If there's anything we've learned from years of scabbing our noses around the dirty corners of city development - specifically unnecessary development that's already proven itself to be a failure in terms of public trust and finance - it's that no matter how hard you try to look away and forget a particularly fraught project, it always pops back up in some other fetid form, throbbing not so much with life as with infection. Such was the case on March 17 when we were summoned to the grand reflective spire of the Amway Center (built!) to pick up the imaginary pieces of the $383 million Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts (not built).
Astute followers of this particularly florid saga will already know that due to county scrutiny, DPAC has been in deflection mode for a couple of months, brushing off its Chanel sleeves and pretending that reality is a friend. It is not. Now that the nonprofit has been effectively muzzled by county and city forces that have created another nonprofit - because that's what you do when playing shell games on the boardwalk - it was high time to finally figure out what this Orlando Community Construction Corporation (or OCCC-see-what-we-can-do-to-save-DPAC) parole board was all about. Did the combined prowess of the region's powerbrokers coalesce into a healing salve to make the rash of bad news go away? Would a pin be dropping audibly in an acoustic palace next to City Hall before we knew it?
"Time is not on our side," said noted hair-grease fan Alex Martins, Orlando Magic chief operating officer, at the inaugural meeting's outset. Uh-oh.
Martins has been tapped to chair the OCCC, mostly because he made a $480 million arena appear out of thin air last year; On Thursday he gave off an air of slightly disinterested obligation. Still, there were bylaws to be established, forms to be discussed, suits to be rumpled and realities to be dealt with. He promised a "solutions-based approach" before rattling on about "public trust," "partnership" and "compromise." In short, he had no idea what he was getting himself into.
The meeting was called in seeming haste in order to rush out a request for qualifications (RFQ) for owner's representative services - or restart the process of finding somebody to make this damn thing happen. Within moments of discussion amongst the seven-person board, there were already problems. Specifically, the RFQ includes a "construction milestone" of breaking ground in May/June 2011. Ajit Lalchandani, county administrators, sent as the cruel voice of reason representing Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs and County Comptroller Martha Haynie, called foul almost immediately.
"I don't think that that takes into consideration the reality of the funding," he stammered, before suggesting a couple of amendments to the document reflecting some of that reality. The fact remains that the county is going to require a lot more cost-cutting analysis - especially if the city wants the county to reopen the interlocal venues agreement to rush more tourist development taxes to the ailing project - and Lalchandani didn't think it was realistic financially or politically to get any of that done in less than three months. DPAC head Kathy Ramsberger, seated quietly at the back of the room, could be heard chewing on her fingernails.
Byron Brooks, the city's chief administrative officer, sheepishly responded that the May/June date was really just a decoy to see how prospective contractors might respond in haste, but then admitted that the city wanted to "make sure that it didn't lose that urgency."
Why so urgent? Well, according to city spokeswoman Cassandra Lafser, all of the construction bids already received by champagne-drenched construction executives at Balfour Beatty - a not-so-small amount of $110 million - will expire on May 11 without an extension; new bids will probably be a bit more expensive. Also, all of this talk about DPAC not happening has probably not been helping out on the donor side. Even if it's not going to be quick, it needs to look quick.
But as it stood Thursday, the board hadn't even figured out how to weigh the criteria with which it would choose its shortlist for the RFQ. Experience? Minority representation? Nobody had a clue, but board member and Walt Disney World Resort President Meg Crofton said she probably knew a couple of construction types who could give the board a fair idea because Disney has built a few things. Lalchandani, showing his real deck, deferred fawningly to Crofton's expertise.
"I have a suggestion: Let's go with Meg," he said. And this is how magic happens in Central Florida. Stay tuned.
If you find South Semoran Boulevardutterly unbearable due to inconsistent street-side fencing - chain-link here, wooden picket there - then your OCD is in luck. A quarter-mile stretch of residential fencing along the west side of Semoran Boulevard between Andora Street and Casablanca Lane is being demolished as you read this, to be replaced within three months by a 1,300-foot-long, 8-foot-tall, $235,000 chalky-red concrete wall.
Boring, we know. It's just the first phase of a plan, you see, a plan so transformational and profound that Commissioner Tony Ortiz decided it was worth a press conference. On Mar. 18 at the sun-drenched, motor-oil-spackled corner of Andora Street and Solandra Drive, Ortiz bellowed from behind a plastic podium to reporters and city employees about his "vision" to transform the South Semoran corridor. The wall, he barked, "is a very important step into protecting our families, especially our seniors and children, from the dangers of a busy state road, while providing for noise reduction from the ongoing traffic of the boulevard."
It's all nonsense, of course. The real reason for the wall is Ortiz's and the city's embarrassment at the slovenly state of the main thoroughfare between the airport and downtown, a feeling mentioned in passing by Ortiz in the phrase "improve the way our community will look to the outside world." And though the wall may be part of Ortiz's "vision," the idea actually came from Bruce Hossfield, senior city planner, who presented Photoshop renderings of the wall to residents at a nearby Denny's two years ago. Hossfield is also the one who did the grunt work of negotiating building easements with each of the owners of the 18 homes having fences replaced. "We literally had to go door to door and talk to everybody," he says.
Though Hossfield didn't get a turn at the podium, Ortiz and commissioners Diamond and Stuart were kind enough to allow him to take the handle of one of the city's ceremonial white-spaded shovels for an awkward photo-op. When the city council meets on March 28, Hossfield says, they're expected to vote on an ordinance enforcing a "special overlay zoning district" over the Semoran corridor, which would compel local businesses to tidy up their shrubbery and signage. We imagine that Ortiz will, out of fairness, let Hossfield take the credit when it passes.
Consider these three events: a romantically themed dog adoption affair, replete with a violinist and fine wine to facilitate the human-canine matchmaking, hosted by A New Beginning Pet Care & Rescue; a campaign to have surfing introduced into the Special Olympics, sponsored by Ron Jon Surf Shop; and more than 400 free pizzas handed out to Central Florida's unemployed, courtesy of Pie-Fection pizzeria.
What do these three happenings have in common? They're all the brainchild of public relations guru Ryan Julison, who, after leaving his corporate communications job at Ginn Resorts last February, became a one-man-PR machine, convincing local businesses to be the vehicles for his "aggressive" ideas. Despite getting the attention of the Orlando Sentinel, the Today Show and the Drudge Report last year, Happytown™ still had not taken Julison's bait. That is, until his latest caper: a pizza-eating contest that tickled our gluttonous dude-bro gland. On March 26 at the Pie-Fection pizzeria on Kirkman Road, five teams of two will compete to stuff down a "Pie-Zilla" - 12 oily pounds of dough, sauce and meat. The team that can do it within a half hour will get $20,000, but in all likelihood, two groaning schmucks will be splitting $500 for eating the most pizza by weight. Hey, it's better than another infection.