitively expensive, not even counting construction costs. This isn't happening any time soon.
This is the subcommittee where dreams were dreamt. It had two goals: Identify "cornerstone projects that will create the maximum catalyst impact for downtown," and then figure out how to get those projects moving.
The subcommittee's first step was to identify "Main and Main," or the central focus of the city's redevelopment efforts. It selected Church Street and Orange Avenue, which made it easier for Cameron Kuhn to get incentives for his already-planned Jaymont redevelopment. Not coincidentally, the cornerstone subcommittee listed the Jaymont block as its highest priority. But the DSTT's comments don't mix with what happened in December, when the mayor pushed for a $22 million incentive package based in part on the aforementioned movie theater.
"Mixed-use development is appropriate, but not necessarily for a movie theater. It is believed this site will be developed in time due to market forces," the DSTT report stated. But Dyer apparently disagreed that market forces could drive the redevelopment, hence the incentive package -- which may even include a $3.5 million, no-strings-attached handout to get Kuhn started.
The city has lusted after being a digital media hub since the dreams of "Hollywood East" faded in the 1990s, and in that vein, the DSTT sought a Dynamic Media Institute, a place where local universities, colleges and filmmakers could collide and produce a breeding ground of sorts. More specifically, the DSTT said the city should finalize a location for the institute and develop a business plan to bring it to reality.
The DDB crafted a strategic plan two weeks ago to spell out where the center will go and how big it will be, and that plan is currently under staff review. One long-rumored site is acreage owned by Carolina-Florida Properties, just east of the new police station in Parramore. But as Billingsley says, "I don't know that they're wedded to it."
The DSTT also wanted to bring more people to Lake Eola Park, and model it on an amphitheater in West Palm Beach that serves not only as an entertainment venue, but as a place to throw a Frisbee or lie in the sun. So expect that sooner or later, the city will remove the chairs and kiosks in front of the bandshell and put in grass.
Then there's Church Street Station, the renovation project by boy-band tycoon Lou Pearlman and his partner Robert Kling that's now five months behind schedule. The DSTT said plainly that the city should re-evaluate its incentive package if Kling and Pearlman don't meet their end of the deal -- which they didn't. And that's precisely what the city's doing. "We're just kind of in the wait-and-see mode," Dyer says. "We have not had to lay over any capital. I'm not sure what it [the incentive deal] is going to look like in the end."
For Dyer, who shies away from specific pronouncements, that's about as close to "no way" as you're going to get. Dyer did say that he asked months ago for Pearlman and Kling to put in writing the date their operation would be up and running, and he hasn't seen any response as of yet: "They might finish their work at some point."
On May 3, an Orlando Sentinel story indicated that Pearlman and Kling were moving some 300 employees into the Church Street Station, and the rest of the 500 specified in the developer's agreement would come soon thereafter. We'll see.
The DSTT also recommended building a downtown conference center to replace the outdated Expo Center, perhaps in conjunction with a hotel. But not anytime soon: "That's a long-term recommendation that's not active right now," Billingsley says.
To help get the revitalization ball rolling, the DDB is pushing toward creating a Downtown Economic Enhancement District within the downtown Community Redevelopment Area, starting with the block that extends from Hughes Supply to the Plaza. The DEED, as it's known, would allow entrepreneurs tax credits for construction material -- in essence, serving to offset the higher costs associated with downtown real estate and lure companies out of the 'burbs, or, in Billingsley's words, to "level the playing field."
Quality of life
The fuzzy, feel-good parts of the DSTT's recommendations were dumped on the "quality of life" subcommittee, which recommended such pie-in-the-sky niceties as more parks, adequate housing for all income levels, making downtown a better place for learning, improved safety and creating a sense of "personal connectedness" among downtown residents, workers and patrons. Whatever that means.
In response, the DDB is starting to more effectively track crime statistics in the Community Redevelopment Agency district -- there's been a spike of car burglaries lately -- though it can't yet point to long-term trends or compare Orlando's stats with other cities. The city is also stepping up its role in keeping downtown streets clean and graffiti-free -- including a program to have DDB workers paint over graffiti within 24 hours of its being reported, assuming a property owner buys the paint -- and putting itself in charge of emptying trash cans on downtown streets.
In the distance, Billingsley foresees a bike path and recreational trail throughout downtown, as well as a "yellow bike" program, in which the city would leave bikes around its core, allowing residents and workers to borrow them on the honor system. "I like that," he says. "It sorta brings that cool element."
And then there are parks, which could be the most tangible output of this subcommittee.
"As a city, we neglect the value of that, the importance of creating more park space, especially in downtown areas," says subcommittee chairman Michael Poole.
Poole, in fact, sees parks as subsidies themselves, in that residential developments have an easier time selling when they overlook green space. "We really need to spend money to buy land for parks," Poole says. "The biggest bang for cities is not building physical structures."
There is one new park on the city's agenda -- Parramore Park, which will house a much-needed stormwater retention pond.
Retail and hospitality
The biggest wave from the retail and hospitality subcommittee is also the one going nowhere fast: extended drinking hours. Though it was the talk of the media, Dyer views a longer boozing window as a secondary priority, something to perhaps consider once everything else is in place. He finds the media's focus on drinking hours a nuisance, a distraction from the rest of his vision, and that furthers his desire to put it on the back burner.
Most of this committee's "basic steps" boil down to better marketing, whether that be through improved signage downtown for I-4 drivers to see, or on Lymmo buses.
It's here that Joel Springman, owner of Wall Street Enterprises and a DSTT member, thinks the city has made the quickest progress. With the city's help, downtown business owners are assembling a co-op of sorts to market themselves collectively, called the Downtown Marketing Advisory Group, which has already held three preliminary meetings. Soon, Springman envisions as many as 150 businesses, paying a total of about $17,000 in dues per month toward a joint marketing campaign.
Other suggestions involved monthly or weekly events to bring in families or keep downtown office jockeys around between 5 p.m., when businesses close, and 10 p.m., when the nightclub scene starts to kick in.
One hundred eighty downtown business owners have also formed DOMA, or the Downtown Orlando Merchants Association. DOMA's primary goal is to develop a card granting discounts on parking in city garages and for patrons of member businesses.
The ones that focus on the party crowd seem more likely to become tangible: Create an entertainment district with relaxed noise and re-entry rules, streamline permitting, study street closure on Orange Avenue and, of course, extend drinking hours.
While the DDB's "immediate steps" report talks about ways to make it easier to advertise grand openings and making it easier to find city parking garages, it -- like the mayor -- is mum on the entertainment district and all that it could possibly entail.
Likewise on the recommendation that the city look at creating free parking to make downtown more accessible. "Obviously, anyone in my place would love to have free parking," Billingsley says. That doesn't mean it's going to happen, though. "That's not immediate."
There are some logistical problems, including the fact that the city uses parking fees to pay off the bonds it owes on city garages. Without those fees, the city would have to find another revenue source for the bonds.
As for incentives, the city seems to be doling them out as fast as it can, although the Community Redevelopment Agency is close to being tapped out with commitments to Hughes Supply, Kuhn's project and a handful of other downtown developments in the works. If the CRA gives Kuhn $3.5 million, the CRA will have to borrow it from the city. And when the city was considering giving a developer $2.5 million for a redevelopment in Parramore, the CRA said it simply didn't have the money.
Orlando has never been either pedestrian- or mass transit-friendly. Many of us cringe at the mere mention of "light rail." So transforming this town into a real metropolis is going to take some doing in the transportation department.
The transportation subcommittee's first recommendation was its most obvious: Hire a consultant to create a comprehensive downtown transportation plan. That should be done by summer.
Second, the DSTT wanted to "create vibrant interconnected people places." Believe it or not, as abstract as that description is, there are some good ideas in there: revising the city's towing ordinance to make downtown more parking-friendly, free parking on Orange Avenue after 7 p.m. for a few hours, the "yellow bike" program and a jogging route and walking tour in downtown.
The city is revising its towing ordinance -- making sure potential towees are forewarned of the dangers of parking on private property -- and is soliciting bids for a company to conduct a walking tour of Orlando's historical and notable sites. The DSTT, in its strategic plan, said that the yellow bike program had already been studied, but there was no sign in the DDB report about whether the city thought it viable.
The subcommittee's final two recommendations are, again, more abstract: Ensure that I-4's expansion through downtown is aesthetically pleasing -- which, abstract or not, is moving ahead via recommendations the DDB sent to the Florida Department of Transportation on beautifying overpasses; interestingly, the DOT not only appears to like the idea, but according to Billingsley, will pay for it as well -- and that downtown is a "transit-rich environment."
One potentially positive "basic step" from the latter recommendation is to make downtown a fare-free zone, to allow residents to traverse the downtown area on buses sans money. Like so many of the other truly good ideas and dreams in the DSTT's report, there's no telling when, or if, this will actually come to be.