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Arts advance on the agenda



The banners are up. Ditto the new street signs at most entrances into the city. There's even the requisite Lynx bus, freshly painted with the new "Horizon 2000" banner stripped across a bright orange sunburst. After all, in image-conscious Orlando, nothing better illustrates your city government at work than a splashy promotional campaign.

Last week the campaigners took their pitch to the people. Or at least they took it to those people who are angling for their piece of the pie, and who are best positioned to aid Mayor Glenda Hood's newly aggressive push for a central arts district.

Land-use attorneys and development consortiums led the list of sponsors for the three-day Horizon 2000 Downtown Summit, a planning exercise open to the public but to which a relative handful were expressly invited. That group included CEOs and major property owners, who were extended a closed-door session from which the media and uninvited guests were banned. And though they may have made the cut, neighborhood activists and just-plain residents were largely absent from the concluding session, at which participants rolled up their sleeves and set about designing the downtown of their dreams. The effort kick starts what the city sees as a yearlong project.

For most participants a light-rail link is an inevitability; so is a performing-arts center. They further advised fewer one-way streets in the downtown core. Lymmo, the free shuttle service, should be extended, possibly north to an expanded antique district on Lake Ivanhoe and east closer to residential districts near Lake Eola. Gateways should mark entrances into historic neighborhoods, and a cap should be considered to limit rental units in garage apartments there. And there was celebration about the boom in high-cost housing -- more than 1,000 apartment and townhouse units are planned downtown -- that will begin to balance the rise of proposed office towers. "When you have people living in the central core," Hood said, "the demand for everything else is created."

Less certain is the future of the blighted Parramore/Callahan/ Holden areas on downtown's west side. Amateur and professional planners recycled worries about the segregation of African-American residents, about crime and safety, about ramshackle buildings that steer home buyers elsewhere, about jumbled zoning that leaves residences adjacent to light industrial development or worse. A new school, a new plan of attack on crime, a new mix of incentives to lure homeowners -- these all emerged as solutions, although one of the largest stakeholders in the district has yet to play its hand. A main sponsor of the downtown planning summit, Carolina Florida Properties, has spent more than $16 million to buy run-down or vacant property in the Parramore area but so far has offered only vague, unreliable assurances that it plans an entertainment complex to mirror Church Street Station. Those plans assumed no sharper focus despite a roomful of inquisitors.

Church Street itself was the target of talk to reconsider its role as more than just a tourism zone. And those who zeroed in on the central business district emerged with a recommendation to "position all of downtown as a lifestyle district." Just whose lifestyle wasn't discussed; the young entrepreneurs and club culture that together revived Orange Avenue in the early '90s long ago lost favor with the business and civic set that's steering the current effort. But as downtown nurtures an identity that must compete with Downtown Disney and Universal Studios CityWalk, there was still agreement that Orlando must embrace dining, theater and the arts as anchors of its downtown industry.

It was as if Hood herself had written the script. Hers was a motivational role -- the summit was guided by the city's Downtown Development Board, aided by consultants from cities including Seattle, Toronto, Tampa and Washington, D.C. -- but the players clearly heard Hood's call and acted on it.

Even so, she wasn't waiting on their endorsement.

On March 1, Hood moved Brenda Robinson, formerly her deputy chief administrator, into a new job as executive director of arts and cultural affairs to serve as troubleshooter for the performing-arts center. Highlighting Hood's push, Robinson -- to whom more than half the city's departments previously answered -- now oversees just that project plus Leu Gardens and the public art program. She now has three months to chart the path toward a downtown arts district, as well as a strategy for raising $130 million toward the center's cost of perhaps $250 million.

What that first chunk of money will buy at the moment is anyone's guess, says Robinson. The goal is design and construction of an 1,800- to 2,000-seat main hall, plus two smaller theaters for the University of Central Florida, as well as some classrooms and offices. Indeed, at this point the four-year-old project is officially the Orlando Performing Arts and Educational Center, with the professional fund-raisers at the UCF Foundation leading the charge to find contributors. Money later would complete a project across from City Hall envisioned to include as many as six halls sharing a glassed-in lobby and cocooned by curving facades.

Meantime, Robinson has launched a study of buildings and lease prices downtown to find the best place to plant a seed from which a local theater district might sprout. The bigger bucks and bigger projects will come in time, she says. "When people start getting excited about a project, and they see it coming up out of the ground, then they're willing to write checks."


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